As a fitness and health editor, I meet so many inspiring people. I'm constantly in awe of the drive, determination, humility, optimism, and passion of the athletes, trainers, and everyday women I've been so fortunate to come across and learn more about.
The other day, one of my good friends asked me, "Who do you look up to the most? Who is living a life that inspires you and motivates you to do more?" and - besides my own mother, who is an angel in her own way - the woman who instantly came to my mind was Jenny Gaither.
When I moved to San Francisco and knew literally no one, Jenny was among the first people I could call a friend. Her warmth, kindness, selflessness, and love emanated, and I knew I was in the presence of someone special.
Before I get ahead of myself, meet Jenny: entrepreneur, trainer, dancer, philanthropist, and body-positive evangelist. She's the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Movemeant Foundation (which funds "movement-based, body-positive curriculums for at-risk middle school girls, communities, and other nonprofit organizations for young girls"), in addition to being a Senior SoulCycle Instructor, a dancer and choreographer (the brains behind the "Notorious FIT" classes in the Bay Area), and creator of Dare to Bare - "the country's largest body-positive fundraising fitness event."
In fact, I first met Jenny at Dare to Bare in 2016 - it was the first time I was introduced to the body-positive movement, where hundreds of women flaunted their beautiful bodies of all shapes and sizes.
"I was not the athletic superstar my parents hoped I'd be," Jenny said. When she was only 6 years old, Jenny's parents put her into club basketball, with high hopes that she'd love the sport as much as they did. "At that age, I was self-aware enough to know I lacked hand-eye coordination and an understanding of the game," she said. She described her younger self as lanky and uncoordinated and said that her experience was "beyond embarrassing."
"For once in my life I felt like I was good at something that also brought me so much joy."
But this wasn't the end of her journey - in fact, her basketball follies led her to one of her greatest passions: dance. "I was dancing and skipping across the basketball court instead of running," said Jenny, so her parents enrolled her in a dance class. With a self-described "natural kinesthetic understanding of rhythm and a passion for music," she fell in love with dance and movement. "By the age of 7, I was competing nationally and for once in my life, I felt like I was good at something that also brought me so much joy."
Her passion for dance led to a serious commitment in her teens. "In high school, I commuted from Santa Cruz to Mountain View every day to dance with a company based in San Francisco," she said. "I wouldn't get home until 11:30 p.m. every night. My rehearsals were long and rigorous."
As basketball introduced her to dance, dance introduced her to Pilates. Because she was putting her body through so much, she knew she had to cross-train and ended up falling in love with Pilates. This led her to her first training position: a certified Pilates instructor.
Jenny danced on scholarship at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where she "built a solid foundation as a teacher and trainer," and even taught dance and Pilates at school herself. From there, there's only one place for such an established dancer to go: New York City.
After dancing and teaching Pilates in New York, she found the third love of her fitness life, SoulCycle. "I was encouraged to audition for SoulCycle, which ultimately became my dance class on a bike - a way to create a physical connection to a more confident sense of self. Seven years later, I've taught in multiple cities to thousands upon thousands of riders, but am thrilled to call the Bay my home base. And it's through the Bay Area support that my career is coming full circle with the start of my hip-hop cardio dance class, Notorious FIT."
"SoulCycle became a way to create a physical connection to a more confident sense of self."
After a couple of decades of movement and fitness, it was SoulCycle that finally taught Jenny the importance of fitness for mental and emotional health. She "quit dance altogether," and became a SoulCycle instructor full time. "It opened my eyes, she said. "Unlike other workouts I've tried, for me, SoulCycle has never been about weight loss or looking a certain way. Ever since my first class, it's been about self-exploration, acceptance, and confidence building. I joke that it's another form of therapy, but it actually is a complete mental and emotional release for me."
Jenny has achieved phenomenal success with her fitness journey, but it didn't come without its share of setbacks.
Her secret? Despite being "a fitness professional and junkie," she shared "I suffered from body image issues . . . I had been a long time competitive dancer where I faced self-image issues due to the crazy expectations of how I looked, which eventually lead to eating disorders."
"I validated myself and my happiness based on the opinions of my peers and society's standards of women, as opposed to my own," she said. "It's a dancer's mentality and ambition to be flawless; to move through life with grace, ease, and precision. However, I quickly learned that's no way to live."
A few years ago in a SoulCycle class, Jenny had a Rihanna-and-sweat-infused epiphany, fueled by endorphins and wrapped in a gold lamé jacket. She was so self-conscious about her body, that she refused to take her jacket off and reveal her sports bra and what she affectionately calls her "belly jelly."
"Seeing how much I've grown inspires me to continue to explore the life-changing benefits physical activity can have on all women."
"I taught the hot and sweaty class with my jacket on and at one point thought I was going to pass out because I was overheated. It was then that I came face to face with my own lifetime's worth of body image issues and realized the uncomfortable truth – that my own journey of self-acceptance was just beginning."
