Leah Temple Lang / Gavel Media

Commodification and Cults: How Fitness Culture has Become Incredibly Exclusive

The fitness and wellness culture for women has become an increasing part of our social media feeds. We are constantly bombarded with what “healthy” meals we should consume, what green powders we should be drinking, and what workout routines we should follow. This growing aesthetic has been dubbed the “that girl” aesthetic and comes with an extensive list of dos and don’ts for women. 

Societal pressures to present a certain way have been dramatically emphasized with the popularity of social media. Everyday, we are told what our fitness routines should look like, with the underlying assumption that if we follow the steps of the girls we see on our screens, we are essentially guaranteed to look like them. 

For Audrey Frigon, President of the Women’s Network at Boston College, these societal pressures to look, eat, and workout in a certain way were constantly influencing her self-image. The flurry of girls on social media who attend frequent workout classes, wear the newest matching sets to the gym, and eat exclusively “healthy” meals, were “all just kind of wrapped up into one that just was not attainable for me” said Frigon.

This sense of being left out of or separated from what is 'acceptable' for women in terms of exercise can be incredibly isolating and damaging to a woman’s self perception. As female-identifying individuals, we are constantly bombarded with images of who we should look like and model ourselves after, and the fitness industry is no different. 

For Frigon, social media and the fitness ideals it displays negatively impacted her body image, “It was so unhealthy for me mentally.” She commented, “social media in general is just draining as a woman, and I was constantly comparing myself to those bodies that realistically were never gonna be attainable for me unless I went crazy and starved myself.” 

The pressure to look and workout in a certain way that was felt by Frigon was echoed by Caroline Conquergood, a spin instructor at the Plex. She stated, “I used to think, and I still kind of think this subconsciously, that it had to be like a spin class or a HIIT class and your heart rate had to be really high in order to be like actually working out.” This pressure to prioritize cardio workouts that are most effective in a studio is a central aspect of the growing fitness culture for women. 

Frigon shared this pull towards cardio and reflected on how this view of the way you should be working out has affected her, noting “It's those cardio centric classes that are targeted especially for women who are told they're supposed to look as small as humanly possible.” Even if women do fit into this ideal, they can be criticized for being “too skinny” and not having the 'ideal' female physique. 

Through incorporating weightlifting into her routine, Frigon has pushed against this pull to change her body in a specific way. This aspect of her fitness helped to shift her mentality about what she should be doing to stay healthy. “Even though I'm a woman, I don't have to take up as little space as possible.” Frigon stated. “I deserve and can take up space.” 

While Frigon has challenged the societal pressure to reduce her physical space and lose weight, many women are unable to do so. One study found that female participants felt “normative pressures to be thin” that negatively impacted their ability to remain physically active. Many women feel that if they are not able to immediately achieve their physical goals of “body sculpting” they may not continue exercising at all. 

Workout classes that prioritize cardio and a lean physique, such as spin, pilates, and barre have rapidly gained patrons, with many studios like SoulCycle building almost cult-like followings. While these classes provide the same health and wellness benefits as other forms of fitness, the format and business models of these classes pose inaccessible barriers and promote a workout culture many feel excluded from. 

One study found that young Black women were the least likely group to be physically active, and given discriminatory policies that transgender and nonbinary people face in fitness, their rates of participation are likely even lower. These barriers of access for marginalized communities that are prevalent in every aspect of society seep into fitness culture as well. Feeling ostracized from fitness communities and studios can lead many to pull back from these spaces. 

Conquergood stated that despite her 6 years as a patron of spin and two years of experience as an instructor, “ I know when I go to spin classes, I get intimidated sometimes by the instructor.”  She continued stating that, “I see this with spin, the idea that you're bad at it. But obviously when you try something for the first time, you’re not going to be great at it.” 

While trying a new class can be daunting regardless, this overarching sense of hesitation is in large part created by characteristics innate to the studio. At SoulCycle, signs outside of the studio ask that if you want to “do your own thing” to ride in the back. While on the surface this may not appear to set newcomers up for discomfort, once in the class there is significant pressure to keep the exact beat and choreography as the instructor, which is often incredibly fast and requires an understanding of SoulCycle’s spin style. 

It also creates a clear hierarchy between those who attend daily and those who don’t. Of course anyone who has more experience will often be more accustomed to the ins-and-outs, and as a result be more skilled. However, the intensity of SoulCycle’s culture can make riders feel unfit to continue if they aren’t prepared to go everyday. 

Not only can the cult-like cultures of these studios feel exclusive, but the costs to join the inside group who go frequently enough to befriend their instructors and get shout outs in classes are steep. The expense of these classes and the routine attendance they encourage is palpable: Frigon stated that “the whole fitness industry is super targeted towards people with the money and time.” She continued, “For those people who can go to like six spin classes a week, where it's like 30 bucks a class, that's not attainable for the vast majority of people.” 

In addition to the cost prohibitive aspects of the classes themselves, the clothing popularized for these workouts is similarly prohibitive not just in cost, but in size and style as well. If you walk into the Plex or any workout studio you’ll find a sea of almost identical clothing. Girls flaunt their lulu lemon leggings that retail for $100 or more and their Hoka or On Cloud sneakers which cost $130 and up. While these clothes are not required for fitness, there is still a strong sense of fitting in or being left out of this group. 

Even as a fitness instructor herself, Conquergood still feels that fitness culture comes with a list of what to buy in order to workout. She stated that “The idea of a hot girl walk comes with this idea that you need all of these things and like to look a certain way to like go outside.” Scrolling through social media posts of the recently popularized phrase “hot girl walk,” one sees identically dressed girls, almost as if taking a walk outside requires the standard uniform of a matching set of lulu lemon bike shorts and a sports bra with their $40 belt bag slung across them. 

Conquergood stated that, “I think that if having all of that makes you feel good, then like great, but I think that it pushes the idea that you have to have that in order to do this.”

With the help of social media algorithms, fitness culture for women has quickly become intertwined with frequenting expensive workout studios and owning the newest matching workout set. While the increase in fitness and wellness is not inherently damaging or exclusive, the commodification of workout culture means that those without the financial means or time to attend these studios are further ostracized from the socially accepted ideals of what a woman is. 

Many classes cater to cardio-centric workouts that further push the narrative that strength and bulk are things women should avoid. There should be no notion of who can workout and who can’t, and social media is fueling the increasingly rigid idea of what fitness should look like for women. 

A woman's appearance has become synonymous with her self worth, and women are constantly being judged on what they look like. The fitness industry, as Frigon stated, “is monetizing insecurities for women, and the insecurities are wanting us to go to these workout classes, to buy whatever products are gonna make us look better.” The commodification of fitness culture has narrowed the frame for how women should work out to such a small acceptable standard that very few people can pursue wellness without compromising their finances and attempting to change their bodies in ways that cannot be achieved through fitness, due to their connection mainly to biological differences.

In order to truly create an inclusive fitness community for women, there must be an effort to resist the latest trends of what classes to attend and a rejection of the narrow image of what women should look like. While images of what our life and our bodies should look like are constantly pushed upon us by social media, becoming aware of how this subconsciously influences our fitness decisions is an important first step in challenging these norms. Although simple in theory, even identifying this fitness culture as toxic can be an incredibly difficult yet vital step in moving towards a more inclusive health culture that focuses on wellness, instead of what products we own and what classes we attend.

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