Sarah Taylor is a 35-year-old personal trainer, plus size model, and former Miss Plus Canada pageant winner. After a difficult journey through an abusive marriage, self-hatred, and sadness, she’s learned a thing or two about fostering a healthy relationship with her body and finding self-love. Now, the Toronto-based model and fitness guru shares her story as a motivational speaker in an effort to inspire other women and runs a body-positive studio called Fitness by Sarah Taylor, where she helps women take the intimidation out of the gym by creating workouts that build their strength and confidence.
Here, she we discuss her inspiring story, her career path, and her offers advice on finding self-love and confidence.
What was your education/career path prior to going into modelling, pageantry, and fitness?
Prior to all this, life was very different. I have a degree in marketing and worked for a software company doing online fundraising strategies for some of North America’s largest charities. I also volunteered several hours a week at a maternity home that took in pregnant homeless women.
Now, you motivate others by sharing your story of surviving an abusive marriage and self-hatred. What was the situation like before you knew things needed to change, and how did this moment of knowing things needed to change look like for you?
My moment of awakening happened about a week before my two-year wedding anniversary. The wedding that really should have never happened – every single person in my life asked if I was really sure I wanted to marry this guy because he was very controlling and emotionally abusive, and what they didn’t know was that he was sexually abusive too. I thought getting married would make it better but it only made it worse. My last straw was when I found out he was still trying to get with more women, and about two weeks later, I finally realized I couldn’t live another day in that pain – the pain of feeling like I wasn’t enough, like I wasn’t worthy, or beautiful, or really a woman. While my ex-husband was at work that day, I wrote out all the things I was feeling and when he came home I made him his last meal and with trembling hands I read it to him and told him that we either fix this or I am done because I couldn’t handle any more of this pain. And so, he decided to leave, and I helped him pack.
Tell us about your path to self-love, specifically in terms of what sort of tools or tactics helped you that you could point us to?
The day after my ex-husband left, I basically shut down for three months and then I lost my job because the company I worked for went bankrupt. I had all this free time to just work on me. I started reading a lot of books (self-help books, really), and started journaling – just getting all the crap that was inside out on paper. I also was encouraged to start reading affirmations, which I read out loud every day for six months until I finally actually believed them. Those were two of my biggest tools.
I’ve identified 12 pretty significant ones in total that I have called my 12 Pillars of Self-love and Confidence and that is what I walk my clients through at my gym in my six-week challenge. It also includes seeing your beauty in the mirror, connecting your body to your confidence and building boundaries.
What words of encouragement can you offer to others who are in a similarly difficult position?
Freedom and joy comes from looking in and healing. When you can learn to love the amazing woman you are, that’s when you see change in life – you start seeing your value and worth, which makes you respond differently in every area of your life. It takes work but it is worth every ounce of effort because when the day comes that you can look in the mirror and truly love the reflection looking back at you, you realize your life will never be the same again. Take the time to heal if you need healing, learn to use your voice with those around you but also yourself – what do you want out of life, what do you want it to look like? Start making small changes to help you get there and if you don’t know how, seek help from someone who does. There is no shame in asking for help; it’s actually a huge sign of growth and strength.
What did you learn during your experience as a pageant queen?
I learned to dream big and to get outside of my comfort zone. I also learned how to runway walk, pose, and most importantly, it’s where I found my voice. I was the only woman in the pageant who had never modelled, I was covered in tattoos and had no idea what I was doing, but I jumped in, and I almost jumped out when I found out I had to do a talent show… Until I realized what I had was my story, and so I did a spoken word on my story. When I shared it during rehearsal I fell to the ground sobbing and was surrounded by my pageant sisters, and they were sobbing just as hard as I was and it was in that moment that I realized all the hard stuff I went through (and overcame) was actually what gave me my purpose and I knew life would never be the same again. I didn’t get through what I got through to sit down and keep my mouth shut, but rather to learn how to heal for myself and for other women.
What do you love about being a plus-size model?
I mean, what’s not to love? You get to do your hair and make-up and be girly! In actuality, that’s not the reason. The thing I love about being a plus-size model is that it’s an opportunity to inspire other women to love their own bodies. I get messages from women all the time about the impact of seeing me live life, or wearing this or that, and it just makes my day. I always said that modelling was, yes, a childhood dream come true, but it was a platform to do something greater – to inspire women.
What inspired you to launch your own fitness studio?
First of all, if you told me five years ago that I would open a fitness studio I would have laughed at you… but being Miss Plus Canada and a plus-size model was always a platform for something greater and being on that journey helped me discover it. Fitness has always been a part of my life and it actually was a very big factor in feeling better physically during all my inner healing. If I didn’t start working out when I did (just before my divorce) I likely would have had a complete mental breakdown. For me, fitness is a body, mind, and soul approach, and opening my own studio allows me to help other women learn the things I learned and make a larger impact on women to truly help them build their confidence and strength – both in and out of the gym.
How would you describe your fitness approach?
