Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“Forget what you’re going to be someday—you’re strong … today!”
It hurts to laugh, but then, there’s not much to laugh about. It even hurts to writhe in pain, and of that, there is plenty.
In a cruel twist to the lyrics of the Beyoncé song, I woke up like this, one day after enduring D.C.’s first SweatCon rally—a “sweat crawl” through a trio of boutique fitness studios in Washington, D.C.
The PR e-mail for the event had assured me that “fitness crawls are becoming the new beer crawls in cities.” I was skeptical of this claim, but then I googled it, and there it was: in a Shape Magazine article from 2017. Think bar crawl, but healthy. Instead of local dives, we’d hit up gyms. Instead of drunken brawling, we’d slap sweaty high-fives. And the only buzz we’d experience would be the endorphin high of high-intensity exertion. It was organized by a company called Sweat Concierge, which features reviews of exercise studios written by unbiased local experts—a Zagat for working out. This was the company’s first event in D.C., but sixth overall, after SweatCon rallies in Boston and New York. Here, it had partnered with 15 fitness studios in five neighborhoods; each neighborhood “tour” would take the participants to three studios for back-to-back 30-minute sessions.
The D.C. of 2018 does not lack either for high-end fitness amenities or young consumers lining up to purchase them: The city’s recent transformation into a playground for Millennials has brought with it a surge of health clubs and exercise-related retailers—many in formerly working-class, minority neighborhoods. The rise of the urban fitness industry has gone hand-in-hand with the city’s growing affluence, but it’s also prompted questions about equity, and about who these new amenities are for.
In certain ways, I’m smack in the middle of the target audience for the city’s snazzy new sweat economy—a young professional woman prone to occasional spasms of self-improvement. Last year, I’d started using ClassPass, an app that allows for slightly more affordable access to fitness classes. And a few times a week, I ran, lifted, puffed, and sweated—all in hope of coping with an increasingly stressful and depressing news cycle. Maybe I was just preparing for the end of the world.
Whatever it was, it didn’t last; after a few months, I injured my knee, and lapsed back into my lower-intensity regime. The news cycle ground relentlessly on; the chaos won.
But while I was drawn to D.C.’s fitness scene, I also felt out of place in that world. For one, I don’t look like the typical client, and I was concerned about what that said about the neighborhoods I found these studios in—and, the city. And second, I was uncomfortable—and ultimately a little bit exhausted—by my own constant desire to be something else: thinner, stronger … better?
On a summer Saturday morning, the sun was glistening in the windows of the fancy-looking condo building in Shaw, a historically black D.C. neighborhood that has famously gentrified in recent years. With dread in my heart and the remnants of last evening’s margaritas in my belly, I took the elevator up to the rooftop for the mandatory SweatCon check-in party.
The elevator door opened, spitting me out into a gaggle of young women trickling into the event. At the door, a peppy attendant in a SweatCon tank top handed me a coupon for Bird scooters. Another gave me a swag bag with my very own SweatCon tank and various fitness brand samples. At one end of the room was a Reebok sportswear expo, and at the other was a photo booth organized by a MINDBODY, a workout-class booking app. A very friendly MINDBODY employee tried to cajole some women in front of me to “get in there!” They giggled nervously and sidestepped it. I followed their lead.
Outside, a DJ spun top-40 hits. Some attendees flocked to the braiding station. Others clumped together in twos at the tables, chomping on mini-salads from a Sweetgreen station. I accepted a bottle of free pH-regulating water from one of the freebie stations and sat on the last empty table in the sun. Looking around the milling crowd of about 60, I counted the women of color, as I tend do at events where I feel out of place: 8… 9… 10? Maybe a few more? The growing group of attendees looked to me mostly, but not all white; mostly, but not all female; mostly, but not all young.
Emboldened by the Cardi B song the DJ was playing, I decided to try fitting in. I looked around for an easy target—a friendly-looking person who was alone—and spotted Christina Lane, a 28-year-old black woman with a colorful headband and open smile. Christina was looking to supplement her current fitness regime with something fun, and signed up for SweatCon to sample some new classes—“knock them out back to back, and see how it goes,” she told me.
She’d lived in D.C. for six years, a period in which, I pointed out to her, the city has undergone a lot of changes. Christina saw some of these changes—all these new fitness places, for example—as positives, but she wasn’t sure if longtime D.C. residents were able to benefit from them. The boutique studios that SweatCon was hyping represent the higher end of the fitness industry, where drop-in classes run between $20 and $40 a pop. Unlimited memberships are higher than $200 a month. In other words, they’re generally much more expensive than your regular franchise gym membership, and they make grander promises. For less-affluent urbanites, there are cheaper alternatives—from community-center gym memberships to discounted or free local classes. But the SweatCon rally was very much a display of aspirational exercise.
“Tickets aren’t cheap, so you’re not really bringing in locals who can see the positive changes,” she said about the $75 price tag for the SweatCon Rally. (Full dislosure: CityLab got a free press ticket to this event.)
A little bit later, I caught up with Tori Scott, the founder of Sweat Concierge, to get her thoughts. I confessed to her that I didn’t see myself as the typical SweatCon rally attendee for many reasons—one of them being my misanthropic personality. Perhaps, I joked, this kind of scenario intimidated me because I did not like people. She laughed good-naturedly, like someone who did like people.
If you meet Tori, you can see she is an athlete. Had this been an actual bar crawl, and I’d gotten into a drunken fight, I’d want her on my side. In college, she played ice hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse; later on, she got into CrossFit, the high-intensity fitness program that became all the rage a few years ago. “Fitness studios play into my sports background,” she said. “It feels like you’re training with your team again, surrounded by all of your friends.”
