As a professional dancer, Jenny Gaither had dealt with body image issues for almost as long as she could remember. At her first SoulCycle class, however, Gaither had an epiphany. “In an instant,” she wrote in a blog post in 2015, “I found a new direction. I wanted to be more than a skinny body. I wanted to be a strong body.” She auditioned for the brand’s training program and was hired as an instructor in 2009, eventually rising to “Master” status.
In 2011, Gaither founded the Movemeant Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to promote empowerment through physical activity, and to increase the physical fitness of middle school-aged girls in underserved communities with a range of after-school programs. Gaither also co-founded We Dare to Bare, the Movemeant Foundation’s biggest fundraiser. The idea for that event once again came to her in a fitness class, this time where all participants were riding shirtless, in just their sports bras. Gaither, still facing off with her own body issue demons, found the experience liberating and wanted to share it with other women. So in July 2011, at age 24—with no experience in nonprofits or event planning whatsoever—Gaither organized the first We Dare to Bare event in New York’s Union Square. Two hundred women and men of all shapes and sizes came together on stationary bikes, wearing sports bras and revealing their bodies for the world to see.
Gaither hopes to break an attendance record at the next We Dare To Bare event this September in New York, and the Movemeant Foundation — now in its seventh year — continues to thrive. We spoke to Gaither about her own path to self-acceptance, the power of movement to transform, and why she believes the body positivity movement still has a long way to go.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On learning she wasn’t alone
Early in my career I had personal training clients, many of whom were at the top of their fields. They would hire me to come in and train them in their beautiful lofts and apartments. When you’re one-on-one, even with the most high-powered professionals, the walls really come down and people open up about the issues they’re dealing with. I was so surprised to find that nearly all of my clients were dealing with body image issues in the same way that I was. I was only 24 and found it all to be completely eye-opening. I honestly had no idea.
On the power of honesty
I felt so isolated before I started sharing my own situation with other people. When I had women open up to me about their own experiences that were so similar to mine, I felt, like, “I’m just tired. I’m exhausted from holding this in and keeping it a secret. I just want to scream it from the rooftops.”
And I think with anything that you try to suppress, it just constantly bubbles up. It just wants to come out and be released. And you can truly, authentically be yourself once that happens. It’s so freeing.
On projecting in order to make progress
After realizing that I was dealing with something I knew lots of people would relate to but weren’t really talking about, I decided, “OK. Let’s actually overshare on this, project it into the world and see what comes back.” That’s when I started thinking that now that I’d achieved [a] positive, healthy change in myself, maybe I could also work towards enabling similar progress for women everywhere.
On the question that led to starting the Movemeant Foundation
I’ve never been afraid of jumping into things I’m not familiar with, and I think that comes, in part, from being young and naïve. Also, in my early twenties, I actually didn’t feel like I had much to lose. I was right out of college and I asked myself one day after teaching a SoulCycle class, “You know, you have this incredibly active network, you have access to this vast group of people from all different careers, backgrounds, and experiences. What could you do if you tapped into that? What could you create?” I was inexperienced, but at least I also knew enough to appreciate that I didn’t really know anything. But I did have this network, and also in my favor, I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. From this, Movemeant Foundation was born.
On encouraging movement—in all its forms
In curriculums across the country and in our large-scale events, we’re really emphasizing that movement doesn’t have to be school sports or after-school sports or traveling teams. It could mean just walking, it could be surfing, it could be skateboarding. There are so many different modalities and ways of moving now that are really meditative and healthy and great at keeping you outside and active and focused.
I would like to say to those parents of those kids who aren’t maybe natural athletes, keep trying until you find something that you love. It’s out there. I was on a basketball team when I was about seven, and I was literally dancing across the basketball court. My poor dad was the coach and he looked humiliated. And I was humiliated because I had no idea how to play the sport, and didn’t want to be there. My parents finally looked at each other and said, “I think she’s a dancer,” and it was dance class from then on. And that’s where I fit in.
As soon as I was removed from sports, I felt so much more comfortable and safe. I built my own community in dance, and that can happen in any realm. You can’t just do what the masses are doing. You’ve got to find what’s right for you. And I think allowing your children or yourself the freedom to explore with an open mind and no preconceived ideas is really important. Movement and self-acceptance are the endgame.
"Social media is where I really struggle the most, especially as a fitness professional. I get really distracted by accounts where people are trying to promote body positivity, but their messaging is completely contradictory."
On why the conversation around body positivity still needs to evolve
I definitely have seen a shift in body positivity thinking universally. I think it’s a hot topic right now, but I don’t totally love where it’s going. I think that people may think they’re projecting an inspiring vision of body positivity, [but] the underlying message is still about getting the six-pack and losing the weight. And it’s still very much image-focused. It’s confusing.
Social media is where I really struggle the most, especially as a fitness professional. I get really distracted by accounts where people are trying to promote body positivity, but their messaging is completely contradictory. The image they’re posting and their language are completely at odds. Not to say that you have to look a certain way to say something specific, but I would love to see the next wave of body positivity being about something that we can’t see, the intangibles. That thing that makes us, us. It’s our soul. It’s our spirit, right? It’s about amplifying those things. That’s what we want to celebrate. That’s what gives us our beauty and our power.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.