For Julia and Cornelia Gibson, fitness is a family affair. The sisters workout best when they’re together, but even when they’re apart, they are cheering each other on.
Outside their sisterly bond, however, they found that the same sense of encouragement and motivation was not universal.
When looking at the fitness industry and wellness spaces, they saw less and less women who looked like them — women with varying skin tones and body types.
So, the two women decided to do something about it.
In the fall of 2019, the New York City natives founded Toned by BaggedEm, a fitness-focused brand that not only strives to make women feel seen but also motivates them to push through their fitness obstacles.
After raising $2,000 through Kickstarter, a crowdfunding company, the sisters started selling yoga mats featuring images of women with different hair types, head wraps, skin tones, body shapes and sizes. For a limited time, the brand is also selling mats featuring Black men.
“A lot of things that deter people from keeping their commitment or devoting that time to themselves is that they don’t have much encouragement,” Cornelia Gibson told CNN. “Inclusion is a large part of it.”
“The (yoga) mat kind of serves that purpose: she is the sister you never had,” Gibson said when referencing the designs on the yoga mats. “And you feel like, you know, she’s rooting for me, she’s here for me, she looks like me.”
The idea for the mats came to the Gibson sisters in the most conventional way — it was early in the morning and they were on the phone with each other, getting ready to start their day.
“She’s on her way to work and I’m talking to her while getting my daughter ready for school when she said it in passing and it was just something that stuck,” Julia told CNN. “And I’m like, that’s something we can actually do, something that would give representation, that’s something that would change a stereotype.”
The next step was to look for an artist to design the artwork for the yoga mats and, luckily, the sisters didn’t have to look far: their mother, Oglivia Purdie, was a former New York City elementary school art teacher.
With an idea and an artist in hand, the sisters created mats featuring women that they see every day — the women in their neighborhoods, their families, their communities. And, more importantly, they wanted children to look at the mats and see themselves in the images.
“Representation matters,” said Julia. “I’ve had a customer tell me that their kid rolls out their mat and says ‘mommy, is that you on the mat?’ that’s always a big accomplishment and the biggest reward for me.”
In addition to highlighting underrepresented groups, the images also play an important role in dispelling common myths about the ability of different body types to complete a variety of workouts, especially yoga poses.
“Yoga poses are graceful and maybe come with a connotation that if you are a certain size that maybe you can’t do that,” said Julia. “Our mats look like everyday women that you see, they give you confidence.
“When you see it like this, it can’t be ignored,” she added.
Impact of the coronavirus
Much like other businesses across the United States, Toned by BaggedEm has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
This is the brand’s first year in business, and with many gyms and yoga studios temporarily shuttered, getting the message out about their products has become a challenge.
But the sisters say that there is also a bright spot.
“I think it did bring a spotlight to the need for our product since more people are home and need a mat for meditation, for exercise — yoga, pilates — it can be used for so many different things,” said Julia.
The pandemic has also disproportionately impacted people of color. Black, Latino and Native American people are nearly three times as likely to be infected with Covid-19 than their White counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus, coupled with the recent reckoning on race spurred by the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daniel Prude, Jacob Blake and many more, put even more emphasis on the need for self-care, the sisters said.
“We have to find a place to be strong for ourselves because of all the stress that we’re constantly placed over — the lack of resources in the communities, things of that nature,” said Cornelia.
“It is important for us to realize how important wellness is and how important it is to take care of our bodies,” she added.