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Being a champion for change with Ianthe Mellors

Being a champion for change with Ianthe Mellors

Fab Giovanetti

A gigantic mug of water, exposed brick and the crispy New York Autumn breeze. This is how the conversation with Ianthe Mellors starts. We bonded over our love for movement and the ‘good days of MTV’, truly showing our age.

She has now been living in New York on and off since 2013, and loves the vibe and what she calls ‘electric energy’ in Brooklyn. “We had dance parties happening in Brooklyn, from five to eight. There’s no alcohol, and everything’s actually distance, Friday to Sunday. It’s just people that want to move, celebrate with their buddies and dance”.

Ianthe Mellors, a dancer and fitness professional with 10+ years in the industry in the US and UK, has been incredibly active in the past 6 months on social media, being the initiative known as #MoveForTheCulture. 

She created this international initiative following a conversation with her brother discussing how the body reacts to trauma and stress and the importance of celebrating the rich and empowering cultures within the black communities:

“It never started as a one-off event. #MoveForTheCulture is the starting point for companies and individuals to celebrate black cultures, support the black community and announce how they plan to make change.”

If companies are already actively working towards change within the industry and then this is a chance for them to unite and celebrate the black cultures.

For fitness individuals, it became a chance to stand up and say specifically what they will be doing to instigate change in the industry, so we can all hold ourselves accountable.

The campaign, which took formally place on August 20th, has seen UK-based brands including Gymbox, Barry’s, Frame, The Pilates PT, 1REBEL and Sweaty Betty join, as well as fitness professionals from across the globe: “on the day, the campaign took place throughout America, in England, in Germany, in Turkey, and there was another country, oh yes, Russia!”

Ianthe explains how for #MoveForTheCulture some white instructors shared the mic with black instructors to amplify their voices. Others taught alone and celebrated black cultures and educated their participants. It opened up dialogue and caused people to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

“It opened opportunities for people wanting to celebrate their own culture” she recalls during the heat of the campaign. “If you want to do a hip hop boxing class and talk about the culture of hip hop, make sure you’re educating people so that you’re not just taking something and using it for your own benefit.”

During our chat, she mentioned Luvvie Ajayi as a great inspiration of hers.

In her TED Talk, Ajayi explains why staying comfortable has maintained the status quo: “We all need to speak up, take action and inspire others to do the same”.

As part of her work, she focused on opening new ways of communication, as well as shedding a light to some overlooked questions showing a lack of diversity in the industry. She points out as gift bags, product giveaways and ‘gym bag essentials lists’ often contain products that she can’t use, as a very clear example.

“Studio facilities provide hair straighteners but rarely a diffuser attachment for hair dryers. If you asked me which straightener is best for my hair, I would not know, I just do not use them really”.

Some of the questions she collated throughout the campaign are sparked from observations she made as Black woman existing in the fitness industry, attending events, studios and gyms over the past decade. Some are questions she has been asking herself to work out what she can do to create long term change. “(the campaign) encouraged us to ask questions such as ‘who else you’re hiring’, or ‘why you want me to talk on this panel?’. We need to feel comfortable to actually say ‘who else is on the panel? Why have you chosen me? Am I the token person? What questions are you going to ask me?’ What question you’re gonna ask someone else?’”

This showed how things could shift once we stopped taking things at face value, “what we take as gospel because that’s someone who set things up in this way”. She recalls how this amazing thing started to happen as everyone started to question it, and be comfortable, or uncomfortable questioning it. 

Despite the plethora of benefits that fitness and exercise can bring, the fitness industry has for many reasons been exclusive and inaccessible. Racial diversity is poor; tokenism and appropriation are rife. There is disparity in the ways people of colour (PoC) are treated compared to non-PoC colleagues. 

In addition, PoC are often excluded from opportunities to teach or participate in practices that originated within their own cultures: “as freelancers, we’ve all been talking about what we want from companies that we work with, and we’re setting standards for the future”. Starting those kinds of conversations, has truly allowed people to feel comfortable advocating for themselves.

It’s Ianthe Mellors’ mission to ensure inclusivity should be at the heart of all of our brands and companies: “for too long, the fitness industry has been noticeable in its inaction in combating racism and achieving diversity. Black Out Tuesday, was indicative of this, with many brands simply just posting a black square but failing to take any decisive action.”

Companies put together huge campaigns for PRIDE, and get behind other great causes but never acknowledge or celebrate black history month: “posting a black square with little to no caption is not enough” she wrote in an open letter published in August.

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Soon after that, she made the conscious decision to take a break to reset and take care of her mental health, as well as work through the trauma she experienced “The one thing that helped me was movement, but when I was kind of unpacking all the microaggressions, and racism I experienced, and I realized that for me to 13 to 18 in dance, there was just so much racism and it was never explained to me properly that it was racism”.

She found, in movement, a safe space during those hard months.

“I always want to move my body, the reason I think I was able to run and workout during the time of the campaign was because people used to say to me ‘You’re only fast because you’re Black’. So I’d be like, yeah, watch me – to me, that’s not an insult.  I’m proud of my Trinidadian genes.That was a safe space for me, but then I realized that this isn’t healthy.”

 

As she took three weeks off, Ianthe Mellors started prioritising her health again and making more space: “my mindset was fight or flight. I’m just really lucky that I’m in this industry as I am used to moving my body, and I’m really well connected to my body.”

She used her skills to work on a nutrition and workout plan, and start listening more intently to what her body needed.  “I learned that taking a step back, even if you’re one of those people that just need to go, go go. And literally spending a day just doing nothing, or breathing or analyzing how you felt over the past month, or three months, is so important.”

There is such an important lesson in here, on how, even when the world is spinning around like crazy and it’s hard to attain some form of control, being able to take a step back and reclaim that space can do wonders. “On those days, I wake up and I ask: what does my body say that it wants to do? What do I want to do? I think that’s been my saving grace.”

More than ever now is the time to make that space, and look for the support that you need to be able to show up to be able to live your life. This is a powerful reminder that to show up we have to give from the overflow in order to be the champions of change in our everyday lives.

Find out more about Ianthe Mellors on her social media or check out other ways to support her work.

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