I work as an assistant and Dame of the Front Desk at a high-end yoga and spin studio that sits amidst similarly high-end boutiques, coffee shops, and a Pinkberry in one of the more affluent parts of Los Angeles. This is an insular universe in which the demographics are heavily skewed towards the white, thin, female, and wealthy. And the vast majority of staff — myself included — are white, female, thin, and less-than-wealthy. It’s a weird little world in which everything is all Lululemon all the time and where, in the general absence of men, women size each other up and compare ourselves to one another constantly.
At my job, women objectify themselves. We don’t even need men for that any longer — that’s how ingrained the habit is. It happens when one client (who’s probably in her 40s, but has significantly better abs than I do, and I’m 22 and was a collegiate athlete) takes her shirt off in spin class, and every other woman in the room looks at her, then at themselves in the full-length mirror, and their faces fall just a little, even as they pedal all the harder. It happens when another client walks into the yoga room and bends and twists and never sweats (which, by the way, is a travesty; if you're not at least glistening, you're doing it wrong). Her neighbors to the left and the right sneak peeks at her and then stare at their mats so hard you can practically see brain cells burning as they wonder why they, too, don’t look like that in down dog. It happens every time a new female instructor starts, with an entire class of women sizing her up — does she look fit enough to listen to? It’s no accident that the two instructors with the highest class attendance counts (besides the studio’s founders) are also the most conventionally pretty with the most conventionally attractive bodies.
Part of this phenomenon is just the nature of the beast: the branding of any fitness studio is dependent on the clients’ belief that if they take the classes that the studio offers, one day they will look like the instructors. So the instructors better look good.
Part of this is also location. This is, after all, Los Angeles — the trendy border between Venice and Santa Monica, specifically. And while stereotyping a whole city is never an awesome idea, I grew up here. I spent an awkward adolescence here. For better or for worse, looks matter, and the weather ensures that no one is all that covered up for most of the year.
Part of this phenomenon is also universal. My friends and I did it in college. Lindsey Lohan and Rachel McAdams did it in Mean Girls. We, women, are way harder on each other and ourselves than most men ever will be. The pursuit of physical perfection is something that appears to come with two X chromosomes, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. And, for whatever reason, there is no place where that pursuit of perfection and that constant state of comparison and competition is more noticeable than at the gym (or studio). Why? Why are we so hard on each other and ourselves? Why do we expend so much unnecessary energy worrying about how we look fatter than the girl next to us instead of just focusing on our workout? It could be the media, or the way girls are socialized, or myriad other reasons.
But I have a simple answer. It's the mirrors. So many women just stare at themselves while they spin, willing themselves to look better, to be thinner, to have more toned thighs or upper arms or abs or calve or whatever it is, and they are hoping against hope that they will see those changes happen in front of their eyes during a 45-minute spin class. They won't. None of us will. All we're going to see when we look in the mirror at the gym or at spin class or wherever is ourselves: Sweaty, frizzy-haired, and red-faced. The mirrors aren't helping anyone.
So here's my proposal. Let's all stop checking ourselves and each other out at the gym. Let's just concentrate on working our asses off. No, it will not make me or you or any of our friends feel less pressure to look perfect. But, at the very least, it will lead to better workouts. And, who knows, it might help start to reclaim spaces (the gym, the spin studio, the yoga room) that are intended to be all about feeling good, rather than looking good.