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I’ll Make a Man out of You: When Jane met Body Pump

2012 April 25

This is in some ways a sequel to my last post on 80s fitness videos. But if you missed that one, fear not, for here is the backstory: gremlins have taken over my body and given me a sudden interest in physical fitness.

In particular, I have been interested to see how the ideologies and assumptions of the real-life, modern-day gym contrast with the 80s fantasy world to which, until now, my side-bends and sit-ups have been largely confined.

Ain’t got a motor in the back of her Honda

I wanted to start with a class. My local facility was offering a number of options for my preferred time of day: Spinning, Yoga, Body Attack and Body Pump. Spinning, of course, has long been a Cosmo-favourite, but it sounded a bit too terrifying for my tentative post-Christmas explorations, so I went for Body Pump because it’s on a Tuesday, and Tuesdays are good for me.

Like Body Attack, Body Pump originates with the New Zealand-based Les Mills workout group. I suppose I’d always known, objectively, that someone must make up these workouts, but I’d always vaguely assumed it was the class instructor, or the gym, or something. I certainly hadn’t realised there are whole organisations dedicated to churning them out – of which Les Mills is one. Body Pump was the first of their workouts to make it out of New Zealand and into Europe, which it did in the early-to-mid-90s. It’s now pretty much a young professional gym standard, along with the emerging new trend, PowerPlate (which claims to deal with cellulite, although what doesn’t [and what does?], frankly).

Never stray too far from the sidewalk

In addition to a kind of Cartesian ‘body/soul’ dualism in their choice of workout titles, Les Mills also has about them something of the cultish air that also characterises Jane Fonda’s seminal 1980s oeuvre. Seriously. They refer to ‘the Tribe’. They’ve declared ‘war on sedentary lifestyles’. And more:

We pride ourselves on being brave – the ones who turn up their sleeves when it comes to hard work. The ones that scream ‘hell yeah’ when the instructor barks ‘ten more’. Those who view sweat on their brows like a crown of achievement. The ones who don’t just step up, they turn it up, because they want results.

– Les Mills website

Still from a Jane Fonda exercise video showing Jane and her acolytes posing on exercise mats in leotards. Image (c) Jane Fonda, reproduced under Fair Use.

This is not what it is like.

Scary stuff. The almost-militarism of the Les Mills style plays out into the actual Body Pump workout, which is a weight training class accompanied by ‘chart-topping hits’ (well… ‘Because of You’). Its use of zeitgeisty-kinda music to drive you along aligns it with aerobics more generally, but with the 80s fitness craze in particular, which was similarly interwoven with pop culture, including the emergent disco culture (the seminal Saturday Night Fever, with its all-dancing star John Travolta, came out in 1977).

But Body Pump is no leotard-wearing 80s-style ‘jazzercise’ with instructors whose hair flows wild and impractically free (my school gym teacher used to make us use elastic bands as a punishment for forgetting proper hair ties) – and, unlike the films Jane Fonda made for housewives everywhere, Body Pump’s not, primarily, about women. Indeed, it was originally designed to ‘bring men into the aerobics room’, after the female-focused group exercise trends that preceded it. Whether former female dominance in said room was because women are known to prefer exercising in nice social groups (cos, you know, that’s how we go to the toilet and choose our clothes, isn’t it?), or because instructors were targeting women as particularly vulnerable to body fascism, is too big a question to address in whole here.

Godlike Odysseus

But certainly, the class I attend has a lot of Homeric-level male muscle in it (with added grunts). And indeed, the ‘tracks’ we listen to (officially chosen by the Les Mills group themselves, who rule over ALL THINGS, and presumably have some kind of Council of Trent-style semi-regular meeting to discuss such questions) – are generally of the ‘man-rock’ ilk (well, Kelly Clarkson aside). So sometimes we do staggered bicep curls in time to that bit in Eye of the Tiger. There’s even this bit where you lie on your back on the ‘bench’ (see, I’m down with the lingo) and do some ‘chest-reps’ with ‘barbells’ while listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit. [This is a bit I’m quite fond of because I like to pretend I’m in prison or something].

Three muscular figures - two men and a woman, all caucasian, post with weights. (c) Les Mills, used under Fair Use guidelines.

This is Sparta.

And yet (despite the deputation of the ancient Greek army grunting in the corner) the class is still about 70% female. As is the instructor herself, though she’s more like an army sergeant than a Fonda-esque Dionysian leader.

