I’ll Make a Man out of You: When Jane met Body Pump
This is in some ways a sequel to my last post on 80s fitness videos. But if you missed that one, fear not, for here is the backstory: gremlins have taken over my body and given me a sudden interest in physical fitness.
In particular, I have been interested to see how the ideologies and assumptions of the real-life, modern-day gym contrast with the 80s fantasy world to which, until now, my side-bends and sit-ups have been largely confined.
Ain’t got a motor in the back of her Honda
I wanted to start with a class. My local facility was offering a number of options for my preferred time of day: Spinning, Yoga, Body Attack and Body Pump. Spinning, of course, has long been a Cosmo-favourite, but it sounded a bit too terrifying for my tentative post-Christmas explorations, so I went for Body Pump because it’s on a Tuesday, and Tuesdays are good for me.
Like Body Attack, Body Pump originates with the New Zealand-based Les Mills workout group. I suppose I’d always known, objectively, that someone must make up these workouts, but I’d always vaguely assumed it was the class instructor, or the gym, or something. I certainly hadn’t realised there are whole organisations dedicated to churning them out – of which Les Mills is one. Body Pump was the first of their workouts to make it out of New Zealand and into Europe, which it did in the early-to-mid-90s. It’s now pretty much a young professional gym standard, along with the emerging new trend, PowerPlate (which claims to deal with cellulite, although what doesn’t [and what does?], frankly).
Never stray too far from the sidewalk
In addition to a kind of Cartesian ‘body/soul’ dualism in their choice of workout titles, Les Mills also has about them something of the cultish air that also characterises Jane Fonda’s seminal 1980s oeuvre. Seriously. They refer to ‘the Tribe’. They’ve declared ‘war on sedentary lifestyles’. And more:
We pride ourselves on being brave – the ones who turn up their sleeves when it comes to hard work. The ones that scream ‘hell yeah’ when the instructor barks ‘ten more’. Those who view sweat on their brows like a crown of achievement. The ones who don’t just step up, they turn it up, because they want results.
- Les Mills website
Scary stuff. The almost-militarism of the Les Mills style plays out into the actual Body Pump workout, which is a weight training class accompanied by ‘chart-topping hits’ (well… ‘Because of You’). Its use of zeitgeisty-kinda music to drive you along aligns it with aerobics more generally, but with the 80s fitness craze in particular, which was similarly interwoven with pop culture, including the emergent disco culture (the seminal Saturday Night Fever, with its all-dancing star John Travolta, came out in 1977).
But Body Pump is no leotard-wearing 80s-style ‘jazzercise’ with instructors whose hair flows wild and impractically free (my school gym teacher used to make us use elastic bands as a punishment for forgetting proper hair ties) – and, unlike the films Jane Fonda made for housewives everywhere, Body Pump’s not, primarily, about women. Indeed, it was originally designed to ‘bring men into the aerobics room’, after the female-focused group exercise trends that preceded it. Whether former female dominance in said room was because women are known to prefer exercising in nice social groups (cos, you know, that’s how we go to the toilet and choose our clothes, isn’t it?), or because instructors were targeting women as particularly vulnerable to body fascism, is too big a question to address in whole here.
But certainly, the class I attend has a lot of Homeric-level male muscle in it (with added grunts). And indeed, the ‘tracks’ we listen to (officially chosen by the Les Mills group themselves, who rule over ALL THINGS, and presumably have some kind of Council of Trent-style semi-regular meeting to discuss such questions) – are generally of the ‘man-rock’ ilk (well, Kelly Clarkson aside). So sometimes we do staggered bicep curls in time to that bit in Eye of the Tiger. There’s even this bit where you lie on your back on the ‘bench’ (see, I’m down with the lingo) and do some ‘chest-reps’ with ‘barbells’ while listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit. [This is a bit I’m quite fond of because I like to pretend I’m in prison or something].And yet (despite the deputation of the ancient Greek army grunting in the corner) the class is still about 70% female. As is the instructor herself, though she’s more like an army sergeant than a Fonda-esque Dionysian leader.
What I think is interesting here is that, while dear Jane made me feel like I was sharing in an essential female, slightly body-fascist sort of camaraderie (‘this is for the wibble-wobbles on the inner thighs… gonna burn them right off!’) – with a sense of shared understanding much akin to what you might experience in the disco toilets at 2am with mascara running down your face, only with more brutalist physical pain – Body Pump is more like that bit in Mulan where that guy who never wears a shirt trains the Chinese army (including the cross-dressing Mulan) in three minutes flat.
Indeed, whereas the 80s fitness dream was one of self-improvement and the drive for the Body Beautiful, Body Pump and the Les Mills ideology is actually more like a War on Fat, with concomitantly refigured notions of gender – men and women exercise side by side, with parallel physical goals.
The Eighties’ ‘woman’s world’ of VCR, suburban living room and dance-fitness (sexualised to an often ludicrous degree for the benefit of men) has changed to a kind of militant A-team dream. This probably has a lot to do with rising obesity levels in the population at large, making pursuit of exercise rather more of a general health priority than it once was, but since the original 80s fitness craze rose at much the same time as the rise of the disco one, I wonder if our exercise trends are still tangentially following our terpsichorean ones.
Indeed, one of the things I find particularly interesting is how this class – and actually the gym itself come to that – constructs itself around the idea of maenadic levels of adrenaline, but in a kind of nightclub context. I have to NB here that I go to a rather Executive gym chain, which to be honest is probably actually constructed in the 80s power-professional mould – there’s coloured strip-lighting and everyone’s wearing matchy-matchy black lycra …and thongs. (I mean, seriously, think about the physics of that. There will be squats.). In Spinning it goes literal, as the room is darkened and there’s pounding rave music (at 7am on a Monday morning).
So where does this leave us? Much of this may seem largely irrelevant, since the numbers of women who attend the gym (indeed, the numbers who can even afford it) are relatively small compared to the population at large. And yet! What happens in those harrowing halls may reflect some curious external trends.