To know the strange embrace of compression pants is, very often, to know the ignominy of group fitness. Like many westerners convinced of the importance of my abdominal strength, I have moved often to a soundtrack of licenced pop and Les Mills instructors urging me to “bust it out” and to remember that “the range makes the change”. Of course, I have often fantasised about doing physical harm to these people and the Katy Perrys who provide the martial music for their war against good taste. But, knowing not only that I would lose badly against a soldier built from protein powder and positive thinking but that there are few more time- and cost-efficient ways to stay trim in my forties than going to a dumb class, I bust it out.
Group fitness classes are awful but they are reasonably cheap and more-or-less effective in steering me away from my inclination to look much like a golden Labrador pregnant with 17 pups. I do not wear adipose tissue well and even if this personal aversion to flab were not culturally manufactured — and it absolutely is — these hideous classes strip me of it. In other words, exercise classes do as they promise and, if regularly endured, change one’s muscle-to-fat ratio.
Although there has been some creditable study performed on the uselessness of commercial fitness, I have found it to be of sound use value. Which is to say, I give them some money and they give me a (barely) visible result. I am not “empowered” by these excursions and judging by the looks on the faces of my age-mates, neither is anyone else. We go to these absurd, alienated places for much the same reasons we might consent to care in a hospital: it’s an unpleasant but functional one-size-fits-most approach to the transformation of the body.
Across the last decade or so, however, I have noticed a shift in commercial fitness from simple use value into the more complex commodity. Once, Les Mills offered me fat-loss and muscle-gain. Now, he offers me balance, empowerment and inner-peace. These things are not easy to measure with a fat calliper but, apparently, they are selling to the point that I can’t very easily attend a “BodyPump” class at short notice but I can almost always go to a session that promises to give me a sense of self-love and enlightenment.
It was around the turn of the century that persons of my acquaintance began shunning the plain Phys Ed of aerobics in favour of belly- and pole-dancing classes or the genuinely stupid Bikram yoga. I became briefly convinced that performing Hatha stretches in a room heated to crotch temperature would offer me some sort of express route to muscle definition and went to several, quite expensive sessions until the fog of mass body stink cleared momentarily to allow me focus on what the instructor was saying. Amid a lot of quasi-Hindi, there were a lot of quasi-scientific claims about immunology and how sticking my arse in the air at an oblique angle to my arms would produce a cure for “western illness”. It was at this point I hung up my rented mat and vowed to avoid the western illness of merchant bullshit and resumed the boring work of Busting It Out.
More traditional fitness classes have become so small and irregular that I have taken to independent running; occasionally with the accompaniment of Katy Perry from whose hideous pop bugle I find myself motivated to flee. In the meantime, classes that promise to unleash femininity, pride and spiritual self-awareness have seen medicine balls consigned to the dustbin of commerce and replaced with mantras and diaphanous textiles.
It was a few years ago that I caught bitter wind of nude yoga which is now a practice so widespread, it has even been recommended by FM radio “crews” in Western Australia. According to Fairfax, “Perthonality” Heidi Anderson was so moved by the experience of disrobed downward dog, she wept.
The session, apparently, was not only “sexy and feminine” and “invigorating” but of a force so keen that it was able to upturn “body image”.
And this, it seems to me, is the quality many participants, particularly female ones, are seeking in group fitness. No longer do we assemble simply to enact a tedious series of body-weight exercises designed to change the relationship of fat to muscle. We attend group fitness to change the relationship of our bodies to the society that inscribes meaning on them.
In one popular reading, this is a noble goal. Like the corporeal feminisms of the ’90s that attempted to locate the body in relation to the culture, this kind of mind-body union seems to seek a sort of liberation. But, worse than the very worst practitioners of Les Mills, what it also gives us is the hope that purchase of a one-hour class provides a ticket out of body discourse.
I do not suppose that one can displace personal understanding of the body, most particularly the female body, through a class in nude yoga. And this is not just because it is something that costs money nor is it because it is recommended by a Perthonality who has displayed her perfectly normative young, white, female bottom as proof of this scheme’s spiritual effectiveness. Rather, it is because the idea of displacing poor “body image” with its opposite is an impossible exchange and a much more complex matter than the biochemical one of turning fat cells into muscle.
I am not, for a minute, recommending the idiotic self-torture of old-fashioned exercise to anyone. I do this, in my unambitious way, for a range of reasons so ridiculous that they can be a prescription to no body. But, what I am saying is that the view that “transforming” body image, a lifelong change produced through a range of discourses more powerful and painful than any reps devised by Les Mills, from negative to positive is a meaningful displacement is hopeful.
If people like themselves better, of course, that’s great. But if this affection is predicated on the idea of a sort of psychological fitness, it’s doomed to fail.
Even if it is less dualistic and relies on a purported post-Cartesian meeting of body and mind, it remains an idea of corporeal perfection just as static as that in the brochures for Les Mills. The idea that You Too can rid yourself of the flab of social order, when bodies are always social, it at worst cynical and at best naïve.
I do not see how “accepting” yourself in a group setting is ultimately any better than rejecting yourself. Moreover, I am terrified that the farts I inevitably emit in a yoga class would not be buffered by compression-wear. But, mostly, I think that a difficult thing like the socially marked body cannot ever have its meaning erased and the hope of doing so is ludicrous.
Bodies are never naked of meaning, not even in a nude yoga class. But the meanings we write for them could, one day, be more flexible. We simply can’t expect a single text to displace us from the everyday. Not even if that text reads “empowerment”.