Finding Belonging at the YMCA – Giulia

An ode (weirdly) to my gym

This summer, I found some peace while sitting in a hot tub with four elderly, naked women screaming over the jets to one another.

Moving my body has always been an important part of my life. I spent much of my teen years in a dance studio, and when college came around and my dreams of being a video-girl faded, I lost something that I wasn’t really aware I ever had. I had never entered a gym until I was 19 — it always struck me as a sad, clinical place. All of my conceptions of health and wellness were tied up in creative expression, and the thought of lifting mass up and down just to keep my body up and running seemed inordinately depressing. It of course never occurred to me that such a supposedly depressing activity could, in fact, be an anti-depressant.

After a serious bout of depression and insomnia in my first year of university, it became clear to me that movement — or maybe just endorphins — were essential to maintaining my mental health. I sought out spaces that reminded me of the studios I once spent my evenings in — large bright rooms, big mirrors, maybe even a decorative plant, or a poster saying something like “EXHALE”.

It was also important to me to be surrounded by women. My dance studio had been a safe haven for me during high school, a community of women that allowed me to seek comfort and exploration in my body as opposed to shame and anxiety (unfortunately a rarity in the dance world). Yoga, Pilates, barre — your typical ‘20-something-female’ fare — became somewhat of a gap-filler.

There were a number of problems with this approach. The first was money. I was a perpetual student for a number of years, so the solution of hopping from studio to studio enjoying ‘beginner’s deals’ was the only way to avoid astronomical fees.

The other was a sense of discomfort — the exact feeling I was trying so hard to avoid. While I can’t say I didn’t enjoy many of the studios I visited, in many there was a sense of exclusivity. It was a community, to be sure, but there seemed to be some password to entry that nobody told me about. There was always one elite group of members who knew every instructor by name, and would always walk in saying things like “Jenna, last night’s core class KILLED me! I am literally DEAD today!” — following which they would spring like gazelle into the studio, ponytails bouncing. These women could obviously afford a daily class, and sports bras that matched their leggings. A matching sports bra and leggings is of course, the fitness equivalent of a velvet robe and sceptre.

It’s interesting to note that this time in my life coincided with a seismic shift in the fitness industry. A radical (or so it seemed) turn away from fitness as a means to an end, and towards a lifestyle focused on ‘wellness’ of both mind and body. And yet, the tropes remained the same. It seemed that exercising for health was just another route to the same iconography of a perfect body. Despite discussions around women getting ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’, there was still an aspect of vanity that remained, and even seemed heightened with the rise of gym selfies and fitness accounts on Instagram. Of course, I think for many women exercise will always be tied to weight loss, no matter how much we may try to deny it. But it seemed silly to do all of the work to reframe a toxic narrative, and then continue to perpetuate an unattainable and non-inclusive ideal.

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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