The Dark Side of Fitness Culture
The Apple TV+ series Physical is a reminder that making people hate their body is a thriving pillar of American commerce.
This is supposed to be the season of unleashed, exuberant exhibitionism. Many of us have swaddled our pale bodies in Lycra and terry cloth for more than a year; the theory of Hot Vax Summer is that we’re long overdue to expose them to the cruel light of other people’s eyes. In the music video for “Solar Power,” Lorde basks on the beach in a lemon-yellow crop top, the symmetry of her rib cage its own work of art. “Forget all of the tears that you’ve cried; it’s over,” she sings, shooing away our literal and metaphorical winter of COVID-19. (Predictably, the outfit she wears—$615 plus tax!—sold out immediately.) I watched most of Physical—Apple TV+’s new series about a 1980s aerobics queen-in-waiting—with this in mind, idly running my hand over and over my unsculpted midriff, fighting the impulse to throw on a leotard and sweat joyfully along to “Space Age Love Song.” This is the conflict at the center of American consumerist fitness spectacle: Even when it’s at its most transparently questionable, the promise is almost impossible to resist.
Physical, created by the playwright Annie Weisman, digs into a window of history, when making people hate their body became a thriving pillar of American commerce. It’s a strikingly beautiful show about ugly things: self-hatred, mental illness, rampant capitalism, politics, the Summer of Love gone to seed. The directors, who include Craig Gillespie (I,Tonya; Cruella), render the San Diego setting with sun-dappled luminosity; the overall aesthetic is somewhere between beachy ’70s hedonism and brittle ’80s plasticity. Sheila (played by Rose Byrne) is a housewife with an eating disorder so virulent, it gets its own accompanying monologue, also delivered by Byrne. While Sheila stares at her reflection in the opening scene, her permed curls popping against green patterned wallpaper, the voice calls her pathetic for trying to carry off “the disco-sex-kitten look at your age.” When she runs errands, it reminds her that she’s “pale, pasty, fat, gross, disgusting.” During a discussion about an upcoming dinner party with her uninterested husband, it tells her, “You’re the only one who thinks about food this much, you fucking freak.”
The writer and body-acceptance activist Katie Sturino calls this kind of inner voice “a self-shit-talking spiral.” It’s almost as unpleasant for viewers to endure as it must be for Sheila; critics have lamented the show’s pitch-black tone and Sheila’s judgmental gaze, which is sharpest when she directs it toward herself. Maybe the popular assumption was that a Reagan-era dramedy about the VHS home-fitness boom would be as tonally giddy as Netflix’s GLOW, or as deliberately nostalgic as Stranger Things. Defined by Weisman, who based Sheila’s interior life partly on her own experiences with an eating disorder, Physical is something else instead. Dark and caustic, it’s also unnervingly clear-sighted about the ways people really see themselves, and the money they’ll spend for just the promise of deliverance. After watching Sheila teach her first aerobics class and shout tough-love slogans at her students, her fellow instructor Bunny (Della Saba) looks reluctantly impressed. “People usually want to be cuddled in this country,” she says. But Sheila, the show promises in a flash-forward to a glitzy VHS shoot, is about to make a fortune by projecting her own insecurities and self-loathing out into the homes of millions.
Byrne plays Sheila a bit like a rubber band stretched to its fracturing point, so tense she almost vibrates. Her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), is a wormy academic who plays on Sheila’s lack of confidence to get her to arrange a threesome with one of his students; he’s so lazy that he even outsources the seduction to his wife. Sheila spends virtually the entirety of her waking life thinking about wanting to eat. Her 4-year-old daughter is an afterthought; she has no friends. Her only hobbies are going to a ballet studio that closes in the first episode, and renting a motel room where she methodically eats her way through three cheeseburgers, vomits, showers, and then sits meditatively between sheets that still smell of grease.
But when Sheila first discovers aerobics, via a seemingly carefree blond woman whom she stalks from a mall parking lot into a class, something changes. The music, the beat, the quick-changing sequences—they occupy her mind, allowing her to move and forget herself until the class ends. Physical captures the frenetic release that she feels in a montage of cuts back and forth. At home, her fingers drum frantically on the kitchen counter; in the studio, her hips circle around and around in sensuous, undulating bliss.
