Dancing and playing soccer for the majority of her life, Kat Novoa once saw movement solely from a weight-loss and sports perspective. Growing up during the 1990s in South Central Los Angeles was made difficult not only by having to navigate life between two divorced parents, but also by being the smallest among the thick and curvy women in her Latino family.
“I was shamed a lot for being so skinny and always being petite and never eating enough and not having enough tortillas,” Novoa said. “That really took a toll on my mental health. At the time, I would just hold it in and that was really tough for me as a kid because I just wanted to do well. I wanted to excel without people having an opinion about my body.”
Wanting to gain weight rather than lose it, Novoa ventured into Crossfit and strength training in her late 20s, but it took a little while to reach her goals. She experienced multiple personal trainers who didn’t quite understand her goals and left her to look elsewhere because they couldn’t coach her through it.
“Trainers would say, ‘Well, you can just eat whatever you want, and you’ll be fine.’ That led to having a bit of an eating disorder because I didn’t know how to regulate myself. Everyone just told me that I was that skinny, annoying person that could eat a whole pizza and not gain weight, but I didn’t feel good. And my mental health was not OK,” Novoa said.
It wasn’t until Novoa discovered therapy and meditation that she began to both understand the shame that she held about her own body and developed a healthier, more mindful and more gracious relationship with between her body and physical movement.
In addition to being a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and certified Olympic weightlifting coach, Novoa is also a domestic violence advocate. Witnessing domestic violence, which, according to Esperanza United, affects about 1 in 3 Latinas (34.4%) in their lifetime, during her childhood, Novoa shared a blog post about her own experience in 2017. Soon after, she received an overwhelming amount of feedback from survivors and invitations from different shelters in Orange County, LA and Long Beach to speak and share her story.
“I felt that we needed to, again, start having these conversations because, if we don’t have the conversation, nothing’s going to happen, and domestic violence is going to continue,” Novoa said. “The cycle of violence will continue to repeat and people will not know that there is access to resources. And for some of my own family members, if there was conversation around this topic, around having resources and bridging the gap between their situation and what freedom can possibly look like, maybe their situation would’ve looked a lot different.”
In addition to sharing her own experience with domestic violence, Novoa also provided her services in teaching mindfulness to survivors and teaching them how to move their bodies. Seeing how much of an impact her support, vulnerability and services had on these women’s lives not only made Novoa a lifelong advocate but also depicted how critical a sanctuary for them and women like them would be.
In 2018, Novoa founded Babes of Wellness, the first-ever queer, Latina-owned, all-women’s queer-inclusive wellness gym and sanctuary. A safe space for women and queer individuals, the gym allows members to cultivate and establish healthy relationships with movement and wellness through the community and services it offers.
“Our emphasis is really helping to teach folks how to move their bodies because they love them, not because they hate them,” Novoa said.
Now located in Compton, California, Babes of Wellness’ first home was Novoa’s garage. Beginning the gym as a mobile trainer, Novoa drove from LA to Long Beach to East LA to Arcadia to train friends and family when, one day, LA’s unpredictable weather changed everything. Novoa was training a client in a park when it started to rain and realized that there was no physical space where they could continue.
“That moment was such a pivotal moment for me and Babes of Wellness because I saw a vision of how it is now,” Novoa said. “I was able to control the environment and really cater the experience to what that client at the time needed and it was one of our most powerful sessions, where she had an insane breakthrough. I said, ‘Okay, I need to clean up this garage now and fix it up and create this whole environment that feels safe and welcoming, that smells good, that’s full of life and plants.’”
After almost two years of cultivating a safe space, Babes of Wellness went virtual when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Although completely knocking life off its axis, the world’s pause caused the wellness sanctuary’s reach to expand exponentially. With her self-love challenges garnering 200 sign-ups within less than three hours, Novoa couldn’t believe the abundant engagement.
“I was training people from Puerto Rico, Florida, just everywhere. It was insane how much people were really searching for that connection and for obvious reasons, like physical well-being, but also [for] their mental health,” Novoa said.
