A person who is able to work out three hours a day has a schedule that doesn’t resemble yours, I’m guessing. Perhaps that’s because that person does not have a normal job, or perhaps working out is their job. Perhaps that person with that schedule is a celebrity, which you are not. Workout culture is inextricably tied with celebrity and wealth, this glamorous, nebulous luxury afforded only to the group we might as well call the idle fit. There’s an entire economy behind them and because of them, fueling the status of Tracy Anderson, Jeanette Jenkins, Don A Matrix and other Insta-famous trainers who are as increasingly influential as they are bound to the non-famous wealthy. SoulCycle has been presented as a sort of leveler between famous people and plebes—if you know someone who’s been to SoulCycle, you know someone who’s been in a class with an actor—but while it’s cultishly popular, it’s still prohibitively expensive for most people in the cities where its franchises thrive.
We see the idle fit in music videos, which is partly a side effect of the way music culture and fashion culture inform each other more than ever. At the VMAs, Kanye West debuted his Flashdance-indebted “Fade” video, starring an amazingly fit and oiled Teyana Taylor executing precise choreography in a room full of barbells and lifting benches. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj presented their set with spin bicycles and a pommel horse, echoing the official music video they would release that night. (The VMA afterparty for Republic Records, Grande’s label, was sponsored in part by SoulCycle.)
“Side to Side” has all the accoutrements of the spin gym, including the spin bikes, sauna, shower and, uh, pommel horse. But it also doubles as an advertisement for Guess’s athleisure line with Ariana Grande, which debuted upon the release of the video (it premiered on their retail site) and includes sheer-paneled leggings and a grey hoodie for $59.
This is all set against four decades of workout-adjacent music culture, including Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Physical”—an early music video sensation in sweatbands and legwarmers—and Flashdance, Kanye’s inspiration for the “Fame” video and, no doubt, his Yeezy fashion line. (It’s no coincidence that, in this athleisurely era, his high-priced garments for Yeezy have been entirely inspired by 1980s leotards and off-duty ballerina gear.) But the current era is different because whereas workout-inspired videos used to telegraph hustle of some kind, now the imprimatur of workout culture is the appearance of leisure—being able to afford the lifestyle it accompanies.
While the widespread popularity of “athleisure” in American culture is a hellish development in the waning realm of individual personal style, it also coincides with a moment in which excessive exercise is seen as aspirational, adjacent to those $11 green juices. While people wandering the city in yoga pants with no discernible athletic destination may seem schlubby, there’s a proximity to the relaxed lifestyle that it hopes to project. It’s the Kardashians, walking to and from their gym in Los Angeles, leggings and a tank top and sneakers between business meetings, working on the physiques that help prop up an empire that wouldn’t exist in its current form without their physiques. It’s part and parcel of this moment, in which dogged physicality is associated with goodness, particularly in women, chalices that we are of the basest of cultural expectations.
In 2004, Kanye West made a track called “The New Workout Plan,” and for the video cast Anna Nicole Smith as his main workout model. (Tracee Ellis Ross and Vida Guerra also made cameos). The contrast between Smith’s comically half-assed aerobic exercise and Teyana Taylor’s astounding athleticism in “Fade” is indicative of the way workout culture has shifted over the last decade (and, perhaps, West’s sense of humor, too).
“Fade,” also offers a different, deeper context than the glossy facade of Grande’s “Side to Side,” and a deeper celebration of one woman’s physical power than somewhat empty lifestyle marketing. When seemingly all of Twitter announced that they (we) were going to the gym after seeing “Fade,” the sentiment was certainly about her own aspirational physique but also about Taylor’s strength, and her ability to hit every note with such ease and exactitude. Philosophically, it was about the follow-through rather than the representation; she’s dancing for the joy of it, and we’re watching her—gawking, really, in admiration—but ultimately it’s not about us. It’s about her family and her ability to protect them (if a little surreal, as she poses at the end with fiancé, daughter and a herd of sheep while wearing the mask of a lioness).
Athleisure is a smaller figment in the cultural trend towards performing fitness, which in itself is lifestyle marketing. Subscribing to athleisure as a trend can lead to the illusion of being on the way to or from the gym, just like the Kardashians always seem to be in their Instagrams. They clearly work out hard and often, but for those of us who cannot devote such time to it, the projection that we are less sedentary than we might be is a way of telling ourselves that we are not bad because of it. In other words, fitness is great and deeply important for our health. But the cult of it is a complex, rude imposition. It’s also tough to resist.