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Crashing the Body Party

The dying spectacle of collective exercise

Maybe if workout tapes were still popular, I’d be in better shape. I’m among those who need exercise to be “fun” to do it regularly. Those instructional fitness videos, relics of the VHS and DVD eras, many of which have been archived on YouTube, might not have been “fun,” but they were ubiquitous in my childhood and so inevitably a part of cheerful settings, like summer camp. There we’d dance to MTV’s The Grind, where a famous-ish face stood at the foreground of a studio and fanatically barked orders, acting equal parts evangelist, guru, and maniac, promising deliverance in dance-calisthenics. Raised in the 1990s, I have a soft spot for the exercise tape aesthetic: upbeat motivational speech, house music, and B-movie production values all mashed together. These days I’m chronically overworked, and I don’t have cable, which means I rarely see even infomercials or gym machine TV spots anymore. But I do see Peloton ads. All of a sudden those are everywhere.

Outside of Lil Nas X’s “Panini” video and Black Mirror binges, there hasn’t been much media in the past ten years that makes me feel like an extra in The Twilight Zone’s alien cuisine masterpiece “To Serve Man”; in other words, I haven’t come across much work that makes me feel I’m being physically primed for a future where my body will be enlisted in ways I don’t fully understand. Except for Peloton ads. The Peloton commercials are a snapshot of the way exercise works in modern America. Take the example of the stay-at-home cyclist pedaling away while singing along off-key to The Fugees’ “Ready or Not.” See his instructor cheerlead him by way of live feed on attached video screen. The setting of the ad in the home office hints at versatility and easy comportment of the machine, not to mention the luxurious privacy it affords the user, but it also signals the convergence of exercise and the demands of labor. These commercials, with their individual riders powering away in spare bedrooms and living rooms, against a backdrop of bookshelves and wall-to-ceiling loft windows, remind us that the conditioning of our bodies is now a 24/7 affair, to be continued in the domicile. Jonathan Black states as much in his 2013 book Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History: “Fitness today is an all-consuming habit,” and the individual-centric gamification of exercise, the Quantified Self movement, suggests the ongoing colonization of our bodies by capital. The word Peloton, after all, originally meant “platoon” in French. It’s as if an army of rich assholes is basic training in their bedrooms for the coming class war.

I have a soft spot for the exercise tape aesthetic: upbeat motivational speech, house music, and B-movie production values all mashed together.

But the Peloton ads do invoke, in the negative, exercise as a fading collective spectacle. In the eighties and nineties, workout videos were everywhere: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” video, Jane Fonda’s hit VHS tapes, Richard Simmons’s “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” series, and MTV’s The Grind, Billy Blanks and Tae Bo. But in the aughts and 2010s, workout videos became grist for parody and ridicule: Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan” (2004) joke music video; OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” (2006); and in recent seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the breakup of a friendship hinged on payment for a workout DVD that was never released. And today, though the aesthetics of exercise are still at the core of contemporary life—with the rise of athleisure, the proliferation of Instagram before-and-after posts, and the ready-at-hand workout app—the popular exercise video has all but disappeared from the zeitgeist. Indeed, the buzzy 2017 podcast Missing Richard Simmons glossed over why the once ubiquitous fitness guru might be missing: group workout videos have migrated onto YouTube and other digital channels, where they don’t have the same cultural cachet as they once did.

This disappearance arrives at the moment of Goop, niche diets, and self-care, when an obedient American culture is stuck to the idea that the hard work of physical improvement must be undertaken humorlessly and self-laceratingly alone. Of course, there has long been something exploitative about the mediated spectacle of exercise. It’s just obvious that now, in the Pelotoncene, we’re left with the idea that we must pull ourselves up by our own stirrup leggings.

Bodies in Lotion

The spectacle of collective exercise is an old sweatband of American life. In Making the American Body, Jonathan Black takes America’s fitness craze all the way back to the group exercise demonstrations of gymnasts and elite athletes on Muscle Beach in the 1930s, which he describes as a “lively spectacle” that drew “crowds of onlookers.” Dig Black’s description of Muscle Beach from its archives:

. . .the denizens of Muscle Beach gather in groups, a mutual admiration society, arms wrapped around one another, smiling into the camera as if to say, “Look at the fun we’re having! Come join us!” It was this sense of shared exuberance, a revel in the pleasures of a vibrant life—their bodies a mere means to an end and not the compulsive goal—that made Muscle Beach such a special phenomenon and a mecca for athletes and bodybuilders.

This happy orgy of interlocked muscles smacks of a proto-workout video. Of course, the Muscle Beach scene would produce celebrities like Pudgy Stockton, a fitness pioneer and muscle-bound magazine cover girl, and Jack LaLanne, who became famous for his Trimnastics and nutrition programs. Black writes that LaLanne’s telegenic presence impressed viewers even more than his physique. “A mere five-foot-four, he developed a serious chest but got much more mileage from his effervescent personality and folksy manner—the ideal mix for the new medium of television.” LaLanne’s success as a fledgling TV star laid the groundwork for the fitness impresarios who’d come after him. And so the early decades of the twentieth century became a testing ground for the confluence of fitness and celebrity we see today.

