Decolonizing Fitness is a platform that provides affirming & affordable fitness/wellness services and apparel in support of all bodies. Read on for our Q&A with Ilya Parker, Decolonizing Fitness’s owner and founder.
Athlete Ally: Could you tell us about the genesis of Decolonizing Fitness — how did you come up with the name, and how has your friend Big J inspired Decolonizing Fitness’s mission?
Ilya: Decolonizing Fitness was originally named Forseca Fitness and dedicated in loving memory of my dear friend “Big J” Forseca. I initially met Big J while working as his Physical Therapist Assistant during one of his frequent hospital stays. We came to find out that we shared similar experiences, as we were both trans people of color living in the rural south and also required medical care for our chronic health conditions. A year later, we bumped into each other at a festival in the park and became great friends. Shortly after our friendship began, Big J was once again hospitalized one final time. During this hospital stay, we often talked about the struggles trans and queer folks color faced when attempting to access adequate healthcare services (especially those of us who are chronically ill, disabled and or living in poverty). We talked about our dreams of a future where the most vulnerable people were liberated and what that could look like. In his last few days in this dimension, Big J encouraged me to not only follow my passion (which was personal training) but to be intentional about carving space and supporting trans, gender non conforming, disabled, fat, chronically ill and any other bodies that exist on the margins of society. I made a promise to honor his dying wishes. On April 4th 2011, Big “J” Forseca succumbed to his battle with lung cancer and Forseca Fitness was birthed.
Unfortunately, so many vulnerable populations can’t afford or are afraid to access medical providers. I try to incorporate education and services that will at least help aid folks along their path to wellness (whatever that feels like for them). I use my knowledge from working in the medical industrial complex along with my social justice awareness and lived experiences (as a black trans person with chronic health issues) to carve space for folks who are often overlooked.
Decolonizing Fitness, LLC is a platform that provides affirming & affordable fitness/wellness services and apparel in support of all bodies. Our goal is to help “decolonize” fitness through education and support. Decolonizing Fitness seeks to put healing justice into practice by redefining and reimagining what fitness can be like when it is liberating, and restorative.
In the metaphorical sense: for me “Decolonizing” means breaking free from systems, schools of thought and practices that cause us harm, restrict our individual/collective power and remove our right to self-determine as whole, complex, beautiful humans. “Decolonizing Fitness” also means to reinvent, reimagine, and restructure fitness practices that feel supportive, affirming and empowering.
How do you define healing justice, and how do you see it intersecting with fitness, oppression and social justice?
As a black, queer and non binary trans masculine person, I am reminded of the ways this world seeks to pathologize and remove me from my body daily. I also honor that the current fitness industry has caused many trans and queer folks so much grief due to gender based violence, homophobia and inaccessibility to affirming and inclusive services. It is a continuous effort for me to realign with what is most relevant to me, which is the state of my body and the subsequent state of the world.
Therefore, what healing justice feels like to me is a framework where we are able to liberate our ideas of health and healing from what we have been conditioned to believe and experience through systematic oppression. The goal is to experience health and healing from our own autonomy. Having all the space we need to feel alive and free in our own bodies and institutions that reflect the wholeness of who we are and who we can become.
When working with my clients in more restorative ways, we are literally reclaiming Fitness and utilizing it as a healing tool to help our most marginalized folks reconnect with their bodies in ways that feel supportive.
I’m a witness daily to ways in which my clients fall in love with Fitness, simply because their whole unique selves are held and honored no matter how their body moves and shows up in the world. Fitness can be affirming and accessible to all bodies. We can redefine fitness and wellness practices that feel supportive and not coercive, that disrupt ableism, and that dispel myths about health & body size. We all possess tools for healing. Healers and Wellness “experts” can be awkward, fat, queer, trans, disabled, sex workers, chronically ill with mental health issues. We don’t always need special certifications.
What would a decolonized fitness space look like? How can professional & student athletes, coaches, and any of us who exercise/go to the gym help work towards that?
Firstly I want to make it explicitly clear that decolonization is not just about the de-centering of oppressive groups and western standards. It’s about recognizing unconditional sovereignty for Indigenous folks on the planet. Please take the time to learn about the Indigenous territories you occupy as settlers of this stolen land.
Honor the legacies of those who were here before you. Understand that the designation of “private property” is theft. Also remember the folks who were forcefully brought to this land whose labor was stolen, and who also had to be stewards of this land.
Reach to people in your local communities; seek and support the Indigenous groups who are doing this liberation work. Utilize land recognitions and acknowledgements as a way to ground physical and symbolic spaces. We must honor the land that sustains us and makes our life possible.
Also, I have written some handy dandy training manuals titled Affirming Spaces that provide a step-by-step guide on ways you can make you fitness and movement spaces more affirming and supportive to some of our most vulnerable populations.
Decolonizing Fitness has been really successful at using Instagram to reach a global audience. How do you see digital media (or Instagram in particular) functioning as a mechanism for activism?
Digital media allows for those of us who would typically be shut out of conversations in a physical or tangible space to access social capital in online spaces, because of the ways in which our creative content touches folks.
When people see me in person, they assume I’m a young cisgender heterosexual black guy incapable and unwilling to speak about such difficult subject matter (and at the depth in which I speak about it). When I’m in physical spaces — and I’m talking about “progressive” social justice spaces — I’m always met with gasps and jaw drops when people introduce me as the owner of Decolonizing Fitness. I’ve always said that Queer and Trans People of Color (especially those of us who carry multiple marginalized identities) are revolutionary because our survival in this world depends on it. We are often thrust into activism roles as we are simply sharing our day to day experience on social media, naming all the ways we literally have to fight for our humanity. Our creative content is a byproduct of our struggle. We get a platform to share our jewels with the world and you get to become more consciously aware.