I resisted SoulCycle, the trendy boutique fitness chain, for years. My last indoor cycling experience had been in the 1990s, when spinning was “Spinning,” and my most vivid memories were bruises from the bike seat and an instructor who looked as if he’d forgotten to shed his Lance Armstrong Halloween costume. But in 2011, I was too hugely pregnant to run or dance. One day a friend who worked at Soul, as acolytes called it, invited me along.
The class felt less morning-at-the-gym than night-on-the-town: its pounding music, synchronized movement and semidarkness afforded both a sense of security and the thrill of belonging among beautiful people. The experience was orchestrated by the instructor, a title that didn’t do justice to the radiant woman calling out inspirational phrases from her own bike atop a stage illuminated by candles. I didn’t know her, but after 45 minutes, I wanted to hug her. Maybe I wanted to be her. “You did amazing, Natalia,” she told me. I booked another class.
The ritual became intoxicating. But the same aura that makes these experiences so enticing can also have a dark side.
The fact that brands built on “inspiration,” “authenticity” and “wellness” can foster such unhealthy behavior shows how easily our instinct to confer positivity on the pursuit of health, and the people who help us achieve it, can be exploited. Allegations checker the industry, from Bikram Yoga (a charismatic leader was accused of sexual harassment and rape) to CrossFit (the chief executive was accused of sexual harassment and racist remarks). Like so many community institutions — the Boy Scouts, churches, college campuses — the spaces where we gather to sweat can sanction abuse as easily as inspiration.
I’ve seen this firsthand, as a student and a teacher of group fitness classes. In the early aughts, I found a workout class that supplanted destructive diet talk with affirmations of strength and courage, reinforcing what I’d loved about exercise but lacked language to articulate.
If this sounds trite today, in 2005 it felt like liberation. After a year of crisscrossing New York City to take multiple classes a day from its founder, I got certified as a leader. My students asked me why I was so positive, and I told them that since I’d been sidelined in sports, teaching fitness — sorry, “wellness” — made me feel invincible. But this all-consuming culture occasionally gave me pause, like when a thin, wide-eyed young woman told me she’d given up therapy — my class was all she needed.
I had a front-row seat to a transformation in the role of exercise in American life. As one fitness entrepreneur told me, after 9/11 a new wave of fitness businesses started selling “workout as wellness,” taking holistic health from the “hairy armpit set” to the mainstream. Exercise had evolved from a purely physical routine that might occupy a few plodding hours a week to an all-encompassing pursuit. Instructors far more popular than I were its vanguards.
It became a cliché to describe these figures as having a “cult following”: They became therapists, fashion icons, D.J.s, nutrition experts, spiritual teachers and sex symbols. The over-the-top motivation (“IMPOSSIBLE SPELLS ‘I’M POSSIBLE!’”), steep price tags ($42 a class!) and obsessive fan base made boutique fitness easy fodder for ridicule. But the classes kept selling out.
In the pandemic, those collective exercise experiences can feel like an artifact, our own speakeasy or sock hop. After all, nearly 60 percent of Americans exercising at home say they’ll never return to the gym. And that doesn’t account for boutique fitness, where the sweaty, see-and-be-seen intimacy of crowded classes — a memory that makes me both nostalgic and reaching for my face mask — is partly the point.
But even as many studios sit shuttered, the appetite for instructors whose incandescence can both reduce riders to tears and build them up to superheroes is still very much with us.
Thanks to the intense connections these instructors cultivate, since the pandemic began students have followed them online and into parking lots, sometimes even joining in lockdown protests. Peloton, the digital home fitness platform, has flourished in the last year in part thanks to its larger-than-life instructors, who minister to hundreds of thousands, including the president. And various other remote fitness instructors have achieved stardom during the pandemic. This phenomenon is not going away, so we have a responsibility to understand it.
For an affluent clientele that operates in offices regulated by human resources departments and social circles governed by polite restraint, an exercise class can be as much a thrilling transgression 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 to nowhere; to sweat under the red lights of a bordello-inspired boot camp; or to be gruffly led through a “prison workout” by an actual ex-con?
I’ve experienced all these environments. Usually I’ve found them more anthropologically interesting than offensive. But the dynamic is ripe for boundary-crossing.
After one session, I texted a friend that I’d unwittingly gotten “a spin class lap dance.” Even at the gym, where the usual constraints on complimenting and touching each other’s bodies can be more relaxed, I was taken aback by the male instructor gyrating on my handlebars. The room full of riders squealed, though, with apparent delight.
I composed myself and simply didn’t return. Yet when the backdrop to such behaviors is no longer the insular realm of a studio packed with adoring fans, but an industry facing serious allegations of abuse, the interaction lands differently.
Most instructors handle their power responsibly, and an instructor who understands her purpose as more than helping her students squeeze into skinny jeans can positively change lives. But this expansive role has not been accompanied by more rigorous certification, codes of conduct or even much reflection. (Or pay: Many of the more than 300,000 fitness instructors are members of the precariat, only just beginning to organize.)
With some exceptions, instructors aspiring to such celebrity and the businesses that profit from it have only pumped up the cults of personality instead of questioning them. Unless we change that, our sprawling fitness industry and the culture it reflects will remain as capable of perpetuating harm as promoting health.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (@nataliapetrzela) is an associate professor of History at the New School, host of the podcast “Welcome to Your Fantasy” and is writing a book about American fitness culture.
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