The Peloton commercials, with their individual riders powering away in spare bedrooms and living rooms, remind us that the conditioning of our bodies is now a 24/7 affair.

At around the same time, the dance marathon fad, which began in the 1920s, mixed local fame, athleticism, entertainment, and perilous nonstop motion with an opportunity to earn cash. These marathons lasted anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, and today they sound far more strange and hardcore than “Dancing with the Stars.” Writing in 1993, historian Carol Martin predicts the rise of reality television shows when she notes that dance marathon broadcasts were “comprised of a mix of amateurs and professionals.” The professionals were led around by promoters who “added entertainments like mock weddings (or real ones), fights, or specialty numbers.” The amateur contestants were more likely economic victims of the Great Depression; even the spectators were “unemployed, bored, and sometimes angry.” That is, except for the rich among them, who would “spray” winning contestants with coins for sport.

Goodies but Oldies

Decades later, beginning in the late 1960s, dancing fitness again became a major trend. The postwar exercise star was born with the advent of Jacki Sorenson’s Aerobic Dancing TV show in 1969, and Judi Missett’s program, which she renamed Jazzercise in 1974. A distant cousin of The Hustle, Jazzercise, perhaps the pinnacle of spectacle exercise, is a semi-dance whose grace is belied by its name: popularized in the waning years of disco, you need only imagine dancers switching venues, from Studio 54 to barre studios, and replacing cocaine and booze with bottled water and diet pills.

In the 1980s, exercise videos added the sweaty sheen of the Reagan era; it’s almost as if supply-side, trickle-down economic policy became incarnated in the drenched and dripping limbs of aerobics instructors staged in front of two-stepping, smiling hordes. If the burgeoning movement needed a credo, Olivia Newton-John was the right person to devise it. Her megahit “Physical,” (1981) which Billboard named the number one single of the 1980s, toyed with the conventions of workout videos and set the tone for the exercise-obsessed American decade. The Australian herself was also a timely ambassador for the concept of radical physical transformation (of the sort the song’s video played around with). In the late seventiess and early eighties, Newton-John’s fame was predicated on her ability to shape-shift from adult contemporary stalwart to movie star, from “good-girl” to sexpot. Her eighties cinematic output was basically a series of elaborations on the Grease scene that made her an international megastar, the one where she gets a makeover and strolls through carnival grounds in leather and teased-up hair. Her spectacular before-and-after was an elaboration of America’s abiding obsession with “befores” and “afters.”

In the 1980s, exercise videos added the sweaty sheen of the Reagan era; it’s almost as if supply-side, trickle-down economic policy became incarnated in the drenched and dripping limbs of aerobics instructors.

If Olivia Newton-John warmed up the country, Jane Fonda whipped it into shape. After the fallout from her Vietnam War activism (but before her marriage to Ted Turner), Fonda remade herself into an exercise maven. Remarkably, her very participation in America’s fitness craze was a return to her role in the 1969 classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s Depression-era period drama about a 1930s dance marathon, of all things.

In her book Popular Fads and Crazes through American History, Nancy Hendricks suggests that Jane Fonda’s original workout video, which became one of the best-selling VHS tapes of all-time, transformed the exercise industry en masse, spurring the arrival of gyms that welcomed women and the trend of the street marathon race. And, she writes,

it was not only the world of fitness that benefitted [sic] from the success of Jane Fonda’s Workout. She reinvented not only herself but the entertainment industry by spurring sales of VCRs and purchasing videocassettes rather than renting. As a final touch, she added the catchphrases “No pain, no gain” and “Feel the burn!” to the national vocabulary.

But if Fonda created the template for actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson, all of whom transitioned into careers as lifestyle entrepreneurs, Richard Simmons crazily and radically inverted it. Arguably the breakout fitness celebrity of his time, Simmons, a squat and excitable man, became a household name on the strength of his fitness program alone. With his Sweatin’ to the Oldies series, he made exercise accessible, featuring people of all sizes. Simmons’s productions also relied heavily on nostalgia, the “oldies” being only one of his many nods to the past. In his tapes, the action is set in replicas of Americana hubs, from the folksy-sounding “Pops Diner” to a generic town square with doo-wop lip-syncing flannel-clad men milling in the background. Relying on the communal memory of Broadway favorites like Our Town or The Music Man, Simmons’s productions romanticized a more “innocent” time in American history and emphasized the way exercise might bring harmony off the set and into the real world. How ironic, then, that Simmons went from being ubiquitous in the eighties and nineties to becoming an “oldie” himself, plucked from nostalgia and reintroduced to culture on Missing Richard Simmons, like one of the songs he loved to sing and dance to.

