"Are you going to work out with us today?" asked the cheerful woman at the front desk. I didn't know I had the option to do otherwise, I thought, seeing as I was at an event-space-turned-gym to sweat myself silly under the tutelage of The Biggest Loser's star trainer/screamer, Jillian Michaels.
Unfortunately (or thankfully), I wasn't at the gym for a one-on-one with Michaels, and I wasn't at a typical gym, either. I was at Curves, the women's-only gym, which was launching a partnership with Michaels.
Since most of what I knew about Michaels was limited to her time on The Biggest Loser and her status as a bisexual mom of two, I found her partnership with Curves a little strange. Curves is a company known for emphasizing their history of focusing on healthy weight loss. The premise of The Biggest Loser, however, is a different matter. The show encourages contestants to lose lots of weight; the contestant who loses the largest percentage of their body weight gets a big cash prize. Since its creation, the competition has led some participants to develop very unhealthy habits. In 2009, Jillian Michaels told the New York Times that these instances were not what the program was about, calling them "the dark side of the show":
"Contestants can get a little too crazy and they can get too thin," she said. She said contestants are medically checked and disqualified if they are dehydrated or are found to be taking drugs or diuretics. "That is the worst part of the show," she said. "It's just part of the nature of reality TV."
In January, the show got a new bout of negative attention after contestant Rachel Frederickson won the most recent season by losing almost 60% of her body weight, the most weight any contestant had ever lost. Just visually speaking, Frederickson's transformation was shocking. Later, Frederickson would admit that by working out for six hours a day, she might have taken her quest to drop pounds too far.
But as Holistic Health Counselor Golda Poretsky wrote, Frederickson's weight loss shouldn't have been surprising. The Biggest Loser is a show that encourages its contestants to lose this weight "at any cost." It was only a matter of time that someone did it in a way that wasn't heartwarming or tear-inducing, but mildly frightening.
Much of the attention on Frederickson came from the reaction Michaels had when she first saw the former competitive swimmer. Michaels was not Frederickson's trainer on the season but, along with co-trainer Bob Harper, appeared visibly astounded when Frederickson walked out during the show's finale. Later, Michaels would distance herself from Frederickson's "journey" on her Facebook page:
Controversy or not, The Biggest Loser brand has a reach and recognition far greater than that of Curves, but Michaels brings star power and fitness cred (in so much as The Biggest Loser has cred, which is debatable) to the chain.
Curves is not a gym as we might know it, and not just because there are no men present. The chain is known less for creating magically fit bodies and more for their marketing towards women. The Curves Circuit is its main product; a Curves location doesn't have regular, disparate workout machines, just a circle of stations that women hit for 30 seconds each. The goal is to rotate through the circle twice, which takes 30 minutes total. What Michaels has done is add basic cardio moves on mats placed between each of the machines, like jumping jacks, squats, etc., in place of the walking or jogging that used to happen there. For those who won't have Jillian in the studio with them, a video will be playing showing the moves. There are also Curves coaches available to help out. "The workouts boost intensity, build strength, burn fat and prevent plateaus," says the company.
The chain was founded by conservative Christian couple Gary and Diane Heavin, who have been criticized for donating to pro-life charities. But in recent years the company's bigger issue has been declining profits. In 2012, the private equity firm North Castle Partners bought the company. The press release noted:
… The revitalization of Curves is well underway in its first year with the company planning to launch many new consumer-based initiatives in the next few months. Among other things, Curves has taken great steps to enhance its core fitness offering and, in a separate announcement today, introduced a new partnership with Jillian Michaels, the celebrity fitness trainer and health and wellness expert. Ms. Michaels is designing group exercise programs to be done in the famous Curves circuit.
Michaels is Curves biggest selling point right now; I can't speak for the rest of the women in attendance at the free class I took, but Michaels was certainly the reason I signed up.
For my session, I wore a bizarre workout outfit I still can't explain, one that wouldn't have looked out of place in the mid '80s: Nike high-tops (because I couldn't find my running sneakers) topped by Soffe shorts over stirrup leggings and a PONY t-shirt snagged from a clothing swap. I joined a couple dozen other women wearing Lululemon and Nike Frees (apparently I'd missed the dress code announcement). On the edges of the room were "meal substitutes" and snacks, made for those enrolled in Curves Complete, the company's attempt to target people specifically trying to lose weight, not just those who want to get or stay fit. The program combines meal plans with this new Curves Circuit designed by Michaels.
Eventually Jillian appeared, her hair perfectly blown out and as fit in person as she looks on television. She radiated energy, albeit slightly less than what you'd expect from someone known for making people cry from pain.
"I don't know what we're doing," the woman next to me admitted quietly, as we were all positioned ourselves at individual stations in the circuit. We learned pretty quickly; switching from machine to mat to machine every 30 seconds made 30 minutes fly by. The mat exercises were basic enough, but some of the machines were so bizarre that by the time a Curves coach had taught you how to use it, the 30 seconds was up and you had to move on to doing jumping jacks or what have you. Songs like "Timber" and "Brave" blasted on repeat.
During the actual workout, which passed in a flurry of sweat and purple (the color of every machine and everything Curves), Jillian spent most of the time reminding people how to do the moves and suggesting modifications that would make them easier or harder. At one point, she told me my squats were "perfect," a word I will tattoo on my body for moments when I'm feeling low. Later, she yelled – in a voice that had clearly been honed to carry through spaces with lots of noise – "YOU CAN GO FURTHER," while gesturing to me to lift my legs higher while running in place. I was struck with a feeling I hadn't had since I gave up competitive swimming at the end of high school: the desperation that comes along with needing to please someone in a position of power when you feel like you have nothing to give.
I confess: This was one of the hardest workouts I've had in a long time. I can't imagine that doing the circuit – which allows for modifications to moves and will be changed throughout the year – wouldn't help someone lose weight and get fit. (After all, doing high-intensity interval training to lose weight is a popular workout method, certainly not something that Curves or even Michaels invented.) After one circuit, I could have stopped; towards the end of two I was sweating so much I wasn't sure I would finish. I briefly considered exiting out of the circle and assuming shavasana on the floor somewhere, but the potential embarrassment seemed too great. And I didn't want Jillian to yell at me.
There were a few women in the class with whom Michaels developed a friendly repartee. One woman stopped to Instagram a photo during the class; Michaels immediately yelled at her. "Oh, you'll love it when I tag you," she quipped back. Their exchange was friendly but fraught with tension; Jillian had laughed, but in a way that, had I been that girl, would have resulted in me experiencing a whole new round of fear-induced sweating.
After the workout, Jillian stuck around to answer a few questions. Though she sharply chastised us for not modifying our poses for more difficulty ("Although none of you ever modified at all whatsoever...") she seemed more laid-back than her usual trainer vibe and was encouraging about everyone's performance. Her ability to make a statement that held both a criticism and a compliment within it was astounding. Every sentence left me with an anxious, puppy-dog feeling of just wanting to please her.
The intense YOU CAN GO FURTHER Jillian Michaels moments people sign up for still snuck in. When asked how often you should do the circuit a week, she said a "minimum" of four times was ideal (about four hours of working out weekly). And when discussing how anyone could do a modified jumping jack, she said, "If by the second class you haven't figured that out, there's no hope for you." Okay, then.
After that, Michaels was told by a handler had to go make her flight, but she didn't leave without answering a few very brief questions, including one "mom question" from another blogger who wanted to know how to get a picky child to eat something they don't want to. Jillian's answer was apparently "not what you're supposed to do," but she gave it anyway: 1. Explain why we eat healthy foods. 2. Incentivize them to eat the gross stuff with yummy food 3. Pretend that it's what all the cool kids are doing, i.e. "When Katy Perry ROARS she eats kale."
Then it was over. I swept a shattered heap of my former self into the bathroom. I was drenched with sweat and in an incredible amount of pain, pain that would only get worse over the next five days. I eventually exited the building with my knockoff purple Longchamp bag filled with useless Curves swag, and very, very slowly walked up the block.
The day was otherwise normal but I felt changed, as if the whole world could tell that I had been transformed by Jillian Michaels. Maybe I am different now, I thought to myself, imagining a future where I'd work out four days a week and eat kale consistently. I had survived Jillian. She had said I did perfect squats. I could go further. Jillian had proved that to me.
Then I walked by a man who looked at me and said, "Hey beautiful."
I glanced at a passing window and saw that my face the same color as my pants, a bright pink. In that moment I realized the sad truth that the weight loss industry doesn't want you think about: Things were the same as they'd always been. I was walking down the street being catcalled, I didn't look very good, and Jillian Michaels was nowhere to be found.