An Interview with Christina Cabrales, Co-Owner of Body & Gender Affirming Gym, Liberation Barbell

After transcribing Christina Cabrales’ interview, what stood out to me the most was her ability to recognize and overcome her fears. This coupled with the desire to follow her own truth is at the heart of Liberation Barbell, a Portland, Oregon gym she is opening with her business partner, Lacy, in a few short months.

Self-described as “A body & gender affirming gym in Portland, OR. Queer, feminist, and Latina owned and operated,” their mission statement is unique in its inclusive nature and decidedly positive message.

Liberation Barbell’s Mission:

Much of the fitness industry tells us that our bodies are never enough – or more commonly – that they are too much. Liberation Barbell calls bullshit on that! We believe in lifting in a positive, explicitly feminist fitness community as a tool of empowerment, and refuse to motivate fitness through body-hate.

Liberation Barbell is a celebration of diversity, body and fat positivity, empowerment and strength over looks. We are founded on the idea that physical fitness should be accessible to any body regardless of age, race, ability, gender identity, sexuality, current health, or size. We use barbells, kettlebells, and free weights as tools to strengthen our minds and our connection to ourselves and each other.

Liberation Barbell believes in total liberation! This means we approach fitness through a lens of anti-oppression and with an aim to always grow and better serve the various communities that thrive in our space.  

First, I love your approach to fitness. I’m curious, how did you and Lacy meet, and how did this journey begin?

Lacy and I have very different fitness stories.

Lacy’s bio (source: liberationbarbell.com)

Growing up, I was an indoor-kid. I wasn’t into physical activity at all and was much more comfortable reading books in my room than breaking a sweat on the playing field. I felt awkward in my body and school gym classes were a complete nightmare that I made up every excuse possible to not have to participate in. In my 20’s I developed a myriad of eating disorders, coupled with compulsive cardio addiction and body dysmorphia. I had a truly obsessive urge to shrink myself, and even when I knew my habits were so, so wrong, I didn’t manage to actually change them until I found myself behind the barbell.

The day I started to lift was the first step in my journey to actual, real wellness. With EVERY step into my gym, I moved forward. I stopped restricting my food. I stopped binging. I stopped purging. I started taking rest days from exercise. I started to believe I didn’t need to be thin to be special or valuable.

Unlike Lacy, I was a kid who grew up playing sports year round. As an adult post-college, I struggled to find an activity that I felt passionate about.I tried a lot of different things, and in 2012 I started doing Crossfit. The gym had an onboarding class that you’re supposed to attend for three or four weeks, until you cycle into the main classes. I stayed in there for a really long time because entering the main classes was was scary to me. Everyone seemed younger than me, and more fit than me, and smaller than me. So, I stayed in this group of “newbies” until I made friends with a woman who was also scared. We decided to go together, and I finally began going to the mainstream Crossfit classes!

So how long have you been lifting now?

Crossfit was in 2012, and then I took a break. I started working out with Lacy in December of last year. I’d read about her in Portland Monthly. They’d done a writeup about her, and I was intrigued. It took me a while to reach out to her, as these things do. There are issues of momentum and inertia…

When we started working together, the coaching was so much fun. With Lacy, it was the first time that I’d ever heard of the message surrounding body positive training. We weren’t talking about diets or weight loss, we were talking about being in touch with the body you have right here and now, and how to get comfortable with that. I’d been a member of several big “globo” gyms before. When I started working out with Lacy, I realized that I never committed to the other gyms long term because it was a really uncomfortable environment for me.

I asked Lacy if she’d do a “friend’s workout” for me and the people that I loved the most. It was a class just for us. These were the people that I was comfortable with, and who wanted to try something different. She began coaching this small group of us every Monday night, and it just felt like me and my buddies sweating together and having fun. It recreated a community feel that could keep us accountable and showing up each week.

Is that how you two decided to open up Liberation Barbell?

Not exactly. A year ago I got laid off from my job. I took some time to get intentional about what I wanted to do next, so I could find something that I felt really passionate about. Lacy had been a coach for several years at that point, and she was hosting a podcast called Rise and Resist. She mentioned on her show that she wanted to open a gym, and that she needed to find a business partner since she couldn’t do it on her own. I heard that and thought, “Well that’s sweet, I wonder who she’ll find!”

At the time, I was going hiking about once a week with my dog. For me, when I’m out hiking, it’s when things get quiet and all the chatter in my head slows down. It’s then that I can really hear the truth. It’s where I find the most peace.

I was out on this one particular hike, about a month or two after I heard Lacy say that on her podcast. Out of nowhere, a thought came screaming into my head: What if I could be her business partner? Then, I got the nerves that you get when you ping on something that feels so scary that you know it’s the right thing to do.

So, I mustered all of my courage. I went to that Monday night friend’s class. After the workout was over, and people were kind of milling about and drifting away, I walked up to Lacy and I said: “I need to ask you something, but it really, really scares me. So, I’m going to ask you, and then I’m going to RUN, because I’m not ready to talk about it, ok?” So I’m all sweaty and I just asked, “What if I wanted to be your business partner?” And I bolted out of the gym.