What I think is interesting here is that, while dear Jane made me feel like I was sharing in an essential female, slightly body-fascist sort of camaraderie (‘this is for the wibble-wobbles on the inner thighs… gonna burn them right off!’) – with a sense of shared understanding much akin to what you might experience in the disco toilets at 2am with mascara running down your face, only with more brutalist physical pain – Body Pump is more like that bit in Mulan where that guy who never wears a shirt trains the Chinese army (including the cross-dressing Mulan) in three minutes flat.

Indeed, whereas the 80s fitness dream was one of self-improvement and the drive for the Body Beautiful, Body Pump and the Les Mills ideology is actually more like a War on Fat, with concomitantly refigured notions of gender – men and women exercise side by side, with parallel physical goals.

The Eighties’ ‘woman’s world’ of VCR, suburban living room and dance-fitness (sexualised to an often ludicrous degree for the benefit of men) has changed to a kind of militant A-team dream. This probably has a lot to do with rising obesity levels in the population at large, making pursuit of exercise rather more of a general health priority than it once was, but since the original 80s fitness craze rose at much the same time as the rise of the disco one, I wonder if our exercise trends are still tangentially following our terpsichorean ones.

Indeed, one of the things I find particularly interesting is how this class – and actually the gym itself come to that – constructs itself around the idea of maenadic levels of adrenaline, but in a kind of nightclub context. I have to NB here that I go to a rather Executive gym chain, which to be honest is probably actually constructed in the 80s power-professional mould – there’s coloured strip-lighting and everyone’s wearing matchy-matchy black lycra …and thongs. (I mean, seriously, think about the physics of that. There will be squats.). In Spinning it goes literal, as the room is darkened and there’s pounding rave music (at 7am on a Monday morning).

So where does this leave us? Much of this may seem largely irrelevant, since the numbers of women who attend the gym (indeed, the numbers who can even afford it) are relatively small compared to the population at large. And yet! What happens in those harrowing halls may reflect some curious external trends.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 25, 2012

    Hi, actually a bit shocked by this line:
    “This probably has a lot to do with rising obesity levels in the population at large, making pursuit of exercise rather more of a general health priority than it once was”

    – I didn’t think I’d see a piece on BadRep which just trotted out fatphobic rhetoric about obesity=unhealthy!!!, without some sort of critique of the obesity=lack of exercise idea.

    • May 2, 2012

      I’m a sucker for bad arguments so I have to respond to this

      It’s one thing to talk about fat discrimination, but it’s another to take something out of context.

      You said:

      “I didn’t think I’d see a piece on BadRep which just trotted out fatphobic rhetoric about obesity=unhealthy!!!, without some sort of critique of the obesity=lack of exercise idea.”

      This is interpreted as 2 premises:

      1. Kirsty’s claim is obesity=unhealthy
      2. Premise [1] is uncritical acceptance of fatphobia

      Obesity is a technical term. Kirsty actually said obesity is on the rise. Public health data shows that over the past 4 decades, Obesity (DefN: BMI over 30) has consistently risen in England [source: The data also shows that it is prevalent in more young girls generally compared to boys. Also the data shows that the general trend of obesity rising does not apply for reception aged girls, where it is on a marginal decrease. Kirsty has stated a fact that the operationalised term of obestity is on the rise. This isn’t fat-phobic, this is data. Unless you want to discuss whether the methodologies had issues, or whether you consider self-report a problem, or whether you think spearman’s Rho is better than Pearson’s, or whether you think obesity is a categorial or relational operational term, you are reading too much into this point.

      Obesity is a health problem. Why? Obesity is a statistically significant correlate for earlier mortality, heart conditions, type 2 diabetes, and it is said, various forms of cancer. In fairness the article wasn’t about obesity, and while many would hold that fat is a feminist issue, it’s also an health issue, and a factual issue, and an issue of epidemology and statistics. The facts show these correlations to hold in datasets beyond the UK. This, I hold, to be a separate but not entirely distinct issue from: the social perception of fatness; the disapproval of fatness and the relative invisibility of overweight people in popular culture. The only way to object to this is to claim correlation is not causation (fair point), or to say in specific instances that the operators in multivariate or bivariate analyses do not pass tests of statistical significance.

      Either you are saying that Kirsty is making some claim tantamount to fatism, in which case this is an invalid inference, as the enthymeme involved doesn’t obtain. To say that the rise in obesity is an health issue is different to saying ‘we want less fat people’. I think this is not a valid inference or legitimate logical conclusion, but perhaps the phenomenon of priming more than anything else:

      Perhaps the point you actually wanted to say was more akin to: “I can’t believe this article doesn’t look at fat acceptance/body acceptance!”, which (1) is a different point to accusing Kirsty of fatphobia and (2) should be better worded.

