Something you should know about me: I’m kind of an exercise addict, and I have been since the mid-’90s. It started when I gained some version of the Freshman 15, and, having never been to a gym before but certainly having danced, I ordered Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies. The choreography wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was also not boring; the music was great; and, well, who is more encouraging for a soul than Richard Simmons? So successful were my results (a little too successful, but that’s for another newsletter) that soon other girls in my dorm were joining me as we grapevined off the pounds to the sounds of “Gimme Some Lovin’.” After my Richard Simmons era, there was step aerobics, then spin classes at Crunch, pilates with Mari Winsor, Zumba, pilates in a studio, a brief dalliance with pole dancing, yoga, Tracy Anderson Method DVDs, running, Bikram yoga, SoulCycle, Bar Method, SoulCycle again, and then the pandemic, when I reunited with Tracy Anderson via her online studio. (I have never been in better shape than when I was doing Tracy Anderson workouts.)

My exercise addiction is complicated and, with brief exceptions such as my time with Richard Simmons, it has been defined more by fear and duty than by joy. You have to understand, I was hardwired before body positivity was a thing. It’s difficult to describe the amount of affirmation that I received when I lost that weight my freshman year. Soon enough, working out evolved into something I did out of fear that I would return to that fleshier version of myself.

I’d never set out to have a Kate Moss body, but society—especially in that era—certainly told me that I should. And the message I got from the instructors at the front of the room—either being yelled at me over a microphone or cooed during their motivational chats—was that I could. If, of course, I committed to working hard. Never mind the fact that I, and many women, are fundamentally shaped differently than the Kate Moss body type. A lack of the desired result (often defined as looking, if not like a model, then at least like the instructor) was almost always attributed to a lack of commitment. This created a new phase: exercise as an exercise in failure. Being too afraid of flab to not show up, but knowing there was no number of classes you could ever take to “succeed.”

I’m not unaware of the racial and ethnic undercurrents in my personal journey with working out. It’s not lost on me that I’d never given a thought to my weight before my immersion in the predominantly white and wealthy culture of my college. It’s also not lost on me that I spent the majority of my time in group-fitness classes surrounded by white, affluent women. I was in my mid-20s, licking my wounds from the worst of my eating disorder, when I read a New York Times article discussing a newfound sense of body positivity among teens and attributing it, in part, to the mainstreaming of Black and Latino culture. I distinctly remember feeling both othered and annoyed. I’d been born too soon to be peer-pressured by my own cultural norms.

To read the rest, subscribe to The Atlantic.

Already a subscriber? Sign in