Fitness isn’t something Asian parents always understand (especially if they’re immigrants) due to cultural differences. But luckily for Jennifer Lau, that wasn’t the case with her parents.
“I was always an athlete growing up,” said Lau, who is the principal owner of Toronto gym Fit Squad. “My mom is Canadian-born, so I think that kind of helped her [understand my passion for fitness]. My dad was not born here. So because [my mom] was involved in sports — she played tennis — she could understand the importance of sport and why my brother and I wanted to play.”
Lau’s mom was adamant about enrolling her and her brother in piano and swimming lessons when they were kids. That eventually led Lau to become a lifeguard as a teen. She also played sports throughout high school, which fostered her love of fitness and exercise into adulthood.
Today, Lau has been a leader in Toronto’s fitness space for the past 12 years, which is incredible considering she had no Asian role models or mentors to turn to when she entered the industry. “Everyone was a blond ponytail,” she said, laughing.
On top of being the owner of Fit Squad, she’s also a holistic nutritionist, one of two Nike Master Trainers for Canada (and the only female!), and the co-founder of The Real Toronto, a community that empowers and connects women in Toronto’s health and fitness space. Additionally, when the pandemic hit and lockdowns threatened the wellness industry, Lau formed and championed the Save Health and Wellness Coalition to help the industry survive.
Lau’s journey in fitness has been full of important lessons and experiences. Below, the fitness trainer opens up to The RepresentASIAN Project about overcoming her insecurities as a Chinese female gym owner and how she’s creating space for diversity in fitness.
On following her passion despite the worries of her Asian parents
I originally went to the University of Toronto for business like a good Asian daughter would. Then I dropped out halfway through the program. At that point I realized this was not what I wanted to do. I took a year off school and I’m sure my parents were quite disappointed and very nervous about where their daughter was going to go with this. I knew I wanted to do something creative and [business] just didn’t fill my bucket, so I went to George Brown for design and graduated at the top of my class. I worked in the industry for a couple of years, but even that transition was kind of like, “Are you going to be a seamstress and just hem pants for the rest of your life? This is not a career choice.”
But when I did work in fashion, I was on the corporate side, so I was working for companies like Jones New York, Penguin and Kenneth Cole — brands that [my parents] could understand and could see as a career. I was then laid off with the majority of the industry during the recession, and at that point I took some time to think about what I wanted to do. Fitness was always something that was in the background so when I started filling my time, I taught bootcamps and that kind of became more of a full-time gig.
I’ve been in fitness for 12 years now, so it’s been a long time, but even up until recently, [my parents] were still kind of like, “Are you sure you want to do this full-time? Can you really have a lasting and successful career in it?” It’s just funny because before this my parents definitely thought, “Oh, she’s just going to teach aerobics classes.” But I think opening the gym and seeing me in meetings and stuff, they’re like, “OK this is something that’s stable and she’s good at it and can be successful.” But it was really hard for them to understand that.
I definitely wasn’t intending to ruffle anyone’s feathers [by choosing an unconventional career]. It was really just following my passions and where I felt I needed to be and what made me happy.
On the challenges of embracing her identity as an Asian female gym owner
I like to tell my origin story because I don’t think I realized it was happening at the time, but looking back, [it] was actually pretty tough.
A friend of mine had originally owned Fit Squad with her partner. She’s Australian, he’s German and he was an ex-militant. So if you can imagine a huge Mr. Clean looking guy — muscular, shaved head, very strong, dominating presence.
When I took over, I had quite a hard time. It probably took me about a year before I changed the branding or let people know that it was actually me as the owner. I left all of his images and photographs up and left all the branding as is because I really felt like if our clients and the public knew that I was the one running the business, no one would take me seriously. And this was almost 10 years ago. I did not see any successful Asian female fitness trainers in the space that I could look to, or felt comfortable showing up the same way. So it took me over a year before I was able to do that with a lot of encouragement from my support system, but it was really scary. I [felt like I was] going to lose clients, but at the same time, I could not authentically promote the business. I used to sign [emails with] “the team” or “us.” I would pretend it wasn’t me; I would pretend it was still the same. I just really did not have the confidence to show up as me at the beginning.