I mentioned my diversity concerns, and asked her who generally attended these events. Tori had a frank response. “It’s very typical fitness-class goer: 25- to 35-year old female; probably a little bit more affluent; usually white,” she said. “It’s like the basic Millennial. That’s who's filling these classes, if you go to them and look around. I don’t think boutique fitness is diverse in any way.”
Since the SweatCon Rally was a marketing tool for the existing exercise studios, it wouldn’t really make sense to make it cheaper, she said, since that would bring in people who wouldn’t be able to go back and pay for the actual fitness classes. “There are probably other events that can break that, but this is almost playing into that, instead of breaking down that barrier.”
Our first stop was a studio called [solidcore]—that’s how they spell it, brackets and all. I was fully prepared to get a solider core in the next half hour: It’s reputed to be one of the toughest workouts in D.C.—and a favorite of former first lady Michelle Obama. Fun fact: Ivanka Trump also once attended a class there, after which the owner wrote a Facebook post criticizing her father. Fitness D.C. is still D.C.
When I got there, the tall, sculpted, sassy instructor gave out rapid-fire instructions on how to use the contraptions that filled the room. They looked like pilates machines on steroids, and the [solidcore] people dubbed them all “Sweatlana.” Soon, we began to crunch.
“At [solidcore],” our instructor bellowed into his headset, “it isn’t about success. It’s about failure—we want your muscles to fail.” And sure enough, there I was on my inexplicable machine: barely curling my biceps, barely lifting my booty, barely contorting my core, and still in unspeakable agony.
“Forget six-pack abs. That’s whatever. Forget what you’re going to be someday—you’re strong … today!” he cried. I could find no evidence to support his statement, but appreciated the sentiment. If I’m being honest, though, I kind of wanted the abs, or arms like Michelle Obama. If there’s one thing the fitness/wellness industry is adept at, it’s seducing us with the eternal promise of self-improvement: Serums and potions for younger skin, FaceGyms (!) for a tighter face, and the hottest new workout for the strongest, skinniest, most supple body. If you can pay for it, you can flaunt it. And perhaps the biggest thrill is the feeling that you’re in control of that journey of transformation—and by extension, maybe your life! Maybe even the world! That’s the crazy promise that had fueled my exercise spree last summer.
“The world keeps spinning outside, so do yourself a fucking favor and stay here with me,” the [solidcore] instructor yelled, snapping me back to the clubby, blue-lit studio.
After that, the 10 or 12 of us in my group trudged across Shaw to our next stop on New Hampshire and 11th, right across from a community playground and skate park. At Cut Seven, we started by running circuits in a gym with black matte walls and red lighting. We spent most of the class doing various types of squats in groups, while our instructor—a woman with thighs like marble obelisks—barked encouragingly. Towards the end, we were made to push a large, deceptively heavy cube back and forth across the floor, in a Sisyphean relay race that seemed, to me, an endless hell.
My team, I learned, was made up of the strongest, kindest people in the world. They cheered me on as I flailed and didn’t judge me when I skipped a turn for fear of throwing up. I was back at it after I caught my breath, though, because apparently my fear of disappointing others is stronger than my fear of losing control of bodily functions.
After the class, I wobbled into stride with my savior—a petite Asian-American woman on my team who’d taken my turn when I’d tapped out. She grew up competing on the swim team, she told me, and had became addicted to exercise studios in D.C. in recent years. Usually, she enjoyed [solidcore] or one of the others with her husband six times a week, but for three months, she’d stopped going. She’d been very stressed out about a very important exam, and while she knew exercise would help, she felt she was in a hole, and it was hard to dig herself out of it.
“I know that hole,” I told her as we entered the Flow Yoga Center—our last stop. “I am a regular at that hole.”
As we spritzed some lavender spray on our embattled selves, I thought about the value of these sorts of group exercise classes. For some people—women, in particular, it seems—an hour of intense exercise may be the ideal form of self-care; of empowerment, even. For others I had spoken to, going through these rituals with a group seemed to create meaningful bonding experiences. And for sure, there were worse ways to cope.
But while I did not want to judge anyone’s choices, it felt important to recognize that only some of us had them. As I crouched on my yoga mat next to idols of Ganesha and Buddha, I remembered what Barbara Ehrenreich—herself a lapsed gym rat—noted in her new book, Natural Causes: The ability to do the new crazy workout or buy that $100 skin care serum is often conflated by our society with moral superiority. Here’s Gabriel Winant in The New Republic, explaining Ehrenreich’s argument:
Like workout culture, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption. It is only the wealthy who have the resources to maintain the illusion of an integral and bounded self, capable of responsible self-care and thus worthy of social status. The same logic says that those who smoke (read: poor), or don’t eat right (poor again), or don’t exercise enough (also poor) have personally failed and somehow deserve their health problems and low life expectancy.
Being mindful of that, I settled into a series of stretches and restorative poses—guided by a slender man with the sensual, somber air of a ballerina. That day, he wore cream-colored nail paint, and a bunch of japa malas around his wrist. I’d taken his class before, and had quite enjoyed it—I’d appreciated his focus on administering a challenging sequence instead of doling out Hindu philosophy. The latter can be a tad awkward if you’re the only Indian person in class. At the end of our 30-minute session, he bid us “namaste,” as is customary in American yoga classes. (In India, “namaste” is something one says to a nosy neighborhood auntie or an elderly visiting relative.)
I responded by silently folding my hands in gratitude.