I’m on my back on the floor of a dim-lit Manhattan fitness studio, arms flat on my sides, hips raised as a painfully-fit instructor with an enviably bouncy ponytail (especially considering we’ve been working out for 45 minutes) calls out commands to lift our hips, make figure-eights, thrust towards the ceiling. In my slightly fraying climate-control leggings and a tank top from some college event many years ago, I am embarrassed, icky, not just because the moves are undeniably sexual. But also because I paid $35 to do this. In the middle of the day, surrounded by women much more fit (many ostensibly came from an earlier workout), better dressed (in Lululemon, abs-exposing coordinating outfits) and seemingly empowered by the instructor calling out basic encouraging phrases, “You can do this!”
The scene is just one from the endless void describing what it means to be female, and live in a body. A void that includes the $532 billion global beauty industry, a $2.4 trillion fashion industry, and an estimated $3.7 trillion and counting wellness industry, plus the countless dollars spent on marketing that explicitly (and more implicity) convinces a woman she must spend money to look a certain way, to obtain a certain lifestyle (only obtainable by looking a certain way).
And somehow, along the way, especially for women in a certain income bracket, paying a significant chunk of money for a 45-minute exercise class, all in the hopes of sculpting an idealized body, became part of the norm, or, at least, a luxury status symbol (think of all the branded Pure Barre, SoulCycle and Physique 57 swag) urban millennials need in on. The specialized fitness studio, not only incurs a sense of belonging (people, okay I, love complaining about the “torture” of a fitness class on social media) and creates a somewhat falsified community, but also exists as a status symbol — look how far you’ve made it to be able to throw out money on several hours of specialized physical torture each week.
A brief history of women’s fitness classes
Women’s fitness is nothing new. In the 1950s-set The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you’ll see even the title character herself attending an all-female aerobics class, mimicking the absurd moves her instructor leads the women in, so that, when she measures her ankles and thighs at night, she’ll clock into her perfect size (two babies later, she still fits in her wedding dress!). At the time, the idea that a woman would break a sweat in front of a man was obscene, so a sex-segregated fitness class was the only socially acceptable method to get some exercise. (Also see: A League of Her Own). In the same era, America’s first chain of boutique fitness studios, Slenderella’s fitness “salons” offered workouts customized to women’s bodies, starting with a free trial, than a charge of $2 per visit (roughly $17 in today’s dollars), with budget plans available.
Enter the invention of barre, jazzercise, Jane Fonda and we’re back at today’s boutique fitness studios, but now we have a new enemy: Instagram, which not only puts your physical appearance on display at all times, but opens up an entirely new realm for which users can feel envious or inadequate thanks to peer comparisons. If the influencer living the perfect-looking life posts about going to SoulCycle “religiously” will also going to SoulCycle afford you the same life (and body)?
Are boutique fitness classes worth it?
The price of fitness classes is inarguably expensive (a single SoulCycle class costs $36), and while subscriptions and models like ClassPass can greatly lower the prices of attending these extremely gendered workouts (men are occasionally in attendance in cycling classes, though I have yet to ever see a man at barre), and even though the elevated pricing may mimic the so-called pink tax on a slew of women’s goods—I can’t help but ask myself, are they really worth it? Knowing I’ve paid $33 for Pure Barre, and will incur a $20 fee if I don’t show up to class, get my butt out of bed at 7:30AM. A fear of losing my prepaid ClassPass credits helps me actually get my dance gear together and enroll in classes. The incentive to exercise, for me, while I want it to be wellness, inevitably comes down to money, and not wasting what I work hard for. But is spending hundreds (fine, maybe more) annually on boutique fitness actually a wise financial decision?
“I'm of the belief that you should spare no expense for your health and wellbeing,” says Amanda Abella, CEO and Founder at Make Money Your Honey, a personal finance community, pointing out the potentially higher medical costs later on if you don’t take care of yourself now. She also sees little self-indulgences, like luxury workouts, as a way to boost her productivity, and perhaps even earn more. “As a self-employed individual, I also know I'm not as productive when I'm not taking care of myself—it affects my bottom line. I see boutique gyms and classes as an investment in myself.”
Of course, following a YouTube workout at home or just co-opting the moves from the page of a glossy magazine may be the most budget-friendly workout, followed by a gym membership, but if you’re not going to actually go to the gym or set up time at home to do your workout, that strategy is unrealistic.
Abella lives in a building with a gym, but the old equipment doesn’t inspire her to work out, so she says she’s willing to pay the price to actually, well, do it. Belonging to a gym doesn’t necessarily cause you to go work out, but incurring a financial penalty (usually accompanied by a somewhat humiliating email from the studio) may actually get you active. Especially when compared to working out solo, there’s also an intrinsic, motivating value in group fitness.
Motivation, inspiration, camaraderie and, specifically, results make a boutique fitness plan more valuable than a gym membership, according to Tanya Becker, Chief Creative Officer at Physique 57. “My experience teaching barre and group classes for close to twenty-five years has shown me that the clients who really stick with a specialty type of boutique class tend to see better results, because they really learn proper technique, which in turn yields better results and longevity,” she added.
There are less expensive group workouts, but ...
For those who simply cannot workout alone, Abella advises taking some time to crunch the numbers to make sure you’re getting the absolute best deal, many of which may not be obvious. For example, her boutique spinning classes typically cost $150 for five classes, which Abella considers a little too pricey. Instead, she found a membership at her local hotel gym and spa buys her four monthly classes, access to the gym, access to pools, a massage every month, access to all the amenities (including sauna, detox chamber, showers, and additional discounts, all for $180.
Free trials, ClassPass (which also offers free trials, or $15 a month credits), bulk buys (which can lower $35 classes to $20 per class, depending how many you purchase at once) and more creative solutions—like offering to work a shift or two at the front desk in exchange for classes—can help make boutique fitness more realistically affordable. Some teachers trying to earn special certifications, or just prep for an audition class, may also offer free classes in unique spaces. And park districts and other public organizations often offer free or reduced classes, that, while they may not quite have the same allure as a sparkly fitness studio, aren’t going to wreck your budget.
As much as I wish I had the mental and physical fortitude to follow a Daily Burn video in my living room or add “go for a run” to my weekly calendar, I know that’s just not me. I was the kid who found any reason to get out of gym class, or at least, put in as little effort as possible when it came to physical activity. I’ve tried mental tricks, like donating the cost of a barre class to an organization I believe in, and then convincing myself to do the workout myself, to alleviate the guilt of spending such a substantial amount of money on a short, and decadent, experience. But, luckily, I am in a position where I can donate and outsource a stranger to cheer me on to tuck in my butt, reach my legs back in a totally unnatural pose, and push myself to do another rep with pathetic-seeming five-pound weights while Demi Lovato blasts in the background.
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