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Another abuser in the fitness industry.

Updated: May 1, 2023

They’re dropping like flies.

My friends,

In today’s edition of “which white dude in power just got outed for being an abuser?” I am writing through tears.

As a passionate member of the fitness industry for many years, I came to know some incredible people doing incredible things in the world of strength and conditioning. Some were creative and innovative. Some were charming. Some were brilliantly book-smart and awkward.

Nearly everyone at the top – the leaders of the industry and those in “power”– were white men.

Leaving the fitness industry (and NYC) meant the death of a very distinct fantasy I’d been nursing, to be one of those leaders, to be one of the few women shaping the face of it. I knew I was in a unique position to be one of the best female strength and conditioning coaches in the world over the next decade or so, thanks to the people I worked with, trained with, learned from, and regularly networked with in NYC.

And I fucking wanted it.

I wanted to be the best in part because I was obsessed with lifting mechanics, programming, and the new research coming out about each new training protocol. I was a meathead and a science nerd, both uncompromising in my self-education, and kind of a gym bro.

But I also wanted to be the best because I wanted the respect and recognition of those I so powerfully admired.

My personal and professional heroes were my kind of people: curious and nerdy about exercise science, but also just passionate about getting fucking strong. They also just happened to mostly be tall, lean, cis-gender white dudes. I wanted their acceptance and approval just as much as I wanted to disrupt and dismantle the good ol’ boys club.

Anyone passionate about her career knows why so many young women get drawn into shitty situations with the men in power, in every industry. We care so much about what we’re doing, and so do they (it seems). It seems like they want to help us and champion us. It feels so good when they recognize and accept us.

There’s a reason it’s unethical for a coach or therapist to date their client. The power dynamic is inherently unequal from the jump, because one person is in a position of status and authority, and the other isn’t. This is a recipe for danger, no matter how smart the people are.

Our brains are wired to behave differently around someone we perceive as high status, to desire their attention and approval more than others, to lower our inhibitions in service of connecting with them and getting them to like us.

This is why it’s so easy for men in power to abuse it. This is also why it’s so fucking unethical for them to do so.

Last week I found out that one of my heroes is an abuser. I really shouldn’t be surprised.

Over a year ago, I spoke extensively to a friend about how her ex-husband, who was a huge name in the online fitness world and a social acquaintance of mine, had been abusing her.

I decided to write a take-down piece on him, because the world needs to know this kind of shit. (You can find it here. His name is John Romaniello.) Then some time later, another huge name in the industry (Alan Aragon, since I’m naming names) got in a fuck-ton of trouble as woman after woman came out to describe a pattern of him getting drunk at conferences and harassing and assaulting young female attendees, despite being married.

And there have been others, too. Often when a story breaks, my reaction is “I fucking knew it!”, and I immediately text my female friends in the industry about how we all knew it. Something about him set off our spidey senses, even if it wasn’t something we could call out.

But last week Sohee Lee went on The Best Life Podcast (with Jill Coleman and Danny J) and disclosed the abuse that had been happening in her 4.5 year relationship with Bret Contreras, a man who was someone I not only respected and admired professionally, but I also felt a personal kinship with.

Bret never set off my spidey senses, although looking back I can see that he probably should have. Her stories connected some dots.

I was in an Uber on the way to the gym when I heard that part of the podcast. I cried in the uber, and I cried at the gym. I cried a lot actually.  This one felt different.

Bret had been a personal and professional hero of mine. He was extremely kind, and supportive of my work. He had a college frat boy kind of vibe that I found hilarious, because it was connected to a secret geek with a PhD who ran research and published papers on exercise mechanics.

He seemed to celebrate and champion women. I loved his work, which was geared toward helping women get strong as fuck. But I also just liked him on a personal level. And I liked that he seemed to like me.

Like everyone else, I am fallible. This guy was a kind of “god among men” in my industry, and he seemed to find me funny, and smart. He made me feel fucking cool. I liked feeling fucking cool.

Looking back I can’t help but wonder if he was sort of just flirting with me, doing some pre-grooming, and I feel disgusting. If it hadn’t been Sohee, it could have been someone else. It could have been me.

And worst of all, this whole time my friend Sohee was dealing with gaslighting, verbal abuse, infidelity and all the other classic signs of emotional manipulation, and nobody knew. She’s too smart, too confident, too funny and caring and successful. (Seriously though, if you’re into super legit fitness info, check her out.)

This is how abuse works though.

Nobody would ever guess which people are abusive from the outside, and nobody would guess which people are being abused. It often doesn’t fit the mold we want it to in our heads, of some horrible violent monster of a dude bossing around a weak insecure mousy girl… and so we miss it.

But given the statistics, I feel like maybe we should start guessing differently, and being automatically suspicious of those (men) in positions of power and authority, anywhere and everywhere. Maybe we shouldn’t let them be in those positions in the first place.

I wish I had something empowering and inspiring to wrap this up with, but I don’t. Tomorrow I will get back to work fighting oppression in all its forms. But today my heart is simply broken.

<3 Jessi

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