Sheila seems obviously inspired by Jane Fonda. Both come from wealthy and difficult families (one episode reveals a traumatic incident from Sheila’s past that offers an explanation for why she’s so unhappy); Fonda also lived with bulimia, from her teens until her 40s. Like Sheila, Fonda attended ballet class to keep fit, until she injured her foot on a film set and, in 1978, began practicing aerobics. The workouts, she told Slate’s Willa Paskin in a riveting episode of the podcast Decoder Ring, filled the hole that her eating disorder occupied in her life. In 1982, she released Jane Fonda’s Workout, a groundbreaking video aimed at bringing aerobics to women who couldn’t or didn’t want to go to a studio. It sold more than 17 million copies and spawned a home-fitness empire, not to mention a sticky fitness motto, shouted gleefully by Fonda, mid-lunge: “No pain, no gain.”
Sheila taps into this sentiment, and the show promises that it’s what will make her an icon. (Somewhat irritatingly, the entire season suffers from the Peak TV complaint of prologue-itis, with the real juicy stuff likely saved for Season 2.) The more Sheila channels her destructive inner monologue into her classes, exhorting her students to embrace discomfort, the “sweet spot” where real change happens, the fewer her cruel voice-overs become. It’s cathartic for her, as it clearly was for Fonda. But what about the rest of us? What happens when you grow up internalizing the idea that judging yourself is normal and quieted only with excessive effort? What becomes of an entire culture raised on the argument that our troublesome, too-big, too-weak, too-much bodies can be loved only when they’ve been conquered?
The only certain aspect of the past 15 or so months is that everyone’s experience has been different. The pandemic sharpened inequities in capital, but also safety. It clarified how fragile social-support networks can be, how disproportionately mothers bear the brunt of schools and child care shutting down, how the ability to take optimal care of our bodies is a privilege not everyone has. And yet somehow one of the dominant messages of the current moment, as many Americans are reentering the world, isn’t that society needs to change, but that our bodies do. The pandemic, one New York Times article from March scolded, is “a wake-up call for personal health.” Quarantine weight gain, according to WebMD, is “not a joking matter.” Gwyneth Paltrow popped up in March confessing that she’d gained 14 pounds in quarantine by indulging in bread and alcohol—not to be relatable, but to help hawk a diet book dedicated to “intuitive fasting.”
Here is my story: I gained 37 pounds during the pandemic because I was pregnant, and lost 30 of them the first month after having twins because I was so exhausted and anxious and depressed that I didn’t eat. The other seven pounds stayed with me. In January, I tried “intermittent fasting,” which is basically the same thing as starving, only with a timetable. It worked, in the sense that I lost a few more pounds, but it also became my obsession. I thought about nothing but eating. I inhaled recipe books and food blogs on weekends like a day trader doing lines in a Pearl Street–bar toilet. Eventually there came a point when I didn’t want to waste so much of my mental energy thinking about food, or craving food. My body is fine. It’s strong. I can hold two 20-pound babies at the same time. I’ll never wear an “extreme crop top” (thank you again, New York Times!) but I can eat three meals a day and free my mind for something, anything, else.
Watching Physical, with its access into the exhausting obsessiveness of Sheila’s mind, I kept thinking about the argument that the since-gone-depressingly-conspiratorial Naomi Wolf made in The Beauty Myth that self-loathing is what society uses to keep women from organizing for what they actually desire:
It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want.
Physical tells just one part of this story, from one moment in time. It presents us with a character who finds in exercise a release from her own darkest impulses. But it also exposes how commonplace those impulses are, and how easy it is to capitalize on them. Hot Vax Summer should feel like liberation, not a prescription for what supposedly ails us. I came away from Physical with a question—what if we didn’t want to look the way we’ve always been told we should look by a $78 billion industry with a very vested interest in supplying an unattainable ideal: sinewy and razor-hipped, hairless and waist-trained and uncomfortable? What are all the other things we could want instead? Where would we even begin?
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