Lies and Grind

Before the era of chronic burnout, of paralyzing ecological gloom and financial desperation and the gig economy, there was MTV’s The Grind. One of the network’s flagship programs in the early nineties, The Grind metabolized reality television both past and future into the chiseled form of Eric Nies, who had previously starred in the first season of MTV’s The Real World. The show itself represented a hip update of the genre Jane Fonda popularized, and it fittingly provided a vehicle for Nies, a nascent reality star who would go on to appear on a series of MTV’s Real World reunion shows, spring break parties, and The Challenge, a meta-commentary on reality TV fame and competition.

The show’s graphics, which included industrial block letters and a machinery apparatus, made exercise seem like factory work if mellower, with Coolio and Bizarre Inc. blasting in the background. There’s probably not a better cog-in-machine visual metaphor for the twenty-first century than the image of a reality star imploring you to achieve perpetual motion, juxtaposed with a grinding-gears motif and his ever-twisting torso. In this respect, The Grind is where the celebrity-industrial complex met the punishments of perfecting the body—Warhol’s Factory remade as a hamster wheel. (Given Warhol’s supposed penchant for working out and weightlifting, it’s not that much of a stretch.) Even its didactic moments, like the integration of dance steps, happened too quickly for a novice without a photographic memory and the dexterity of a professional dancer. The futility of learning the dance steps hinted at the pure entertainment value of the enterprise; at the end of the day, if you couldn’t hack the moves you could just watch hot people grooving to house music. “Remember this is only a tape, so you can rewind it and go through it again and see what you’re doing wrong,” Nies joked and lied.

In the 2000s, exercise videos became less prominent in mainstream culture, in part because the technology of distribution radically changed with the decline of VHS. DVDs reached their peak in the 2000s, but exercise discs slowly lost their place in the next decade’s cultural zeitgeist. As exercise videos moved to an assortment of streaming services and apps, the galvanizing celebrity produced by the kind of monoculture that made Richard Simmons and Billy Blanks household names became less and less likely. Eclipsed by niche channels and streaming services, highly personalized self-care, and a shift in celebrity entrepreneurship—to multi-million-dollar lifestyle brands and subscription services—the exercise tape (or DVD) no longer had a viable place in culture.

If Jane Fonda created the template for actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson, Richard Simmons crazily and radically inverted it.

Bravo’s Work Out represented the reality show as the apotheosis of this decline in the figure of Jackie Warner, exercise guru and would-be household name. The show combined the non-drama of Warner’s ownership and operation of a Beverly Hills gym with the soap opera-like fabrications familiar to reality television. In this way, Work Out was like a throwback to the dance marathons of the twenties and thirties, filling time that wasn’t devoted to obliquely hawking her products (or herself as a product) with the melodrama of her personal life. It was as if the title of the show was a reference to exercise and a desperate plea Warner had made to her own life.

The Biggest Loser, which premiered in 2004, finally fractured the visual communalism of the workout tape. Instead of showing lovable schlubs working together, as in Sweatin’ to the Oldies, contestants on Biggest Loser were usually left to fend for themselves; and given the rules and mandates of reality TV, they dropped one by one. In a time of rampant social isolation and the right wing’s embrace of social Darwinism, it’s not hard to see how Biggest Loser’s ethos applies more generally—the show’s title seems to have been invented by the president.

Exercise Bike to Nowhere

According to an estimate by Second Measure, which tracks credit and debit card spending, more people own a Peloton than belong to a SoulCycle studio. This drop in physical attendance at brick-and-mortar spinning gyms and luxury fitness clubs seems to coincide with their cultural decline. Places like SoulCycle and Equinox are now parodies of themselves, moving from staples of the highbrow cultural matrix to objects of ridicule. For instance, in the recent viral essay about Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway, writer Natalie Beach pokes fun at the way elite gyms like Equinox are hubs for wealthy health nuts and wannabes; her fake-it-til-you-make-it ex–best friend Calloway was a client.

The shift from Susan Powter’s “Stop the Insanity!” nutrition and exercise program in the nineties to fitness brand Beachbody’s now-popular Insanity DVDs is perceptible in the dip of mainstream fame you find from the former to the latter, but also in the culture’s approach to the core idea each program was circling. In this moment, we’ve leaned into all the feelings an exercise program called Insanity might connote, along with the financial exploitation that’s allegedly a part of it. Apparently fitness coaches for Beachbody, a multi-level marketing company that also produces Paul Ryan’s preferred workout P90X, and which pulled in a billion dollars in revenue in 2017, only earned an average of $2,628 a year for their work, according to a 2017 financial disclosure. (The next year that number rose to $3,019.) Beachbody coaches are situated at the nexus of Peloton-like perpetual movement and the financial insecurity of gig labor.

No pain, no gain, I guess. But the Peloton option holds no sway with me; the ads inspire me to daydream more than they encourage me to work out. I imagine myself on the Peloton, moving maniacally in a warren of a room, a makeshift womb where I’m yet to debut a new me. I see the Peloton as a time capsule, improving my present body through exercise so that I can preserve it for the future. I think about what it’s like to walk or row to nowhere on a high-intensity exercise bike that doubles as a simile for the hamster wheel of nonstop physical labor. We don’t need Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda anymore. We provide the hapless, joyless spectacle of constant motion all by ourselves.