Editor’s note: The following essay and its theme were inspired by author Jia Tolentino’s essay “Always be Optimizing”, which is in her 2019 book, “Trick Mirror”.
My favorite part of a Pure Barre workout is when we go into bridge lifts — upper back on the ground, pelvis pushing up toward the ceiling — because it’s the most overtly sexual thing we do, and it means class is almost over.
Pure Barre was founded by Carrie Dorr in 2001, just outside of Detroit. Driven by a results-oriented “lift, tone, burn” mantra, Pure Barre focuses on low-impact, muscle-burning movements intended to tighten and lengthen the body. Pure Barre Classic is the company’s original workout: Each class is designed to isolate various muscle groups using a ballet barre, two sets of light weights and tomato-colored balls and bands.
Each class is uniform and scary, the lights turning on, dimming, turning back on and turning off as a lean woman with hair the color of a maraschino cherry screams over the “50 Shades of Grey” soundtrack for you to “take your seat to your heels, halfway up and hold.”
“I don’t know if anyone here is a sucker like me and does those barre classes where you’re supposed to sculpt your clit into an ancient arrowhead or whatever … ” (Jenny Slate said in her Netflix comedy special “Stage Fright.”)
Barre started as a way for women to strive toward and successfully experience better sex. In a piece for The Cut, Danielle Friedman writes that the woman who created barre, “Lotte Berk, a free-love revolutionary who began teaching the regimen in 1959, specifically wanted to advance what she called ‘the state of sex’ by encouraging women to pursue sex for their own pleasure.”
Berk was a German-Jewish dancer who sought refuge in London after the Nazis inhibited her career, and she radicalized a brand of fitness that was acutely erotic and prioritized female gratification. “Perhaps most famously,” Friedman writes, “she is rumored to have told clients, ‘If you can’t tuck, you can’t fuck.’ And her clients loved her for it.”
While modern-day barre isn’t about sex, there is a promise that it will make you sexier. This promise is buried in the fantasy that, one day, you’ll be desirable in the way that all “Barre Babes” are.
I imagine a Barre Babe as this: She has healthier hair than you and abs you can see through her tank top. She has clear skin and never wears makeup in class, which she takes every day because she’s tougher than you. She’s the exercise equivalent to author Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl”:
Being the Cool Girl means I am … hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
We barre-goers pelvic thrust in an orbit around Barre Babe, hating her and the fact that we’ll never quite be her. She threatens and tinkers with our self-worth, so we pay for monthly memberships and $25 socks and tank tops that say “oh, tuck” because Barre Babe is toned and sexy, effortless and happy. We feel good about ourselves after each hour in the studio and book our next class from our beds, under a weighted blanket and a bag of chips.
Barre3, a cardio and strength-based workout, was designed by Sadie Lincoln in efforts to defy the Barre Babe mentality. Each class is similar without being identical: We warm up and hit each major muscle group, liberated to take or leave modifications along the way.
Lincoln and her husband Chris started the company in August 2008, with their flagship studio in Portland, Ore. There are now 148 franchise studios around the world, all led by entrepreneurial women. She admits on National Public Radio’s “How I Built This” that when she first opened her doors, she was teaching 19 classes a day. “My body broke,” she said. “Literally, my back went out, and I remember my mom saying to me, ‘Honey, you’re embodying your business.’ “
“I learned that to be healthy,” she continued. “It really is okay to pause, to not move, to not achieve, and to not have an outward expression of what exercise means.”
Barre3 and Pure Barre are not the same, but they’re clumped together in the world of boutique fitness, where Lincoln’s dream of murdering Barre Babe with self-empowerment is brazenly weakened by female competition and the collective mentality that the grass is always greener on the other side. If only we could drop lower, if only we could hold a side plank, if only we could manage heavier weights — she’s doing it.
The summer of 2016, I started going to Barre3 in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri because I wanted to look better. It beat the shit out of me, but I kept going back. My waist was getting smaller, and my thundering thighs were starting to slim. My arms were shedding the meat I’ve always hated about myself, letting muscles ripple to the surface.
Sumo-squatting once a week turned into two times, which eventually grew to four or five, and sometimes even six. I loved the escalating lightness of early morning classes, which I’d take with my mom before she left for work. The sky blushed, its rosy fever creeping onto our opening breaths as the sun rose on our thickening layer of sweat.
Barre3 made my whole body shake, pain giving way to a numb and premeditated quiver which instructors would croon was “my body changing.” I loved those changes; I felt powerful in them. Go ahead, make me pulse, I thought. I don’t mind, I’m the Barre Babe.
Wellness is “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal,” as stated by Merriam-Webster. Per mainstream refinement and capitalism, wellness is a catch-all. An empire has been built around the concept of “wellness” with various territories holding stake: boutique fitness, athleisure, minimalism, diet culture, anti-diet culture, CBD, yoga. On and on and on.