My fitness approach is unlike any other, and I can say that confidently. I offer group fitness classes just for women. Most of my clients are plus-size like me and have been intimidated to go into the gym but are looking to build their confidence and strength. I don’t just teach fitness classes though. I work with women on practical ways to build their confidence and strength. One of the ways I do that is my signature six-week program that I offer in studio as well as online, and each week they get a self-love and coaching video with practical tips they can apply to their life to help them on their journey to self-love and ultimately build their confidence and strength. I also offer modifications for all exercises so they don’t have to ask for them and associate any shame with it (whether because of their fitness level or injury) and I provide a little more rest between exercises than most bootcamp classes.
Why was it important to you to cater exclusively to women?
It is important to me because we focus on inner healing as well as fitness. Most women who are intimidated by the gym are intimidated because there are men around. A lot of women have also been hurt by men and I really wanted a safe space to foster healing and growth. This takes one more thing out of being nervous about the gym out of the equation.
You’ve said that your two words are “confidence” and “strength.” Tell us a bit about this.
As I’m sure you’ve seen throughout this interview I’ve said it a lot. They are the foundation of what I do when it comes to fitness as well as in life. So many women lack confidence at the gym – whether it’s because they don’t know how to do things, or because they don’t want people to see their bodies, and it’s also the thing they lack in everyday life to live the lives they want. I help them build this in conjunction with making them strong physically and emotionally. I really feel that these two attributes are foundational to women truly living their best lives.
How do you see the current state of the fashion and beauty industry, in terms of beauty standards?
I think we’ve come a long way, but we still have so far to go. We are seeing ‘curvier’ bodies in media, but they still aren’t as prevalent as non-curvier bodies and most of those representing a curvier, or plus-size, women typically have a similar hourglass shape, which is showing that that’s where media and the world still places value on a woman (or man’s body). We should be able to see billboards with all different shapes, sizes, races, genders, etc. Imagine being able to look at what we see in media (magazines, TV, movies, billboards, etc.) and seeing someone who looks like you? I sure didn’t grow up seeing that and I still don’t see enough of it.
What are some tangible ways we can work towards expanding the narrow beauty template that continues to prevail?
If we started celebrating each other’s unique traits, beauty, personalities, etc., it would have a really big impact, as opposed to judging how someone looks. Each person is a whole package, each person is beautiful, and if we started seeing the beauty rather than pointing out what society deems as ‘unpretty’ the world would be very different. Another tangible way to expand the narrow beauty template is by supporting brands, small businesses, and campaigns that are showcasing diversity, and that are promoting beauty beyond the ‘typical’ standard of beauty. There are so many businesses that are trying to change the conversation and when you’re a ‘small fish,’ it’s harder to move the needle without the support.
What are your fashion and beauty essentials?
My essentials have certainly changed since becoming a trainer and owning a gym – I live in fitness gear. I love GRRRL Clothing. You’ll usually see me in their workout tights, and they are super inclusive and are doing a lot to help women and young girls redefine what society says about them. My go-to high-impact sports bra is SheFIT. This is something essential to my workouts, haha! In terms of footwear, I have switched from heels on the regular to really cool sneakers for my outfits. I credit my boyfriend for that. And when I need a new dress or a cute outfit, I often head to my fave boutique SexyPlus Clothing in Mississauga – they also have an online store. And you’ll also see me wearing some fast fashion from FashionNova, Curve, and Forever21
What are your tips on fostering a better relationship with your body?
People often think that how you change your relationship with your body is by changing your body – usually, they think losing weight will fix everything. It won’t. When I was 21, I lost 80 pounds in six months… I was doing three hours of cardio six days a week and threw up after every workout. And at my lowest weight…I still hated myself. The biggest thing to do is to re-record the negative tape that plays in your head about yourself. I did that with affirmations. It’s almost like you have to rewire what you think about yourself so that you start to naturally see yourself in a positive light, and then going beyond that to actually seeing your beauty – but it all starts on the inside.
You’ve emphasized the importance of posture and walking with confidence in our bodies. How can we develop this?
When you walk anywhere (runway or not), carry your head high (don’t look at your feet while you walk), walk with your shoulders back and down, and with a smile on your face. It’s really hard to not feel good about yourself in a power pose like this. I often have clients do an exercise at home… I tell them to watch some plus-size runway shows and see how women walk on the runway. Then, when they’re ready (sometimes it might take watching for a couple weeks), put on an outfit you feel fierce in, find a mirror in your house, put on some good music (I typically did this to Beyoncé, but Lizzo or Missy Elliot are two more great options) and start runway walking in your living room (or hallway or bedroom or wherever you have the space). This is how I used to spend Friday nights when I lived alone. When you can practice in your own safe space, you start feeling a certain way about yourself…from there, you start walking with the same confidence out in the world.
What are some easy exercises that readers can try from home right now to inspire them to get started?
If we are talking self-love and confidence, some of the things I recommended here already like affirmations, journalling, runway walking, looking in the mirror and pointing out the good you see, and focusing on what you do like are good starters.
If we are talking fitness – just get moving. Find something you enjoy doing. So if that’s walking, walk. Try doing a workout video at home. Go to a Zumba class or even try one of my classes. If you’re in the Toronto area, I always offer your first class on me (that’s right …FREE).