I’ve always been a consistently sporadic gym go-er. Over the last decade, I’ve been a member at a handful of community center fitness programs and some $10-per-month commercial gyms. My monthly fees have rarely, if never, surpassed the cost of a Sweetgreen salad. During good months, I’m going twice or three times a week. And during bad ones, I’ve considered calling in my own death to get out of my membership.
But as my frustration grew over my tiny community fitness center becoming overrun by teens filming TikToks, an opportunity presented itself—a brand new fancy gym was opening nearby with decent introductory rates. Could I fit into this new identity as a fancy gym goer? Would the excitement of that new identity cancel out the shame of spending 12 Sweetgreen salads a month to work out there?
So, I joined the fancy gym. The kind that has clean showers stocked with blossom-smelling soaps, daily group fitness classes that would cost $45 a session on their own, chilled eucalyptus towels at every junction, cooling in small glass incubators, and a lot of shame. Well, the shame is something I’m personally bringing to the location, but I’ve found that it’s in abundance.
The decision was a long time coming. After hemming and hawing for months over whether it would be worth the money, a coworker kindly told me in January that I needed to just do it so I would stop talking about it. It was the nudge I needed—anything to be less annoying. But as I confirmed with the client representative that I’d like to “secure my spot” in the new location, the shame began to bubble. Nothing a kelp protein smoothie wouldn’t cure, I hoped.
The gym officially opened Monday and I took the subway to the balloon-decorated space for a spin class, ready for my ass, and presumably my life, to change forever. I was running late and half-walked-jogged from the train. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d paid my dues. Literally! Wasn’t tardiness supposed to be eliminated once you’d entered the upper echelon of the wellness world? Were other people going to show up to the class already out of breath like me? Could you get kicked out of a gym like this for exerting too much energy? What is it that I’m actually trying to achieve with this membership? Nirvana?!
Before I could answer, I was inside the luminous lobby, where over-eager, smiling staff slowed me down. God, their teeth were all so white. What were they doing working at this gym? Was this gig just a hobby between starring in the after section of before and after pharmaceutical commercials? But I’ve watched enough cult documentaries to recognize their warm greeting for what it really was: A trap. Despite declaring “couldn’t be me” out loud during every viewing of said cult documentaries, it indeed, was me. I placed a eucalyptus towel over my eyes before realizing I had to walk down a flight of stairs.
The vibes, as promised, in my spin class were good. Incredibly good. Harmless Selling Sunset-esque synth pop bounced around the room, good. As all top-tier spin instructors can, this one shepherded us to a state of exercise euphoria. I would have ridden into battle with her. I wonder what the inside of her fridge looked like. Did shreds of wilted kale permanently take up residence in the tracks of the produce bins like in mine? The woman in front of me was working out in an athleisure dress, the kind I’d only seen influencers drinking matcha on Instagram wear. I cheered along as the instructor referred to the windowless room we were in as a “safe space.” What does that mean? I don’t know. I would have died for her.
Despite the glee and briefly wondering if I could wear a fitness dress with confidence, my shame still rattled within me. Whooping and hollering along to innocuous pop—as if I could so easily abandon my instinctive skepticism as if I really felt safe in a dimly lit basement spin studio—was embarrassing. This is very stupid, I thought to myself. Wellness is a fantasy. You’re being up-charged for a false sense of community with women in LuluLemon leggings who’ve long known the interiors of airline member lounges.
After class I wandered around the large gym, watching other brand-new members slam ropes onto the ground, shift their bodies under metal weight plates, and fold over themselves in stretches I’d recognized from Nike ads. They moved through the space instinctively and certainly as if they weren’t burdened with deciphering any guilt they felt from this specific kind of indulgence.
Light shone in from the windows above. Corporate millennial furnishings decorated the lounge and locker room. I felt like I was walking through an architectural rendering of a multi-use space designed for idealized future living. Work out! Make friends! Smell good! Feel at ease!
I almost didn’t recognize an old friend also roaming the floor. In a hushed whisper, we greeted one another and admitted our abashment for being in such a nice place. We both tried to justify our presence to one another.
“But the classes are such a deal!”
“And the co-working space is a bonus.”
“And my old gym was filled with teens filming TikToks...”
I’ve never been able to locate my sit bones when balancing on my ass in a yoga class the way I’m able to detect this funny feeling of shame. Perhaps it isn’t so much that I think the fantasy of a fitness lifestyle is mostly a crock of shit, but that I’m afraid it’s a crock of shit specifically for me—like I don’t deserve the comfort of feeling strong or centered in my body. Everyone else can wear a workout dress, but I’m only costumed in underwear I’ve worn since the Obama presidency.
I’ll continue to use the vaguely Scandinavian-branded body wash in the showers after a sit in the steam room, all while feeling stupid the entire time. Maybe what I’m actually spending $200 a month on is to work out this feeling of shame. To transform my brain into believing that it’s fine to spend some expendable income on myself and my soft body and, for brief moments in a spin class with beautiful people, lie to myself about the meaning of the phrase “safe space.”
In the grand scheme of things, the shame is insignificant and not worth backing out of the membership for. Not that I can. I’m in a contract that locks me in for a year. I might as well enjoy it.