Ahead of the launch of NoireFitFest, we chat to Donna Noble and Lorraine Russell about the online festival and how the industry can work to support more Black instructors.

A Black woman in a group exercise class

Fitness festivals are a huge part of the industry calendar for both instructors and participants. Whether attending industry seminars and panel discussions at Elevate or getting sweaty with friends at IFS, the year is usually full of events to bring people together.

With the global pandemic leading to mass cancellations of events across all industries, the fitness calendar has been pretty bear. However, two female fitness professionals have decided not to let COVID-19 get in the way of their plans and are launching NoireFitFest online.

NoireFitFest, set up by Donna Noble and Lorraine Russell, is the UK’s first Black wellness and fitness festival. Taking place on Zoom on Saturday 19th September, the event will consist of group exercise classes and panel discussions on a variety of topics for both instructors and participants.

“We noticed through our own personal experiences and through speaking with our networks of Black Wellness and Fitness professionals, that we all had very similar stories of the lack of inclusion within the industry,” explains Lorraine, one of NoireFitFest’s founders. “We noticed that this was severely affecting the wider Black community in not feeling comfortable to enter into fitness spaces. We also identified that many Black wellness and fitness influencers would also say they were often the only “black or brown” face invited to attend Wellness and Fitness events, making them feel like a “token” invite.”

The data backs up the shared experiences too. Research published in January by Sport England detailed that just 56% of Black people were meeting the weekly 150 minutes of exercise set by the Chief Medical Officer, compared to 62% of the whole population.

This is why NoireFitFest was curated; a way to highlight the difference in experience Black instructors and participants face when accessing fitness. The aim for Donna and Lorraine is to create a dedicated space in which to serve the Black community feel like there is a space for them and communicate that health and wellness can be a priority for them too.

But the event is not just about getting people active. The panel discussions will highlight the challenges Black people face in the industry and how these could be overcome. Donna, the other founder of NoireFitFest, explains; “There is certainly a lack of black representation within fitness, especially in decision-making positions. I would like to see more black instructors in management positions where they can achieve real and lasting change. Other challenges include not being paid on parity with colleagues and having to deal with daily discrimination and micro-aggressions in the work environment.  This can lead to assimilation so that you are not accused of being aggressive when, in fact, you are just being assertive in the same way anyone else in the situation would be.”

This feeds into a wider problem too – that of representation in marketing; “One of the biggest issues I have found with Black representations within fitness is that there are actually a number of Black fitness influencers who have organically grown their brands off their own backs,” says Lorraine. “However, many of these influencers will have numerous stories of being approached by brands to represent them, but brands are not paying them the same as their white counterparts. There’s also an issue with selecting lighter skinned Black people (particularly women) to represent their brand, because their aesthetic is closer to a European aesthetic.”

Imagery and portrayal of such is a big talking point in the fitness industry; it’s also a big barrier to participation. Research for Sport England’s This Girl Can project found appearance was a huge barrier to women attending physical activities. That’s why self-identification featured heavily in the campaign with women of all ages, races, ethnicities, and abilities represented.

However, this is not reflective across the physical activity arena. Lorraine said “It can be very discouraging if Black participants feel like they’re the only person in the room. This feeling can cause many to not bother to enter into fitness spaces, thinking that these spaces aren’t designed with them in mind. Public environments are supposed to be inclusive of everyone, but when you walk into a space that doesn’t have any elements of “you” in there, for many, this can be very off putting.”

The online NoireFitFest is the inaugural introduction to the festival. With this virtual festival attracting sponsors like EMD UK, Fora and Sweaty Betty, Donna and Lorraine have plans to make next year’s event bigger. They encourage instructors and studio owners from all races to attend in order to educate and encourage more opportunities for both Black fitness professionals and participants.

For those instructors out there who wish to understand Black participants and provide activities for them, Donna has this to say; “Just talk to people. Take the fitness to the community. Meet them where they are. Talk to them and understand what challenges they’re facing so you can reduce those barriers to participation. It just starts with a conversation.”

NoireFitFest is taking place online on Saturday 19th September 2020. The event is free. You can register for your ticket here.

Donna Noble

Donna is a yoga teacher and wellness coach. She has been a certified yogi since 2011, NLP Master Practitioner and Body Positive advocate. Teaching internationally and all over the UK at festivals, wellness events, and corporate events. Her goal has been since 2015 to make you more inclusive and diverse so that everyone has access to health and wellbeing.

Lorraine Russell

Lorraine is a Level 3 Personal Trainer and nutritionist. She has competed as a Bikini Trainer Bodybuilder, and is passionate about getting more women to understand the benefits of weight training.