Why Peloton’s Ash Pryor Is ‘Not Going to Play Small Anymore’

Fitness is ready for a reckoning, and Peloton’s newest instructor wants to help it get there.
Pelotons Ash Pryor on Fitnesss MuchNeeded Reckoning 'We're Not Going to Play Small Anymore'
Courtesy of Peloton

Patience has played a surprising role in Ash Pryor’s start with Peloton. The rowing instructor had to train in secret for nearly a year before officially announcing her new gig publicly, and she’ll need to wait a few more weeks before members are able to take her live classes on the new Peloton rower.

But her patience and thoughtfulness was even more evident in an Instagram caption she posted back in September, as a direct response to the “disgusting fat shaming comments” she received after the company announced her forthcoming debut. A vocal few trolls in Peloton’s official Facebook group commented on Pryor’s launch announcement with fatphobic comments saying that her body was somehow at odds with what a fitness instructor “should” look like (which, for the record, is a stance rooted in ignorant stereotypes, racism, and discrimination).

“I could have really popped the fuck off,” Pryor tells SELF. “And instead I was like, ‘Not today, Satan,’ and kept pushing.”

Instead, she chose to direct her message not at the fat-shamers, but to others still struggling to find the body acceptance she’s fought so hard to claim: “I have played small a large portion of my life, and when this opportunity came about, I said I’m showing up unapologetically because why not me?” Pryor wrote. “Someone needs to see someone like me! So let me be the first!”

“That post was meant to say, ‘That shit’s always going to happen, but it’s not going to stop us, and time is up,’” she says. “We are taking our throne, we are gonna stand here—and they can just accept that this is not a space for them. We are not going to play small anymore.”

The post struck a nerve, garnering over 34,000 likes and 2,700 comments to date, and brought more attention to the fact that fitness doesn’t need to look a certain way—something which the notoriously thin and white industry has fought for years.

Pryor is up against some long-standing systemic inequalities in the fitness industry, but she’s not afraid to stake her claim and prove to the masses that fitness in general isn’t a luxury reserved for thin bodies. Fitness is for everyone. SELF sat down with Pryor to learn more about her journey, her passions, and what drives her determination to tear down the barriers in fitness and beyond.

Finding a road to fitness at the highest level

Pryor, a native of Columbus, Ohio, didn’t get her fitness start on the rower—instead, she honed her athleticism on the basketball court. In fact, she was at basketball practice one day during her junior year of high school when rowing first crossed her mind. While taking a water break, she heard an unfamiliar hum in the hallway. Pryor tracked down members of the rowing team moving in unison during an indoor rowing workout (the go-to when rowers aren’t in the water) and told her mom she wanted to join later that evening. “It just looked so cool—and powerful and dynamic,” she says.

But because the team wasn’t actually affiliated with her school, she had to wait to give it a try. “Back then, doing sports outside of school wasn’t really a thing,” she says. “And there weren’t a lot of people of color doing it, and it’s very expensive.” So Pryor continued to focus on basketball. It wasn’t until her freshman year at the Ohio State University at Newark, where she was attending as a first generation college student, that she got a chance to hit the water.

“Someone came up to me and was like, ‘You look very fit. Would you ever want to row here as a Division I athlete?’ and I was like ‘Absolutely,’” she says. Pryor transferred from the branch campus to the main campus of Ohio State University and started her rowing career. “I loved it,” she says. “That year, we won a Big Ten championship.”

In addition to her rowing, Pryor was also becoming more and more interested in education. So during her senior year, when the opportunity to take a job organizing events for the University president came up, Pryor decided to step away from rowing. After graduating in 2013, she went on to earn her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs and then worked in a series of roles on campus.

Then came a one-two punch in 2017, just as her career was advancing.

Pryor was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease—an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid—at the same time that her mentor and supervisor was passing away from another autoimmune disorder. “I got to see firsthand what can happen in health care for Black women. When she passed away, I made a promise to myself that I was going to fight like hell.”

In order to prioritize her health—and help others do likewise—Pryor returned to rowing and took a position as the director of the Ohio State women’s rowing team in 2018. She also earned her group fitness certification so she could teach fitness classes at a local gym. There, she said, the positive feedback from students who appreciated seeing an instructor who looked like them fueled her ambition. “I was like, ‘Oh, I deserve to be here,’ and that helped me continue to keep growing.”

After formally stepping back into the fitness world, Pryor also started cycling with Peloton at the encouragement of her brother. Along with the bike offerings, she began to sample their tread and strength classes. Soon, she developed a connection with the platform.

