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Stef Williams is best known for her aspirational fitness content. But she’s had to overcome a lot of barriers, including a dyslexia diagnosis, to get there. 

A fitness influencer with 1.5 million followers and two hugely successful businesses, it’s easy to assume that Stef Williams is the sort of person who easily succeeds at everything. But finding her feet in the world of business was never something she had in mind for herself.

After her school years were shadowed with academic insecurity as a result of being diagnosed with severe dyslexia at eight years old, Williams often felt she was only ever going to be seen as her condition: “I was told I had the writing of a nine-year-old when I was aged 16. I had to use a reader in my exams and I just always felt very behind and conflicted because I didn’t know what I wanted to – or could – do with my life,” she tells Stylist.  

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“People in my class were talking about going to university and I was just turning up to class thinking, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this’. At school you’re told, ‘This is what you have to do and if you don’t do it well then you don’t fit’.”

The impact of sport on learning conditions 

Luckily, Williams is the sort of person who finds humour in these situations. “I’d laugh at myself before other people laughed at me,” she says. But most crucially, she had sport. “I knew that I might be getting a D in maths, but I could always fall back on hockey and netball. The fact that I was actually scouted and bought into a school because of my performance helped my confidence. It made me feel worthy because when you’re diagnosed with anything, whatever it might be, you’re told that something’s different about you. You feel less than because all anyone can focus on is what you’ve ‘got’.” 

It’s why she – eventually – made fitness her career. After working in bars, retail and becoming a make-up artist, she says she was “so bored. I was standing still all day. And I just felt like I could do so much more and be so much more, but it was so hard when there wasn’t that lane for someone like me. I knew the only thing I ever really liked was sports, so my family encouraged me to do a personal training course, and then I started an Instagram account.”

That might not sound like a groundbreaking decision now, but five years ago, it was still pretty novel that being an Instagram creator could make you money. And that was always Stef’s intention. “A lot of people say their brands were an accident, that they just wanted to share things and it blew up. But I knew I was going to do this. I wanted to post the things I thought were missing from fitness. I was seeing all of these Instagram accounts that posted selfies in the gym but with no explanation or help, so I started posting videos that demonstrated the workouts.” 

Her videos quickly got engagement, built her following and took her to boardrooms where she launched her workout app We Glow and now an activewear line, Sefi. “I spent my whole life being corrected because I was saying something wrong or spelling something wrong. I still get nervous in my businesses, but I know that I know what I’m talking about. And I get competitive with it because of my sports background,” she says.

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Alongside the entrepreneurial success, she still has to come back to movement to get through the day: “If I was able to find the time, I would 100% still be playing team sport – it’s the group energy that matters to me. What I do right now depends on my mood, be it HIIT or stretching, but I try to do something every day to focus on me.”

There are many lessons she’s taken away from her struggle at school, but the most important one is individuality. “In the fitness world, there’s an understanding that there’s not one type of movement that works for everyone. But in learning, the idea is that if you don’t fit into that exact academic box, there’s something wrong with you,” she says. “I was put into the worst classes straight away, which wasn’t necessarily where I should have been. I just needed a different type of learning, like some people need different types of exercise.” 

Images: Stef Williams 

Images: Stef Williams

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