I showed up Wednesday morning for my one-on-one training session, and she said, “What the hell? Are you serious? Are you joking? I couldn’t tell!” I told her I was serious, but it really scared me. So, she suggested we sit down and have an adult conversation about it. We ended up deciding to meet on a weekly basis to discuss all of the visioning and planning items that we could think of. This way we could start, and see how we worked together.

We got through that process, and Lacy looked at me and said, “We’re gonna do this, aren’t we?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re gonna do this.” And the rest is history.

What I’m curious about is two things. One, when you were on this particularly revelatory hike and you were experiencing your “truth,” what did you think about in that moment? Two, what clicked with you, when you realized that this was maybe what you were meant to do, versus something you just wanted to do?

There was a lot of stuff that came up. The fear came from the narrative that I had in my head my whole life. That narrative wasn’t even apparent until I got into this whole process. The minute that I thought about working in the fitness industry, the stories started: You don’t look like a fitness person. You are not the right size to be a fitness person. You don’t have the credentials to be a fitness person.

I’m kind of short. I’m built like a linebacker. I don’t see me when I go into a gym. The way Lacy was building her private practice was around exactly that feeling. She didn’t feel like she was represented in the fitness industry, either.

When that narrative came up; I realized: I can do this. I’m doing it right now, because I have always been an active person. For me, that gut feeling of terror means that I can’t ignore an idea. It might fail, but I have to explore it. That fear of standing in front of Lacy saying, “Hey. Can I do this with you?”, knowing that she may say no, was real. I pushed through the fear of asking, but that’s why I had to run out of the room after, because I wasn’t ready to hear the answer right away! I needed to have THAT moment, and then give it space.

Step by step! The asking is the hardest part. Then if you get a yes, you run with it, which is what you did.

Well my next question was going to be asking your thoughts on how the fitness industry can better promote gender fluidity, but now I’m hearing you say you really felt underrepresented in multiple capacities.

Yes, and I’ve swam, played tennis, played basketball, played rugby, done rock climbing, bicycling, really all of the things. I come into this world from my own personal experience. Lacy does the same. Everyone does that. So, Liberation Barbell is trying to promote inclusivity. We don’t want to do this and be the only people doing this! We want lightbulbs to go off elsewhere, and have it happen elsewhere. It should be bigger than just us. We are planting a seed, and nurturing it, and now we want to let it grow.

We’re interviewing for staff positions. In every one of those conversations we talk to people about our vision, our mission, the type of clients we are going to attract. It’s important that not only do we remain teachable, but that everyone using that space to work remains teachable. We want to use people’s correct pronouns, and be respectful of every individual that walks through our door. We are creating a space where someone can feel comfortable saying, “Oh, that’s not the right pronoun,” or, “I actually prefer this,” or, “This makes me uncomfortable.” We want people to be able to say those things, so we can foster a space that builds more and more and more of that!

Some barbell curls for those moments when you need to feel just a little more like Magic Mike.

A post shared by Liberation Barbell (@liberationbarbell) on

That’s wonderful. On the fitness end of things, tell me more about your gym’s technique and training philosophy?

I think about the friend’s group that I started doing this with. Lifting heavy, or taking one of Lacy’s classes, wasn’t anything they’d ever done before! We were only around 6 people, and I was the person that was the most comfortable half of the time! I want that on a bigger scale.

Going through that process, I realized, if we could recreate that for people, if people had a moment of faith to walk through the door, then there’s an opportunity there to have an experience unlike anything you’ve had before.

You’re going to come in for one hour, someone is going to tell you exactly what to do, and someone will be there coaching you. There will be someone to correct your form, and class sizes will be small. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. We want this to be fun. We want this to have longevity for people, because that’s what we want for ourselves. In order to keep class size small, there’s a cost to that.

We’re getting contacted daily from people that really want to come to the gym, but that can’t afford our membership. We hear that. But if we want this to be here for the people, we have to be able to cover expenses. After that, we are incredibly invested in finding ways to make this accessible. It’s not going to be perfect out of the gates. It’s a journey, and it’s a process, and we’re going to grow. We are committed to a future where we can make this more accessible.

I think you may run into that issue no matter what you charge. One of my big goals with the WSC is to offer pro bono training to those suffering from eating disorders, or who come from a place of physical or mental abuse and want to get strong. These things don’t happen immediately, we do need funding eventually. Like you said, you have to plant the seeds and nurture the seeds and help them grow.

It’s important for people to know that you are working on this, and that you’re not simply turning a blind eye to the fact that fitness is very expensive. I practically can’t afford a gym membership, and I’m a trainer. Something is broken.

That’s something we’re definitely talking about, as well. We’d like to be able to do scholarships for those who can’t afford our gym in the future. The list is really endless for ways that we can go about this, and we want everyone to know we are exploring all of those ways.

Follow: 

Instagram: @LiberationBarbell

Facebook: @LiberationBarbell

womensstrengthcoalition

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: