The Hypocrisy of SoulCycle

When gyms sell themselves as a sense of identity, eventually they have to define what they stand for.

A woman lifts weights while riding a SoulCycle stationary bicycle.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The four-story shrine to bodily perfection known as Equinox in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood was empty on Friday afternoon.

Actually, there were people, but it was not full. Of course, it was a gym on a Friday in a part of the city where people leave town for the Hamptons on Thursday in the summer. But according to Instagram and the news, the gym was quiet because it has become a hotbed of political activism.

Last week, many Equinox members, including celebrities, announced on Instagram that they were leaving as an act of protest. Momentum gathered rapidly in the days after The Washington Post reported that Stephen Ross, an owner of Equinox and its sibling luxury-fitness company SoulCycle, would be hosting a $250,000-a-seat fundraising lunch for President Donald Trump. Many saw this as a forced choosing of sides on Trump’s divisive policies and racist rhetoric.

SoulCycle and Equinox each took to Instagram to downplay Ross as a “passive investor” in the company—though he is chairman of the company that owns a majority stake in both. SoulCycle and Equinox are often described as gyms, though their business models are built on some blend of exercise facilities, classes, apparel, product placement of things such as Kiehl’s soap in the bathrooms, community, and, of course, status. Equinox posters say It’s not fitness. It’s life. SoulCycle markets itself as “more than a workout”; its stated goal is to help you “find your soul” for $42 a class.

In the inevitable backlash to this backlash, critics have said that the membership cancellations are an extension of politics into places they were not intended to go: Is nothing apolitical? Must we bring our gyms into this? Still, the owner of multiple large companies inviting the president and his wealthy benefactors to lunch is itself inescapably political. Gym members’ objections to this seem to be less about escalating political hyper-wokeness than about their being slapped in their incredibly toned faces by politics.

If there is a trend in corporate accountability and scrutiny from consumers, it is also, poetically, exactly what brands such as SoulCycle and Equinox ask for. The companies sell their workouts as much more than just a workout. They sell a lifestyle, an identity—one of virtue and character and dedication.

Equinox uses the slogan “Commit to something,” which was developed by the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. Last year, the agency’s creative director told Adweek that the goal of the campaign was to tell “stories revolving around real people. So we started asking, ‘Who best embodies commitment in a world where commitment is often lacking?’ … You’ve got outnumbered pro-bono lawyers. Doctors facing insurmountable odds. Journalists in the era of ‘fake news.’ Those fighting for gender and sexual equality.”

These dedicated professionals became the faces on the billboards for the gym—fitness models dressed as people who are committed to serious and consequential causes. Causes that are barely even tangential to exercising. The sales pitch is a bigger picture of character and ambition: This is an Equinox member, and if you join, you can be that person.

Ross himself encourages this passionate, committed way of being. In a statement responding to the outcry, he said, “I always have been an active participant in the democratic process. While some prefer to sit outside of the process and criticize, I prefer to engage directly and support the things I deeply care about.”

If gyms sell people on the idea that a gym affiliation is part of their identity, gyms can’t really be surprised when people quit because they no longer identify. Brands have the option of forgoing identity branding: We just sell hammers. If you like our hammers, buy them—they are good. But once brands invite people to incorporate an entire ethos into their sense of self, expect that those people will judge the company by their own moral standards.

In its statement on Instagram this week, Equinox said, “No company profits are used to fund politicians. In fact, we are committed to all our members and the communities we live in.” SoulCycle issued a similar statement about how it does not engage in politics. Neither company mentioned Trump’s policies—or objected to his dehumanizing large groups of people or degrading the basic norms of American democracy.

For these morally infused lifestyle brands, this could be an opportunity to, you know, commit to something.