How this fitness guru overcame a ‘toxic’ relationship with body image and movement: 'I thought my life was over'

·5 min read
Kelly Brabants on rediscovering her love for her body and movement. (Rachael Lynsey; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Kelly Brabants on rediscovering her love for her body and movement. (Rachael Lynsey; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Perfectionism is a difficult standard for Kelly Brabants to look past after growing up as a dancer surrounded by girls of different statures in teeny leotards whose reflections were amplified by the many mirrors that walled the rooms she was often in. But even though she is a fitness professional who has built an empire from her brand Booty by Brabants, that standard is exactly what she strives to do away with.

Born and raised in Boston, Mass., Brabants belonged to an Irish-Brazilian family who taught her to embrace her background and the very curves that her mother's side of the family gave her. As she looked around her dance classes as a young girl, however, the body acceptance that was demonstrated at home was challenged.

"I've always had Brazilian curves, I always had a butt and thighs. Even when I was tiny, I always had more curves than the other ballerinas that I was dancing with or the other dancers in the room. So at a young age, without even realizing, I was playing a comparison game," she explains. "With costumes, for example, just seeing the different sizes of costumes that everyone had to wear and realizing that everyone had different body types."

Brabants explains that she was never "overweight," but instead had an athletic build that helped her as a dancer. Still, she struggled to exist in a space where certain body types were idealized. She even faced pressure from teachers to go to the gym and to eat "healthier" in an effort to lose weight.

"In high school is when my body started to change even more. I just didn't fit that perfect physique that everyone thought that you needed in the dance world where you had to be stick skinny and like 6 feet tall to be considered a ballerina," she says. "There was always a mold that I felt like I had to fit into, whether it be longer or thinner legs. I constantly wanted to be something else instead of just embracing where I was at and just trying to thrive with the body that I had."

Ultimately, the pressure literally broke her, as Brabants experienced a serious stress fracture in two places on her back when she was just 18 years old. "I was in a back brace for a year, and it was really traumatic," she says. "I had to miss so much of my junior and senior year [of high school]."

For somebody who relied on movement for so many of the years leading up to that moment, she also had to reevaluate the way that she treated her body after she had healed. Eventually, that meant walking away from her dreams of pursuing dance as a career after feeling that so much of the journey had become "toxic."

"I thought it was going to be the worst decision of my life. I thought my life was over," she recalls. To her surprise, however, it was the push that she needed in order to repair the relationship that she had with both her body and movement.

Without the pressure to look a certain way, Brabants quickly began to rediscover exercise by way of practicing movement as a means to better her mental health. From there, her perspective on her body began to change.

"Instead of just thinking about having a six-pack or being lean, working out became my stress reliever," she says. "I truly changed as a person completely. I just felt healthier."

She also strived to feel happier by inserting more joy into her exercises and incorporating the parts of dance that she loves, without pushing herself past her limit.

"I've been screamed at by dance teachers and made to cry all the time. I've been pushed to my absolute limit where my feet were gushing blood because they didn't let me wear dance shoes," she says. "I've been pushed to so many limits and all it's ever done is hurt me. It takes the fun out of it and it makes it work. And I think that fitness should be fun."

Brabants kept those same things in mind when she started to train clients and classes. So much of her growth, she explains, can be attributed to the things she has learned from the people who attended her workouts and the challenges that they hoped to overcome in their personal lives. "I started to realize that the number one reason why people are coming back to me is the connection that I make with them," she says. "I felt like I was their therapist in a way."

Even as she has built the Booty by Brabants brand — which now consists of athletic apparel, accessories, a line of natural energy drinks and a virtual-workout platform — the 31-year-old continues to make an effort to welcome inclusivity through her own authenticity.

"I really genuinely love myself and who I am, what I've been through and all my accomplishments. But some days I'm just not feeling myself," she says. "Confidence doesn't have to be a 24-7, 365-days-a-year kind of thing. It's a practice for me."

She has even begun to embrace imperfection and insecurity as her strength — something that she previously thought was impossible as a public figure in the fitness space.

"I'm proud of my struggles and proud of my vulnerability, and that builds my confidence," Brabants says. "I think that it's important for fitness professionals especially to start normalizing the good and the bad days and being transparent about both."