The paradoxes of the wellness world — inclusivity and unattainability, envy and admiration, authenticity and superficiality, business and recreation — have no bearing on its ability to turn a profit. Wellness is an absorptive and active phenomenon, both in practice and principle, and it’s driven by results. People are making money, be it through genuine intention or a preying on pure anxiety, from other people wanting to become Barre Babe. The never-ending-ness of that becoming is what continues to perpetuate and fund the culture. We can plank and step-tap and carousel-horse and squat and tuck and fuck however much we want, but it’ll never be enough. We’ll never be done.
A dear friend and forever muse recently took up yoga. Jack Brandon, recent LSA graduate and Daily Arts King, started in July 2019 for a few different reasons: “The first is that it became an easier option than going to the gym, which had started to become a chore and stopped being a comfortable way to exercise,” he said.
“The second reason is that my boyfriend had been doing it for a while and that made it a little more interesting to me. My friends had been doing it before, but I had assumed it was too expensive or too hard. I was fairly inflexible and wanted to save myself the embarrassment of not being able to hold poses. The third is that a yoga instructor I had met once told me I had a ‘very sexual energy.’ ”
Jack’s approach to yoga is deliberate: He wanted to be comfortable, he wanted to work out with his boyfriend and he wanted to feel sexy. The curiosity driving these wants — will it work? — is what keeps him going back.
Every Pure Barre class, after weight-work and a thigh sprint, we stretch. The music slows into an acoustic serenade, or some melancholic electronica, and we’re all facing ourselves in the mirror, panting and alive, as we’re told to lean into our version of the splits, “pushing for equal strength and flexibility each class.” Sliding into the stretch, folding into my inner thighs as they settled on the ground without pain or force, took months of classes. And then I did it, and I felt comfortable and sexy and like something was working. This money I spent was working, my body was working. Jack, look, it works.
In the past decade, the ability of good health to serve as a marketing tool has blossomed, partly thanks to Gwyneth “I’d Rather Smoke Crack Than Eat Cheese From A Tin” Paltrow. She started her lifestyle brand, Goop, in September 2008, sending the first newsletter out to 10,377 subscribers. The company went on to design detoxes and recipes, soon expanding their content to encompass understandings and anxieties experienced largely by women. A household name herself, Paltrow recruited other divinely feminine celebrities to contribute to Goop’s operation: Bryce Dallas Howard wrote a personal essay on her journey through postpartum depression and Beyoncé donated a pair of shoes to Goop’s “annual charity closet sale.”
Goop’s mission is simple. They want to create change, whether that be in your or for you: “We don’t mind being the tip of the spear — in short, we go first so you don’t have to.”
The current culture of the wellness industry offers the control that Goop is advocating for, straddling a marketable line between the choices we’re currently making and the choices we could make, if only we had the right guidance. You have to buy into the ethos that Goop proposes, which isn’t hard to do when you’re burdened by the deeply human struggle of trying to navigate who you are and who you want to be. The wellness industry sells the merging of the two, monetizing the possibility of being at peace with yourself while capitalizing on the potential that you might have to be even better.
Writer Jia Tolentino talks about the phenomenon of self-improvement in her recent collection of essays, “Trick Mirror.” In a chapter titled “Always Be Optimizing,” she acknowledges the “real pleasures” available in self-improvement, like the ability “to understand your physical body as a source of potential and control.” She also asserts that the beauty ideal promoted by the endless search for a best-self can drag women into “a paradigm where a woman can muster all the technology, money, and politics available to her to actually try to become that idealized self, and where she can understand relentless self-improvement as natural, mandatory, and feminist — or just, without question, the best way to live.”
What happens when you find your “best self,” only to realize that this self isn’t who you thought it might be? Where do you turn when you’ve exhausted the avenues you believed to be in your best interest, avenues you invested in under the impression that you were investing in yourself? What now, Barre Babe?
Pure Barre tracks your class milestones: 100, 250, 500, 740, 1,000, 1,250. There are barres outside of the studio room, nailed to the wall for people to autograph at each mark. When I hit 100 classes, I signed the barre closest to the ground and got a free pair of sticky socks, fresh with a silvery “100” circled in glitter.
I started Pure Barre when I started college, and only because there’s not a Barre3 in Michigan. I grew to crave it — maybe I have an addictive personality, maybe I just like mindlessly air-humping to a club remix of “Losing My Religion.”
Nearing my 250 mark, my socks are still impressively sticky and beginning to thread. They catch the light that’s always dimming and keep my toes from betraying me during the plank at the beginning of class and the end of class and sometimes the middle, if I have the pretty instructor with the foot tattoo. Once I hit 250, I’ll get new socks, and then I’ll get another pair at 500. The stakes keep rising and I keep going and paying and lifting and toning and burning in the name of self-improvement. For a workout that’s supposed to slow me down, I feel like I’m moving faster, racing no one and competing against everyone for the next milestone that I have to have, even if no one but me cares that I have it. You got me, Jia — I’m relentless.