She noted that she felt pretty frustrated, yet still deeply supported by SoulCycle's community. When she taught a class in which "all of the women were encouraged to wear their sports bras," she mustered up the courage to bare it all. "I realized how important this issue is and what a real struggle it is for most women to accept and feel comfortable in their bodies."
Jenny took this experience and turned it into something even bigger and better, saying, "it was my own personal journey that led me to create Movemeant Foundation," the nonprofit that now empowers women nationally. Jenny said, "Seeing how much I've personally grown physically, emotionally, and mentally from indoor cycling only inspires me to continue to explore the life-changing benefits physical activity can have on all women."
Movemeant started with just one event. "The riders who took part in the sports-bra baring class found it just as liberating and empowering as I did," she said. At that point, she knew it was time to scale up. "I decided to offer the experience on a much larger scale and evolved the sports bra ride into an outdoor fitness event: Dare to Bare." But it didn't stop there - word was spreading nationally.
"There was so much buzz and excitement from women all over the country who wanted to get involved," she said. "I decided there needed to be more support than just a one-off event." The wheels were turning, and Jenny was more inspired than ever - "Women needed a platform of support, resources and education to overcome the uphill battle toward finding self-love, acceptance, and a healthy relationship with their bodies. This is when I decided to create what is now Movemeant."
"My own journey of self-acceptance was only just beginning."
Vision For the Future
Dare to Bare continues today, on a larger scale than ever before. The festival takes place on both coasts, in San Francisco and New York City (if you're in the area, join us!), packed with impossibly popular fitness classes, the most sought-after fitness instructors in the country, and a sea of sports bras and smiling faces. And it's not just a SoulCycle event - women learn how to "dance like Beyoncé," build a strong core with TRX training, or challenge themselves with bootcamp workouts, all in a sports bra.
And not only do women feel empowered by learning to love their bodies but the funds raised go right back to Movemeant to fund the aforementioned curriculums and programs for middle school girls, so the next generation of women grow up loving their bodies. "Movemeant Foundation's mission is simple," she told us. "To empower young women across the country to use movement - running, dancing, biking, and more as a form of self expression that enables them to emotionally and psychologically connect to their bodies." Wow, right? "They learn self-esteem, build positive body image, and begin to uncover the best version of themselves." So yes, if you're wondering, Jenny really IS a freakin' superstar.
"Beating the sh*t out of my insecurities" - Jenny
She's not stopping, and Movemeant is picking up more and more steam. "My initial vision was to give every woman the chance to feel how I feel after a SoulCycle class - unstoppable, fierce, and worthy of happiness and success," she said. "The vision today is very similar. I believe every body is meant to move and every body should be given the opportunity to move. Through physical movement, we can greatly change how young girls and women view and value themselves. By building a positive relationship with her body, she then can build confidence and self-worth."
Today, Movemeant works with #ShePlaysWeWin, a photo project that showcases the power of movement, sports, and fitness on a young woman's self-confidence. Together they fund grants that provide sports instruction, gear, activewear, and coaching and mentorship to disadvantaged girls between 8 and 16 years of age. Recipients of these scholarships have gone on to learn how to snowboard, participate in ice hockey, and play sports like basketball, hockey, and tennis.
Even more grants are going to programs like The Wahine Project and iSurf School, Cycle Kids in Boston, and Women's Health Education Program in Ohio. On top of that, Movemeant delivers "physical programming," like "hip-hop dance, cheer dance, yoga, Zumba, [and] kick-boxing" - with the intent of building self-esteem - to middle school-aged girls. They currently provide these programs in 20 middle schools in the Bay Area.
Movemeant creates campaigns to inspire and empower women to love their bodies. They're combating the obesity epidemic while giving strength and hope to women with insecurities. They're changing the game of fitness, health, and wellness for women, starting by fortifying the younger generation and equipping them with the tools they need to live a stronger, healthier, happier life.
Words of Wisdom
Jenny is truly changing the world, but who inspired Jenny to be so inspirational herself? "I am a huge Brené Brown fan girl," she told us. "One of my favorite quotes of hers is, 'When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.'"
She said the problem that most women face today with fitness - the barrier that keeps them from changing their lives for the better - is that "fitness has become synonymous with punishment, and often, it's inaccessible to many women." It starts with small steps - "Getting out there and moving teaches self-reliance; it allows you to uncover what your body is truly capable of." And that, the moving and learning about yourself, "not the dropping of pounds," is what Jenny calls "the kind of transformation we should be celebrating."
"Through physical movement, we can greatly change how young girls and women view and value themselves."
If you're just beginning your own journey, Jenny says to find a support system, find an activity you love, be proud, and keep taking risks. "Surround yourself only with people who value, appreciate, and respect everything about you," she said. She also urged the importance of dissociating exercise with the stigmas: "When I used to hear the word 'exercise,' I'd think of treadmills, burpees, and sprints - all things I hated. So if you don't like working out, don't work out! Instead, go dance. Climb. Swim. Take a walk or a bike ride. Because if you call it what you like, you'll like it, and it should feel like a reward."
"Accomplish something that is challenging to you," she said. "There's no greater thrill than realizing you're capable of anything if you invest your heart and soul into it."