In conversation with Leanne Stephen
I first had the pleasure of speaking with Leanne in July 2020 when we spoke about all things health and fitness related on Instagram. Some of the issues we discussed was a lack of diversity in the bodies represented on Instagram, and four months down the line not a lot seems to have changed. So, CAMSoc spoke to Leanne about her mission to increase the representation of disabilities on Instagram.
Leanne is an ex-paralympic table tennis player, who now has her own fitness Instagram account. She was recognised by Gymshark as one of their '15 great achievers' of the Gymshark66 Challenge in early 2020. Not only does Leanne use her fitness account to motivate and support others on their own fitness journeys, but she uses her platform to promote disability within fitness.
Hi Leanne. Thank you so much for chatting with us. Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself?
So my name is Leanne. I was born 11 weeks early meaning I have a disabilty called Cerebral Palsy. It affects my legs and means I need to use a wheelchair. My disability has given me a lot of opportunities I'm extremely thankful for. One of my biggest achievements is for ten years I played table tennis in the Great Britain Paralympic team. I was lucky enough to compete in European Championships, World Championships and the Commonwealth Games in 2010. I also had the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch.
When table tennis was no longer part of my life, I moved onto the fitness side as I've always had a passion for it. I work at a health and wellbeing site and I'm a fully qualified fitness instructor. Outside of work I have an online coach for my own fitness goals and in an attempt to motivate others in a similar situation and help raise more awareness of disability within fitness.
Awesome! So what is the 'mission' behind your Instagram? It says in your bio that you are 'raising awareness of disability within fitness'.
When I first started my fitness journery last year, my main aim was to loose weight and that was it. I never imagined I'd create my own fitness Instagram and be where I am now in my own journey.
As motivation to loose more weight I noticed that Gymshark was setting a 'Gymshark66 Challenge'. The aim of this was to motivate people with the idea it takes 66 days to form a habit. Part of the challenge was that you had to document your journey in some way. I decided to make an Insagram account and post something everyday for the 66 days to keep me motivated and to hopefully help others. I completed the challenge and just decided to keep my Instagram account as I found it a good source of motivation for myself.
Since then my goals have change. I lost the weight I wanted and decided to get an online coach. We have now been working together seven months and we are working on changing body composition with the long term goal of possibly competing in the future. I use Instagram now to document this part of my journey.
Wow, and how has your account been received? It is doing what you wanted it to do?
Everyone has been so supportive. I have lovely followers who always help motivate me and make me feel like I'm doing a good 'job'. Instagram has also helped me meet some new people like yourself.
It's definitely doing what I want it to. I have some lovely messages saying how I inspire people and help motivate them, even people without disabilities. However, I just wish I could spread the word more and gain some more followers so that I knew it was reaching more people. I've only had the page about a year, so slow and steady wins the race.
As well as being one of the top achievers for the Gymshark66 Challenge, you've also worked with 'Gluteywear'. How important is it for you that there is increased representation of wheelchair users, and disabilities more broadly, in fitness marketing?
It's absolutely crucial that well known companies start using more people with disbilities within fitness. They have the power and the following to help spread the positive message.
When Gluteywear contacted me I jumped at the chance of doing an interview with them. It meant so much.
It's great that other companies like Gymshark are now using models with different disabilities in their promotions. It does upset/annoy me that there is still a lack of wheelchair users being seen.
Absolutely. When we spoke previously, we talked about normalising different bodies on Instagram. Have you seen any progress in the fitness marketing industry, particularly on Instagram?
As I mentioned, I have seen that more well known brands are using people with different disabilities in their images or promotional campaigns. However, in my opinion there is sill a lack of wheelchair users being used.
On Instagram recently, I have seen a lot of posts about people feeling more confident in their bodies, posting with no makeup, no filters, not perfectly posed. This is also a huge step forward. I like that fact that 'fitness influencers' or people in the fitness industry show that they don't always walk around with this perfect body.
So what would your one piece of advice be to those wanting to create a fitness marketing campaign or enter this industry?
DO IT! If you feel so passionate about something, you shoudln't let anything stop you. Your actions, your words could be the change that is needed to make a difference. Don't regret something you didn't do.
According to the Wheelchair Sport and Physical Activity Survey, 2016, the top sources of sport and physical activity information is internet searches, with 67% of participants using this source, followed by disability organisations as 47% of the sample also used this source. However, the participants wanted to see an increase in the information available from disability organisations and social media. Additionally, research indicates that there is a lack of information available on inclusive opportunities and accessibility in sports participation (Jaarsma et al., 2014). What such research shows, and is reinforced in our interview with Leanne, is that disability representation and awareness is crucial to achieving more inclusive marketing campaigns, particularly in the fitness industry where such importance is placed on the visual.
We are so grateful to Leanne for chatting with us, and for being our first interview on the blog! You can connect with Leanne on Instagram - Her handle is @lift_with_leanne. It's so important that we support people like Leanne who are actively trying to bring awareness to such issues and to encourage others in a similar position to start their own journeys, when they may not feel represented otherwise.
Stay tuned for more blog content, and for the next installement of our 'representation in marketing' series.
Jaarsma, E.A. et al (2014) Barriers to and facilitators of sports participation for people with physical disabilties: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 24(6)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author only, and does not represent the views or opinions of CAMSoc as a whole or the University of Cambridge.