The pandemic, while good for business, also opened Novoa’s eyes to how it horribly hurt the communities of Compton and South LA. With only one gym in the city and a lack of access to health and wellness resources leaving the community vulnerable, it seemed like the most critical location for Babes of Wellness to find a home.
“This is where [Babes of Wellness] needs to be because, God forbid, there happens to be another pandemic, I don’t want my community to be at a disadvantage,” Novoa said. “So, how do we work prior to another pandemic happening and approach it from a preventative lens and teach people, especially women, because women are the pillars of the home? How to really change and break the cycle of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and mental health as well.”
While still training clients virtually in order to make money, once she felt they were comfortable meeting in person, Babes of Wellness officially opened its physical safe haven to the community in August 2021. The wellness sanctuary has grown from four barbells and 20 members to over 2,000 active members.
Becoming a member of the gym looks different for everyone, with their offered personal training, a variety of group sessions and different membership tiers. Membership tiers begin with $22 a class for 10 classes per month, $14 a class for 20 classes per month, a VIP Unlimited Membership, $149 for a first-month intro offer, a five-class introduction offer, a drop-in with no membership, and a New Year’s unlimited six-month plan that can be found when you go to book a session.
With three personal trainers on staff, Babes of Wellness’s personal training is designed to personally adhere to the needs of each individual looking to reach their desired lifestyle. If interested, potential clients can apply by filling out a form that asks not only about their physical goals but also their mental, emotional and spiritual goals.
And, in a society and industry that places such a high value on women’s physical appearances over mental health or spirituality, Novoa made it her mission to break free from toxic fitness culture, the belief that pushing yourself to work out is more important than listening to your body. She also makes sure to check in with her members to make sure they’re still comfortable with their experience and if there’s anything they want to talk about or alter.
“We ask them, ‘How are you feeling? How’s your energy? Are you sleeping better? Does your anxiety still feel as intense? Are you showing up for work differently? How are your relationships?’ Your confidence, how you show up for yourself, how you engage with other people and what you believe you deserve [are going to change]. Our main focus is helping women and folks transform their lives and change the way they see themselves to then, in turn, change the way they see others and how they show up in those relationships.”
Being made a priority for more than their bodies is a different experience from other gyms, and the difference isn’t lost on Babes of Wellness members. Susana Marquez, 42, has known Novoa for six years and has been a gym member for five. As a marriage and family therapist, mental health is a very important aspect of Marquez’s life, making the emphasis on it during personal training a bonus to an already satisfying workout.
“I love that Kat incorporates that because it’s four important pillars: physical, mental, emotional and then spiritual,” Marquez said. “When we end my workouts, and I’m stretching, she’ll put on some soft meditation and then does affirmation cards with me, and that’s where I really feel the release of everything that I just experienced in that hour.”
On top of creating peaceful and relaxing sessions with mental health at the forefront for her members, Novoa also makes sure to be as transparent as possible about her own personal struggles, which not only makes her more human but actively breaks stigmas within the Latinx community.
“It allows for that conversation to happen organically, and also to remove the shame. Growing up in a Latina household, if you were to talk about seeing a therapist, ‘estas loca,’ like ‘You’re so crazy, what’s wrong with you?’” Novoa said. “It’s important to understand that, when we are in these dark spaces and you have a community that’s checking in on you, you feel supported, you’re less likely to crawl into a hole because you know that you have people that, one, actually want to see you, two, that want to sweat with you, and three, it’s just a really fun environment that makes it difficult to stay in a dark space. But if you are, you have a whole community backing you up and holding space for you during these difficult moments.”
In addition to personal training, Babes of Wellness offers group sessions, both online and in-person, ranging from yoga, strength and conditioning, pilates, full-body conditioning, upper body, and legs and glutes classes. Prices begin at either $10 or $30, depending on the course.