After my 229th class at Pure Barre, I walked home to make dinner. Stirring my layman’s version of Goop’s Vegan Cashew Tomato Soup recipe next to a poster of the man Gwyneth Paltrow consciously uncoupled from in 2016 (Here’s looking at you, Chris Martin), I asked Jack to take me to yoga. He said yes and we made a date for the following night, when I fed him the soup and we walked to his regular studio together.
Like Barre, yoga is sexy, especially in dim rooms that pulse with a warm glow and boast temperatures over 90 degrees. The practice bloomed from India, the word “yoga” derived from “yuj,” which is Sanskrit for “to unite” or “to join.” India is also home to the Kama Sutra, or “Teachings on Desire,” which is an ancient Sanskrit manual for emotional and erotic fulfillment. Google “yoga” and “Kama Sutra” together, and you’ll find headlines like “Kama Sutra or Sex-Yoga?” and “The Yoga of Pure Sex.” You won’t believe what you can do with your body, we’re told, and we want to know.
We put our mats down and Jack immediately took off his shirt, laying on his back with the soles of his feet pressed into one another and his knees spread wide. I looked down at my covered chest and leaned back to copy him.
Yoga was hard and hot, and I sweat more than I was ever allowed to at Pure Barre, where fans tirelessly thrum in the hopes of keeping everyone’s hair comely enough for life outside of the studio. The men in the room kept peeling whatever fabric they could from themselves as the women flowed in their damp sports bras. There was a liberation in moving however I wanted to move. I left loose and warm, a feeling I haven’t had since my sunrises at Barre3.
Four months into his yoga practice, Jack can now fold over his legs, hold a bridge pose, and kick up into a handstand (I saw this last triumph confidently and drunkenly executed against the string-lighted, cotton candy blue walls of a friend’s Kerrytown apartment. Very cool.).
“I keep going back because I like feeling that strong, graceful feeling,” he said. “(It’s) like holding two things I thought were in opposition together in one. It feels very yin and yang.”
And I guess the merging of this dichotomy, the “yin and yang” Jack feels when he’s doing something he thought his body might never be able to do, is what “optimizing yourself” feels like, as Tolentino would put it. I feel this whenever I go to Pure Barre, and still, the grass could be greener, my body could do more, my mind could rest easier. That’s why Pure Barre will never be Barre3 and why Barre3 will never be yoga and why yoga will always make me crave the former of the two even more. I can be tough enough to tuck and strong enough to squat and balanced enough to breathe through a backbend, but to what end?
Softness is critical to success in yoga — and barre and breath and sex, even. You have to abandon the mentality that failure looks or feels a certain way and surrender to the experience. I’m a sensitive person; I always have been, and surrender doesn’t come easy. I was often told to “toughen up” and “be less delicate” and these demands had consequences, devilishly redefining the facets of a gentle person into fears: soft mind, soft heart, soft stomach.
In the summer of 2017, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, a lifelong autoimmune condition in which the intake of gluten attacks my small intestine. Celiac is a result of a genetic predisposition and can be developed at any age. My gastroenterologist — one of the three women who I’m pretty sure saved my life — thinks I had celiac for roughly two years before being diagnosed. At the end of those two years, I spent eight hours in the emergency room getting a stranger’s B+ blood pumped into my left forearm.
When someone with celiac eats enough gluten, they’ll eventually become malnourished. I needed iron infusions and two units of blood and a bronzer that would distinguish me from a ghost (something I hope another South Indian woman never has to say).
My body no longer operated under the agreed upon terms and conditions of the organized fitness I was actively participating in, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I made deals with myself: If I had the extra drink or ate the extra chocolate, I had to book a workout. I wasn’t soft, and I wasn’t going to stop just because I didn’t feel well. I hauled myself to Pure Barre through the snow, during dusky, undiagnosed February mornings — the same month I started getting charley horses in my calves from just walking to class. After the night in the emergency room, I took four days off before returning to barre. I pushed myself until I broke, and then I kept going.
I started toeing a fine and fragile line once barre became a habit: Barre Babe is cute, but at what cost? Was I going because I needed to do something that made me feel like myself, or was I going because I was worried about what would happen to my body if I stopped?
Downward Dog in the back of the room, I glanced over at Jack, who was dripping sweat as he shifted his body’s weight to rest on one leg, leveling his waist for balance as he lowered his chest to the floor. I was jealous — not that he could move his body this way, but that he was brave enough to move fearlessly. After I got diagnosed with celiac, I showed my body no mercy. Soft mind, soft heart, soft stomach. I’d remind myself what to resist — not pausing, still moving, forcing myself to achieve, as though there was glamour to be won in being strong enough to suffer. “Health” became an empty word. I forgot, either tenaciously or in a blind rage, what the woman behind Barre3 wanted her community to know: Taking a break is okay, failing is okay.