On how feeling like an outcast as an Asian fitness model inspired her to create The Real Toronto
In the first few years that I was in fitness, I also kind of dabbled in fitness modelling. My agent at the time said, “Your looks are either going to work for you or against you.” She was very upfront about that because I didn’t fit into [a traditional box]. If they were casting for an Asian female in a specific role, I didn’t necessarily fall into that because I’m a little bit darker, I’m taller, I’m bigger. I think now, maybe, I would be able to land a few more gigs, but before I wasn’t small enough and I didn’t fit the stereotypical role. That was definitely challenging and I eventually stepped away from that.
“I didn’t really see anyone in the space that I could look up to or feel like, ‘Oh that person’s here, so I belong here.. So that’s why we created The Real Toronto…where we bring together diverse women in the fitness industry so we can show other people that you do belong here because there’s other people in the space doing what you want to do or doing what you are doing. Being able to see yourself is huge.”
It definitely impacted my self-esteem. I’m neither here nor there. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t really see anyone in the space that I could look up to or feel like, “Oh that person’s here, so I belong here.” So that’s why we created The Real Toronto, for example, where we bring together diverse women in the fitness industry so we can show other people that you do belong here because there’s other people in the space doing what you want to do or doing what you are doing. Being able to see yourself is huge.
On the oversexualization of Asian women in fitness
Unfortunately, sometimes people who fetishize Asian women now expect them to be super sexy [in fitness]. That’s not my brand. I just want to be strong. [Being sexy] is just not me and I’m not comfortable doing that. But there are women who do it well, but that doesn’t mean you have to do that in order to be accepted as a strong, Asian female.
I feel like it’s a really important [point] because there’s this oversexualization in the fitness industry and it’s kind of like this double-sided sword. I’ve spoken to young trainers coming up, who are Asian, [who ask], “How do I be taken seriously? I know I’m getting the attention and the likes on Instagram because I’m being very sexy about fitness, but I want to work with more corporate brands.” So you have to decide, what is your brand? What do you authentically feel comfortable being represented as? You’re going to have to understand that certain brands will come to you because of the brand that you put out. So if you’re comfortable with it, just authentically be you. That’s the most important thing at the end of the day.
On the importance of making space for diversity and empowering women in fitness
I feel like [the fitness industry] is so diverse now, especially in the last couple of years. When my friend Jela [Tubei] and I started The Real Toronto, we called it The Real Toronto because we felt like this was the real representation of what Toronto’s fitness industry was, which is diversity. What we were seeing with what brands and corporations were putting forward was not a true representation of what we saw. Since then, there’s definitely been better representation of what the space is now and there definitely is an emphasis and an opportunity now to highlight these amazing women, not just because they’re diverse, but because they exist. We are here.
For me, my thing is really about empowering women to feel like they can be strong and confident in their gym space. Personally, I wasn’t being taken seriously when I went to go train, when I wanted to go work in the weightroom. The expectation is the cardio machines are over here so the women stay over here, and the men are the ones who dominate the weight training floor. But there was no reason why I should feel like I didn’t belong over [in the weight training area]. So I know through my personal experiences that I wanted to be able to help women feel less intimidated and just as confident and empowered by being strong and knowledgeable with strength training.
On how Asian culture is creating barriers for women in fitness
I think specifically for our [Asian] culture, [fitness] is not something that’s understood so therefore it’s not really accepted that women should be strength training and that sort of thing. I think we need to break those boundaries because health and wellness is so important for [everything], even our mental health, so it’s something we definitely have to work to make a little more acceptable culturally.
On advice for Asian women who are nervous to try something new at the gym
Don’t be scared. Everyone’s had a day one at some point. I think the easiest thing would be to either reach out to someone you’ve seen doing what you know you want to be doing and then asking for professional advice. If you’re new to training and you’re going come into a space where you’re going to potentially hurt yourself (this is true for anyone), maybe commit to a couple sessions with a personal trainer just so you can build that confidence to know your form is correct, so you’re the most efficient and safe at the gym and you know you’re really getting the most out of your training.