Sadie Lincoln is the founder and CEO of barre3, a fitness experience practiced in more than 130 studios and through a robust online platform. Ahead, Lincoln shares how her unconventional childhood helped her build a thriving business.
In college, I took a lecture class called “Sociology of Family.” One of our assignments was to draw our family tree and write an essay about the unique social norms we learned growing up. Our professor used my family tree to explain the concept of fictive kin: a phrase that refers to individuals who are not related by blood or marriage but have a meaningful and significant emotional relationship.
This moment was the first time I realized that the unusual way I’d been raised could actually be a strength, rather than a source of embarrassment.
Growing up off the grid
In the 1960s, my mom met three women who would become her lifelong friends—and my aunties. Part of the counterculture movement, they dropped out of the mainstream to explore a new way of life, eventually landing in Taos, New Mexico. They lived close to nature, studied Jungian psychology, and each eventually had children. I was born in an adobe cottage without electricity, with all my aunties present.
With no biological fathers in the picture, my mom and aunties banded together to raise us kids collectively, sharing parenting responsibilities while balancing other parts of their lives they valued.
One of my most vivid memories from those early years was gathering in a circle to share dreams, which our moms believed were an entry point to self-awareness and inner work. We were supported unconditionally even when we shared anger, shame, or feeling like a failure. Us “kids” (now in our 40s) talk about how they gave us the tools to process negativity in our lives, to be fiercely protective of our unique strengths, and to be courageous.
Feeling out of place
I could stop there, with the idyllic version. But the truth is my childhood wasn’t all dream circles and good vibes. Life was… fluid. We shared housing and we moved around a lot. By the time I was eight years old, I had lived in 13 different homes. Boyfriends (and father figures) came in and out of our lives.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that my upbringing was different—and, frankly, shameful. For example, during nap time in kindergarten, I walked up to the teacher and asked if I could go “shit.” At home, there were no “bad words.” My teacher explained to me (without laughing, which I think is admirable) that it was more appropriate to say #2 at school. Instead of buying the school-sponsored uniform, my mom made my uniform out of denim. Today I think her choice was badass and chic, but back then, I longed for uniformity—even if that meant polyester.
The feeling of being an outsider only intensified as I got older. During my early teen years, I was painfully embarrassed by our funky cars, my mom’s Birkenstocks (waaaay ahead of the current trend), and our rental homes with wild, uncut grass growing in the front yard—and the other kind of grass (waaaay before it was legal) growing in our backyard.
While I was unquestionably loved, I didn’t have the mom and dad who were involved in school or my extracurricular activities. I acted like I didn’t care, but inside I wanted desperately to succeed, and I had a lot of shame around feeling dumb. I barely got through high school. I didn’t even take the SATs. Why bother?
Becoming a professional boogie partier
I moved to Los Angeles to get to know my father and eventually enrolled in community college—where, after all those years of struggling in school, I discovered my innate love of learning. I went on to finish college at UCLA and even get my master’s degree.
It was during this time that I discovered—and fell in love with—the endorphin-high power of group exercise. A group of women moving together to rockin’ tunes was very close to the “boogie parties” that were a regular part of my life growing up. Finally, I had found my place—and I felt thrilled at the prospect of turning my new passion into a legitimate career. I got a job with 24 Hour Fitness and inserted myself into the booming fitness industry, climbing the ladder as fast as I could.
That’s where things got confusing. On paper, I had a great life. I had a successful career, I married my husband, Chris, and we had two beautiful children. But, ironically, the more I immersed myself into the corporate fitness world, the more my health declined. My energy was at rock bottom.
Reaching back to my roots, I started to realize that I could build my own counterculture in fitness. When Chris and I launched barre3 a decade ago, we looked to the way I grew up—with its emphasis on the power of community, the focus on looking inward, the notion that you are your own best teacher, the permission to be vulnerable, the truth that everybody matters, and, more than anything, the undeniable power of women supporting women—to create a holistic program that reflected our values.
We now have more than 130 studios, all of them run by fierce, independent women, and a comprehensive online platform. Even as we grow, our team makes time for circles where we gather together and share openly, whether at our home office or during instructor-training sessions.
I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to use my unconventional upbringing to power a movement that people can bring their full selves to. What was once the source of my shame became the strength that powers me forward.