Seeing Jack’s sweat slip down the new contours of his back as he lost and gained his stability filled me with purpose: a new way to pause, a new way to move, a new way to achieve.
I spent the past three summers working the front desk at Barre3 in St. Louis. I kept the studio sunny and followed the morning and evening checklists for glorified janitorial duties: mopping the floors, deep cleaning the bathrooms, bleaching the weights.
The best part of the job was the complimentary classes, quickly followed by overseeing child care. Our studio offered free babysitting for members, many of whom I got to know as I bonded with their children, who were anywhere between 6-months-old and 12-years-old.
I befriended the kids, especially when my shifts started falling into a groove, sticking me with the same 9 a.m. crew every Tuesday morning. Returning each summer, I’d see the same littles, only a bit bigger and sometimes with a new sibling on the way.
The humid months I spent barefoot in the studio completely immersed me in a deeply physical and feminine environment. I became more aware of my own body and the ways in which I took up space both within the studio and outside of it. I noticed the kids I was watching — especially the young girls, still years away from puberty, hormones and many rock-bottoms with the potential to deeply fracture their relationships with their bodies — peering over the wooden door of the childcare corner and into the studio. They’d make faces at the women, spotting their own mothers and replicating her postures.
More and more, fresher demographics, especially young girls, are tempted by the vague novelty of the wellness industry’s practices. This past August, Weight Watchers released Kurbo, an app designed for “adolescents” aged eight to 17. In a statement for USA Today, dietitian Sheri Kasper said “The problem with tracking foods, as Kurbo has its users do, is that it can become an obsession and result in control-driven behaviors that can lead to eating disorders.”
We’re living in a moment of feverish preoccupation. To quote Mariah Carey circa 2009, “Obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, obsessed.” We obsess over ourselves and devote energy to molding ourselves into Barre Babes or Cool Girls or whatever else we can, and the wellness industry helps us. But what happens when this obsession blooms in kids? I’m 21 years old and obsessed with redefining my own health as it exists today. I hate to think of an eight-year-old feeling the same way, and I wonder what my mom would think of what I think, and what her mom would think of what she thinks.
Barre Babe is sexy, Barre Babe is at peace with her body, Barre Babe doesn’t exist. Flickers of her live in our sticky socks and the moxie that makes us put them on, but she’s a caricature of a woman who will never be done becoming whatever it is she wants to be. We can control this becoming through Goop or Pure Barre or Barre3 or anything, really, that the wellness industry offers a subscription to, but at some point, tomato soup and barre start to feel rigid. We crave softness and ease because we want what we can’t have, or what we think we never could be.
We don’t want to quantify or compete, we just want to flow. So we go to yoga. And we look at our friend, who smiles through his sweat as he beams his body down with candor, not worried about grace or failure, and we’re envious and heartbroken over the years we spent struggling with both.
“I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul,” (“Creep,” Radiohead).
Perfection is overrated, and that’s a hard conclusion to come to. It’s hard to spend years and money trying to make your body the best, only to realize that you’re only ever going to get better. It’s hard to get so warped by the world of wellness that you can’t stop subscribing to it, even when you’re about to die. It’s hard to return to the person you were before you entered this world because she’s gone, and you’ve got a workout at seven.
We see a result and we want more. We see a new result and we want them all. With progress comes obsession, and everyone’s obsessed with something. So, we go to the workout — be it to get perfect or better or even just a little bit closer to fine, as the Indigo Girls would say.
My most recent visit to Pure Barre was tough. I didn’t want to go, but the $15 cancellation fee was too bitter to bite. My favorite instructor took us through all my least favorite postures: We hovered our thighs an inch above our ankles and circled our hips, we dipped our hips side to side in a forearm plank.
But I’m tough, too, and I circled and dipped until the end of class, when I settled on my back, drinking in our stretch like water. I put my hands on my stomach, making a point to exhale. I let my flesh jut out to round the band on my leggings, let myself be soft, let myself just be.
Curling into a ball and rolling up, I straddled my legs beside me and leaned into each one, heart to ceiling, heart to floor. The same woman who just made me pulse like a chump in a wall-sit against the barre knelt behind me, massaging my muscles. She pushed me further into each knee, further into myself. I moved to the center, crawling my torso in front of me, reaching for the front mirror as her tattooed hands lowered me into the carpet.
I sat up and pulled my legs together, reaching for my ankles, my toes. I inhaled, my deepest of the day, and then I let go.
Arya Naidu is a senior in LSA studying English. She is the former Managing Arts Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.