Members not only receive 55-minute workouts led by certified instructors, but they also experience a sense of love and community with fellow women and friends who share similar wellness and lifestyle goals. Utilizing yoga and pilates classes as well as strength and conditioning group sessions as a year-long member, Sonia Coronel, 39, says that compared to previous gyms she’s attended, Babes of Wellness is the most welcoming.
“The friendships that evolve from meeting the women there, they’re very welcoming, very open, and, as first-generation Latinas, we have very similar experiences,” Coronel said. “I receive so much from Babes of Wellness, friendships, contacts and networks. I reviewed a resume from one of the girls. They’re like, ‘Can you check my resume?’ I’m like, ‘Of course!’ You can call it a support group, but we also work out.”
Novoa’s establishment as the first Latina-owned wellness gym is significant to the Compton and South Los Angeles communities, as well as to each Babes of Wellness member. For fellow Latinas, walking into this wellness sanctuary feels like a home away from home.
“Even something as simple as Kat talking to you in Spanish is something that makes you feel at home,” Coronel said. “Cracking jokes in Spanish, you’re like, ‘Oh, Kat feels like my sister or my cousin.’ She offers this space to everyone. And we can take up space if we’re not having the best day. So it’s a whole different gig that she has created and I don’t know if she’s aware of it. It’s a sacred space for all of us.”
Babes of Wellness is also a safe haven for Latinas and the queer community when so many other institutions tend to put them on the back burner. In her opinion, Coronel finds sanctuary in the belief society is moving forward with inclusion and diversity, in addition to putting Latina bodies at the forefront.
“We have different bodies from, let’s say, the traditional white woman’s body,” Coronel said. “So, to be able to be represented in all sizes, all colors, all genders, it’s inclusive and I think that’s very important because that’s where we are as a society. We’re moving along and we’re including people. Being represented, feeling like it’s home, and not feeling pressured to want to be someone else, it’s important.”
Marquez added, “Kat is out here for us, she’s out here working hard to continue to advocate for us to share the services that we need. There is a space that’s centered and tailored in the community where she’s located. I think it’s really important that she continues to be a trailblazer but not forget the reasons why she started.”
Although starting a business within a heavily male-dominated field has been a challenge for Novoa, the rewards have taken precedence. She has not only learned the importance of creating a found family of people but also of choosing to engage with people who are healthy and in support of your mental health, which she has found in both Babes of Wellness members and the surrounding community. Novoa also enjoys seeing the community she’s built flourish even without her presence.
“For me, that has definitely been the most rewarding part, seeing how the community is really a community,” Novoa said. “There have been months where I haven’t been there for two, or three months because of whatever reason, and the community still shows up. They’re still supporting each other, supporting each other’s businesses, family members, baby showers, etc. That’s really cool to sit back and just watch that happen all because of this space that I’ve built.”
As Babes of Wellness grows, so does the safe space that it offers, which isn’t necessarily easy to support. In December 2022, Capital One partnered with #WeAllGrow, an established digital and IRL lifestyle community of impactful Latinas and Femme-Latines who support and uplift each other, to host the Amigas in Business Pitch Competition in support of Latina entrepreneurs. Rewarding the three winners with three different sizes of grant money, Novoa won first place, receiving $15,000 for Babes of Wellness.
Planning to purchase more gym equipment and enter the consumer packaged goods market, Novoa and gym members are ecstatic to see their community grow and become more successful before their eyes. But regardless of how popular or well-known Babes of Wellness becomes, wanting to create a safe haven for women, the LGBTQIA+ and the Latinx community to nurture their relationships with wellness and movement will never fade from Novoa’s mind.
“I hope that [members] know and come to realize that wellbeing and wellness should be a practice for everyone and not just an actual physical space,” Novoa said. “To understand that they can build that inner sanctuary within themselves and they always have the power to overcome whatever life throws at them, if they feel like they can, then they can trust that they have a community that can help them with that and helps them get to that place where they do feel well and whole, despite X, Y and Z happening externally.”
If you would like to learn more about Babes of Wellness or are interested in becoming a member of the wellness gym, visit their website, follow them on Instagram or you can download the Babes of Wellness app.