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.
"Disgusting" and "unmotivating" were two of the words that Ash Pryor encountered on her screen when she taught her first livestream rowing class for Peloton in September 2022. The comments came in from a viewer who tuned into her class, despite having no intention of actively participating.
It was a slap in the face for Pryor, 31, who is a size 12, and who has been training as an athlete for the majority of her life — and, for that particular moment on the Peloton stage, many months before. But her act of retaliation to the naysayer was simply to keep showing up.
"The reality is like, I might be disgusting to that person. But it's important for me to continue to show up not only for myself, but the amount of stories of people that were just like, 'I needed this. I needed to know that being an athlete looks like all kinds of things' is a great reminder," she tells Yahoo Life. "I show up because I wish that I had a me when I was younger."
The negativity that surrounded the announcement of her new gig as a fitness instructor for the workout platform could’ve sent Pryor back to a time when she felt forced to hate her body as a teen.
"I had a moment where I would put tape to like squeeze in my love handles in middle school," she recalls. "What did I have to hide and tape in middle school? And I think like, where did I even learn to do that?"
Her journey through athletics ever since has been an opportunity to undo that damage: to unlearn the toxic self-talk and negative body image that she was once practicing, and to make sure that people following in her footsteps wouldn't have to experience that at all.
Still, she struggled with her own identity as a full-figured Black woman throughout the process, figuring out where she might already be accepted and where she'd have to pave her own lane.
"I don't know that I had that many struggles when I was playing basketball, because a lot of people look like me, and it's rooted in, like, hip-hop culture, so I don't really think that I had any cultural differences or struggles. I wore the baggy clothes, all that was me, that was natural," she explains. "I think where I realized identity was in a sense of like, 'Oh, I'm the only one in sports and this carries a different weight' was when I began to row, but it's also a sport that I fell in love with in a different way."
Pryor had an interest in rowing in high school but didn't see an opportunity to begin until she was a student at Ohio State University and was approached to walk onto the rowing team as a Division 1 athlete. "It was hard to realize, like, oh, this was a sport that wasn't really meant for women, so you're fighting for that. It wasn't a sport that was really kind to people of color, so you're fighting that," she says.
Most notably, it wasn't an environment that was sensitive to anybody struggling with body image and size.
"You got weighed in a lot, and your weight was public for everyone at the time," she says. "You're weighing in after a test piece in front of everyone, you're trying to get off the sweaty clothes, wringing them out, trying to get dry, trying to get every little ounce of whatever off to weigh in, you are looking at other people's bodies. And in rowing, your ability to have power per pound is important, so the ways in which you're having conversations about it weren't always the healthiest."
Pryor was unwavering in her determination to gain access to competitive sports, so she continued to showcase her skillset in the boat while working to build a foundation of self-love that would quiet the other noise surrounding her. Garnering that confidence would allow her to not only continue her trajectory as a collegiate athlete, but also to become an authority and advocate in the space.
"I want athletes of color to have a role model, I want them to have someone who has gone through what they've gone through being the only one in a sea of 85 other white women, and you have all these cultural things happening," she says. "Now I'm fighting to be able to demonstrate in a larger body — that's really the size of an average woman — that I deserve to still be in this space, and still be looked at as an athlete."
As she evolved into the fitness space as an instructor, she went on to face more opposition.
"Fitness has always been about shrinking and never about, like, strength and power," she explains, noting that it’s caused skepticism and negativity. "I'm sitting here doing what I'm doing, getting these little hips in that small ass boat and rowing around, and y'all still calling me fat, calling me unhealthy and that this isn't natural. I want to see somebody do what I do for five minutes in that boat and see if they don't fall in that water. And I do that for three hours."
But she knows it's not about her actual physical fitness.
"I'm healthy," Pryor says. "I'm healthy because my doctor has told me I'm healthy. I'm healthy because I can do the things I want to do. I'm healthy because I can live the life I'm living and run the schedule that I'm running and teach the amount of classes I'm teaching. So I have multiple metrics that let me know that I'm healthy. And it's not just if I have a six pack that lets me know I'm healthy."
Pryor sees any withstanding opposition to her position as a fitness instructor as an opportunity to reframe the conversation around athletics, fitness and body types.
"We need more balanced storytelling to shift the narrative of what an athlete looks like, what an athlete can be and being able to celebrate what all those bodies look like," she says. "My body is one sliver of the things that I bring … I'm more than just the fact that my hips don't lie and I got a stomach that I call Tina."
She continues, "To love yourself the way that I do and still wear the mother-trucking sports bra and have these thighs hanging out with those shorts, it's a radical act."
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