Inspired by one particular run, Pryor slid into the DMs of Robin Arzón, Peloton’s head instructor and VP of fitness. “I DM’ed her and said ‘Thank you for this run,’ and at the end I said, ‘PS: I’m a rowing coach and a fitness instructor, so if you ever make a rower, I’m your girl. I just need one shot,’” Pryor says. Arzón—who has one million Instagram followers—never saw that note, but four months later, a Peloton recruiter separately messaged Pryor to discuss the possibility of joining the instructor team.

“I took a picture of myself with the Peloton ‘P’ on my chest and put it on my vision board,” she says. “I looked at that picture every day and was like, ‘I’m training for this job.’” After several interviews and auditions, Pryor got the gig.

Navigating the noise and claiming her space

Even before coming onboard at Peloton, Pryor says she mentally prepared herself for some criticism from those who still subscribe to the myth that athleticism is tied to one specific—meaning, thin—aesthetic.

“When you’re different or you’re the first doing something, you are cognizant that things are going to happen,” she says, referring to the negative comments.

But she hadn’t expected the level of vitriol from online trolls that surfaced once Peloton announced her debut. “I was more so taken aback by how nasty the comments were—I’ve never not liked something on social media and taken the time to write a nasty comment,” she says. “I was bracing myself, but I was also, like, ‘I’m showing up.’” In addition to outright hateful comments, Pryor also received unexpected, unsolicited labels—like, for example, “Peloton’s new plus-size instructor”—that have prompted her to consider her physical identity in a new way as a public figure.

“There’s been a lot with me trying to figure out the language and what I want to accept and where I want to be,” she says. “I think there’s an essence of trying to reclaim the power of what the word ‘fat’ means, but that also means recognizing if someone does not utilize that word—you don’t just call them that.”

Pryor is speaking to a bigger issue in the ever-evolving world of body diversity and acceptance. Though some individuals find it empowering to destigmatize historically loaded terms like “fat” or “plus-size,” employing those labels is a personal decision. Throwing them on another person may be offensive, misleading, and just plain inaccurate, ultimately detracting from the real fight for body inclusivity and identity. “You might be trying to reclaim that word, but you don’t know where someone else is,” Pryor says. “I’m not a plus-size—I don’t wear plus size clothes. So how do I represent being an in-betweener, but also leaving space for someone who truly is a plus-size person to occupy that space and share that lived experience?”

As she navigates those decisions, Pryor says the overwhelming amount of support she’s received online has made it that much easier to tune out the hateful noise. “It’s been amazing. The amount of people from 21-years-old to 65-years-old, from all body shapes, who have finally felt comfortable saying, ‘Fuck it, I deserve to love my body and love who I am,’” she says.

Finding freedom and moving forward

Though Pryor acknowledges that she’s inspired others to speak out about fat-shaming and work toward their own body acceptance, she also admits that self-love hasn’t always been easy. In fact, she says, she continues to work on her own body acceptance practice, which includes naming her stomach (“I call her Tina—it makes her a part of me and she has a story,”) as well as reciting daily affirmations in the mirror.

“You have to get to a stage where you can accept who you are,” she says. “Every year, I come up with a word that guides me, and my word for [age] 31 is ‘freedom.’ That means not using workouts as a punishment and not not eating a cupcake because I don’t want someone to be like, ‘See, this is why she looks like that.’ I feel the most beautiful, strong, and confident I’ve felt my entire life.”

But, in spite of all the body acceptance strategies Pryor advocates for in individuals, she believes the fitness industry as a whole has a long way to go to being more inclusive.

Inspired by her collegiate experience, Pryor launched the non-profit Relentless Rowing Academy, dedicated to offering BIPOC and para-athletes education, financial support, and mentorship to excel in rowing. Now, in her role at Peloton, she’s expanding that commitment to accessibility by promoting fitness for all bodies. “We have to shift to understanding that people are allowed to want to work out and it has nothing to do with aesthetics,” she says. “Not everybody wants to have a six-pack, and I think people can’t fathom that. Fatphobia has a lot to do with crossing gender and racial lines, and those are conversations we have to be willing to have—we’ve made some strides as a society but we have a lot to do.”

Despite the long road ahead, Pryor says she is heartened by Peloton’s commitment to body diversity and the overwhelmingly positive support she’s received, which she says has far outshone any negativity.

One recent experience in particular stuck with her, and she calls upon the memory when she needs extra encouragement. She was speaking at the school of her brother, a seventh grade teacher, when a girl came up to her. “She said ‘The kids were calling me Lizzo, and I didn’t understand—but then I googled her. I recognized what they were trying to say to me. But Lizzo is beautiful, and she’s strong, and she’s smart, and she owns a lot of businesses. So now I feel very complimented. So thank you for coming here because it lets me know that I can accomplish things,’” Pryor says. “It was like the ghost of my middle school self, but with the confidence I have at 31 looking me in the face and saying, ‘Keep going.’”