I fought against SoulCycle, the trendy boutique fitness chain, for years. I had my last indoor cycling experience in the 1990s when spinning was “spinning”. My most vivid memories were bruises from a bike seat and an instructor who looked like he’d forgotten to take off his Lance Armstrong Halloween costume. But in 2011 I was too pregnant to run or dance. One day I was invited by a friend who worked at Soul, as acolytes called it.
The class felt less in the gym in the morning than in the city at night: the pounding music, synchronized movement, and the semi-darkness offered both a sense of security and the thrill of belonging to beautiful people. The experience was staged by the instructor, a title that didn’t do justice to the beaming woman who shouted inspirational phrases from her own bike on a candle-lit stage. I didn’t know her, but after 45 minutes I wanted to hug her. Maybe I wanted to be her. “You did a great job, Natalia,” she told me. I booked a different class.
The ritual became intoxicating. But the same aura that makes these experiences so tempting can also have a dark side.
The fact that brands based on “inspiration,” “authenticity,” and “wellness” can encourage such unhealthy behavior shows how easily our instincts to add positivity to the pursuit of health and the people who help us to achieve it can be exploited. Allegations review the industry, from Bikram Yoga (a charismatic leader was accused of sexual harassment and rape) to CrossFit (the executive was accused of sexual harassment and racist speech). Like so many community institutions – the Boy Scouts, churches, campuses – the spaces where we gather to sweat can sanction abuse as easily as inspiration.
I’ve seen this firsthand as a student and teacher of group fitness classes. In the early hours of the morning I found a workout class that replaced destructive dieting talk with affirmation of strength and courage and affirmed what exercise I loved but had no language to articulate.
If that sounds mundane today, in 2005 it felt like liberation. After traversing New York for a year to take several classes daily from its founder, I was certified as an executive. My students asked me why I was so positive, and I told them that ever since I took a break from exercising, I had felt invincible for teaching fitness – sorry, “wellness”. But that all-consuming culture made me pause on occasion when a thin, wide-eyed young woman told me she had given up therapy – all she needed was my class.
I had a front row seat to change the role of movement in American life. As one fitness entrepreneur told me, after September 11th, a new wave of fitness companies began selling “Workout as Wellness” in an effort to move holistic health from the “hairy armpit set” to mainstream. The exercise had gone from being a purely physical routine that could take a few hours a week to being a full occupation. His avant-gardes were far more popular than me.
It became a cliché to refer to these characters as “cult followers”: They became therapists, fashion icons, DJs, nutritionists, spiritual teachers and sex symbols. The exaggerated motivation (“IMPOSSIBLE MAGIC, I AM POSSIBLE!”), The high prices ($ 42 per class!), And the obsessive fan base made boutique fitness ridiculous food. But the classes were always sold out.
In the pandemic, these collective exercise experiences can feel like an artifact, like our own speakeasy or sock hopping. After all, nearly 60 percent of Americans who exercise at home say they will never return to the gym. And that doesn’t explain boutique fitness, where the sweaty, must-see intimacy of crowded classes – a memory that both nostalgic me and reaches for my face mask – is partly the point.
But even when many studios are closed, the appetite for instructors, whose lightbulb can move the drivers to tears and turn them into superheroes, is still very big with us.
Thanks to the intense connections these instructors have, students have followed them online and in parking lots since the pandemic began, and have sometimes even participated in lockdown protests. Peloton, the home digital fitness platform, has thrived over the past year thanks in part to its larger-than-life instructors who serve hundreds of thousands, including the President. And various other remote fitness trainers have gained notoriety during the pandemic. This phenomenon does not go away, so it is our responsibility to understand it.
For a wealthy clientele working in offices regulated by human resources and social circles run by polite restraint, an exercise class can be as exciting a violation of this disciplined sensibility as an extension of it. Why else pay to be sprayed with water at the climax of an intense bike ride into nowhere? sweating under the red lights of a brothel-inspired boot camp; or to be guided through rough “prison training” by an actual ex-con?
I’ve experienced all of these environments. I usually found them more anthropologically interesting than offensive. But the momentum is ripe for crossing borders.
After a session, I texted a friend that I had accidentally received “a lap dance for spin class.” Even at the gym, where the usual restrictions on complimenting and touching each other’s bodies can be more relaxed, I was surprised by the male instructor circling my handlebars. However, the room full of drivers squealed with obvious delight.
I sat down and just didn’t come back. However, if the background for such behavior is no longer the island area of a studio full of enthusiastic fans, but an industry that is exposed to serious allegations of abuse, the interaction ends up differently.
Most instructors use their power responsibly, and an instructor who understands their purpose in more than helping their students squeeze into skinny jeans can be life-changing in a positive way. However, this expansive role has not been accompanied by stricter certifications, codes of conduct, or even a lot of thought. (Or pay: Many of the more than 300,000 fitness trainers are members of the precariat and are only just beginning to organize.)
With a few exceptions, trainers in pursuit of such celebrity and the companies that benefit from it have only pumped up the cults of personality rather than questioning them. If we don’t change that, our sprawling fitness industry and the culture it reflects will remain as capable of sustaining damage as promoting good health.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (@nataliapetrzela) is an associate professor of history at the New School, host of the Welcome to Your Fantasy podcast, and is writing a book on American fitness culture.
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