Content warning: This article discusses body dysmorphia and disordered eating.
In 2013, 34-year-old Joanna Jean began going to the gym for fun, her motivation being the birthday photoshoot she had planned. That ended up being one of the best things she’s ever done and she’s since gone on to become an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) pro.
“Lifting helped me a lot with my discipline, my health and my anxiety,” Joanna says.
Bodybuilding typically receives disrepute, especially when it applies to women. Society places false standards on what a woman’s body should look like: soft, round and “thicc”. For Black women, these standards are particularly sinister and compounded by decades of racism and misogynoir.
So, for Black women bodybuilders, lifting can serve as an act of defiance. One last “nope” to a world that tries to confine us to boxes. As more people embrace the gym for reasons ranging from personal health to dream bodies, there’s a significant spike in Black women who are embracing atypical bodies.
Angel Marie Okon, pro athlete and head coach at Okon Fitness, expresses that the start of her journey had her worried. As it’s not uncommon for people to mock women bodybuilders for “looking like men”, she says that she had to work hard to overcome that insecurity.