      By the way I’m sorry to sound so mean. Fat discourse wasn’t the topic of the post, it’s a valid feminist concept I certainly think, but to paraphrase my friend Destre: “You can’t call Aristotle sexist when it wasn’t a concept in own time, remember context”.

      Much love
      Antisophie x

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 2, 2012

      I can see what you mean. I do think the other half of the sentence, which talks about 80s disco culture/consumerism, is part of it too, though. My read on the point was that it was comparing the current obsession with obesity to an earlier period where this was expressed differently in the marketing, suggesting that body image and popularly upheld ideas about health – whether or not they are helpful, and often I think they are poorly expressed in the media – are bigger factors in gym attendances than they were. I think the broad argument that line is intended to be in service to is that rather than the “lifestyle” marketing of Fonda, which of course ties into body image, but also an Eighties class conception of the good life – there is now a more punishing aesthetic built more explicitly around guilt and around “fighting” one’s body. Class is still a part of it, hence “executive gyms”, but the marketing comes out differently, with (for Les Mills) the “war on fat” martiality front and centre. And this obsession wasn’t started by Les Mills; rather it’s everywhere at the moment. I can only speak for myself but I felt that the post more generally was aiming to look at how we are intended to feel and act by the marketing, rather than how we should.

      I’ve been told to gym up by doctors in the past who’d never mentioned it before, and I do think that it happened because they’d decided, as part of their target system, to make obesity a “health priority”. It was horrible and I resented it – I’m a fan of Health at Every Size myself – but the pull was very strong and I did go. It did become one of the reasons I was there, much as I didn’t want it to- it was absolutely framed that way by everyone who dealt with me. When I got there, I was asked outright on a quiz sheet whether I wanted to “just feel healthier” or “lose weight”, which I thought was interesting. The gym was (in that instance) clear that these were separate ideas. I couldn’t work out what to think of it. On the one hand it separated shape from fitness which was useful, but on the other it made shape, which was listed first, a distinct priority, and after my GP’s reaction I ticked both boxes. (That wasn’t Les Mills, though; that gym was much more “girls! Shape up!” in some of its poster materials.)

      I can’t speak for what Kirsty’s view is on these issues but in case it’s interesting here is another of Team BR on gym-going recently- in terms of focus this post *is* more about HAES, gymgoing and body image on a more personal level:

      Edit: *friendly reminder for prospective commenters, since the issues in this mini-thread are emotive for the majority of people: please try to keep things civil and constructive if you don’t agree with another commenter.*

  2. April 27, 2012

    I am almost a regular at another les mills class (body balance). Actually I feel a bit awkward about it for being one of only a couple of guys in the sessions. I saw body combat from across the hall a few times and I have to say it looks really awesome! Personally I’m intimidated that there’s almost all women in the classes and that does put me off. I do think that perhaps many women might prefer having an all female space for classes, since the weights rack in many gyms can be very intimidating (especially with idiots like me grunting with the barbell).

    I think with being a chain, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sure its all corporate and generic and each class is pre-defined, but because its a big chain it means there’s accreditation methods for the teachers and a way for them to get a wider audience by a recognisable brand.

    In my experience of seeing some of these classes (and being a few regularly). I can attest to the real joy of bonding with other people in a shared pursuit that most other’s don’t understand. Yes, les mills classes are incredibly gendered, but I’ve seen some real sistahood and socialising among the class members before the class begins. I’ve been in classes which are socially diverse (and not the 20-30 professional) with all kinds of ages. I like that about the class, I must admit that I don’t like being the only guy. I think to myself a mix of: am I invading your space in an almost all woman class? and also: why are you mocking me that I find this harder than you?

    Fitness is for everyone, regardless of fitness level or age or gender. The more things like body pump can appeal to women, the better! Fitness should not and isn’t limited to the gym. Attesting to my own experience, my (60 something) mum has really gotten into a lot of fitness classes lately, and her big appeal is getting together with other people and getting to know new people and having fun while keeping fit. My mum has joined a belly dancing class, yogalates (still no idea what that is) and zumba. My mum does a zumba class in a local church hall and another class at a community college. I understand that some of the students at the belly dance class even get a chance to perform. There are other places than a plasticy shiny gym to keep fit!

    Advice i’ve gotten from my own sister is to look out for local clubs. My sister is getting involved with a running club in her area and they go around the local area. To you readers out there: keep a look out for tennis courts open to the public or badminton clubs if it tickles your fancy!

    Maybe it says more about my gym but I really like that there are older people in these classes i’ve been in and observed, okay less so in Body Combat. By the way, if you are interested the youtube profile for has loads of really interesting accounts from female bodybuilders on fitness advice.

    Great post!

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