Seven sessions into an 11-session MasterClass hosted by Peloton instructor Robin Arzón, she posed a philosophical question to me, her enamored audience member. “Hold the mirror up to [your] life and ask, ‘By what definition am I living?’” Up to this point in her class—an hour-long exploration on mental strength in which she discussed all the ways she became strong and how I could be as well—I had been taking copious notes to consider later on my downtime. But this moment stopped me in my tracks. When I thought about what she had just asked me, and all of the other people who had likely watched this video, I found that I wasn’t focusing so much on holding a mirror up to my life at all. Instead, I was in an extended daze wondering how much longer I’d be punishing myself by trying to become someone like her. How much more time was I willing to commit to the kind of toxic positivity dressed up as wellness she was selling me, and what exactly was my end goal? During her MasterClass, Arzón posed many introspective questions, yet the one I walked away with after 11 lessons was this: Why can’t I just be Robin Arzón?
I have always needed a Fit Woman to follow, and in my years of figuring out what fitness is to me, I have been a loyal disciple to many different muscular messiahs. Robin Arzón is simply the latest in a long line of my own failed attempts to locate that special spark so many people seem to find when they discover that one program or one modality that speaks to them. There were many times I found near-sparks with my former obsessions, like YouTube yoga instructor Adriene Mishler or Bikini Body Guide creator Kayla Itsines—but then, like clockwork, I would get in my own way. I abandoned Adriene because I couldn’t execute the proper form in pigeon pose. I parted ways with Kayla because after months of working out six days a week, I hadn’t carved a six-pack out of my belly flab. It wasn’t so much that they were failing me; I was failing them, and that shame drove me to find someone new.
As much as I tried, I wasn’t able to shift the blame for my failure onto my various teachers. It simply could not be their fault that I wasn’t advancing because there were so many positive reviews of their various programs. There were plenty of YouTube videos of women who claimed to have changed their entire lives by strictly following Yoga With Adriene’s calendar for 30 days. I attempted the same and fell off track around the 10th day. Kayla Itsines’s Instagram page is essentially a shrine to women who have lost weight following Itsines’s workout program and suggested meal plans. The only thing I lost was my will to keep trying. With the other women I followed, like Alexia Clark, Cassie Ho, and my most expensive messiah, former SoulCycle instructor Mabel Marquez, the sensation of failure was never far off each time I was unable to meet a single metric set for me in a class.
Arzón is a head instructor and VP of Fitness Programming at Peloton, an author, a marathoner, and a new mother. She also has a sick apartment in New York outfitted with both a Peloton bike and a Peloton Tread, so you know it’s spacious as fuck. A few quick swipes through her Instagram account show a perfectly curated, well-lit, aspirational human being. For all the eye rolls she elicits every time she uses buzz words like “hustler” or phrases like “eat fear for breakfast,” I am drawn in even deeper to the false belief that what Robin Arzón has is attainable. I can attain the perfect body, the perfect job that is “aligned with my power,” the perfect husband that makes me a 17-ingredient smoothie every morning, if I just follow this woman. If I just work out incessantly, all of these things will happen for me because, after all, that is how Arzón’s story began: With a dusty pair of running shoes in her closet and the right amount of discontent at her job.
During her MasterClass, Arzón is extremely forthcoming about her personal journey into fitness. Before she started working at Peloton, she was a lawyer and was increasingly finding that there was no joy in her life. She said that one day she saw a pair of running sneakers sitting in the back of her closet “talking” to her and “begging [her] to lace up and run.” She was inexperienced but quickly latched on to running as a de-stressor with the help of the vast network that is the New York running community. Eventually, she began long-distance running, becoming a marathoner, and decided that she wanted a career in fitness. She gave herself two years of saving money to quit her job and work to pursue her goal of “marrying movement with technology.” She said it was a single well-timed email that paved the way to her job at Peloton.
Coincidentally, my stint in Arzón’s MasterClass launched shortly after I started watching Physical, an Apple TV series starring Rose Byrne. On the surface, Physical is a period piece about the rise in popularity of aerobics videos. But really it’s a show about the fitness industry as a whole and how one woman with an eating disorder chose to weaponize the negative self-talk playing on a loop in her mind to sell slots to her workout class. The show is smart and fascinating but also forces the viewer to confront their own inner monologue.
Confronting one’s own self-destructive inner monologue is also a component of Arzón’s MasterClass. The fact that I was taking in this advice at the same time I was watching this show felt too on the nose to be a coincidence. But the problem with the advice I was seeking out, specifically from Arzón, is that her guidance is entirely based on righteous suffering—and if there’s one thing I don’t need to inflict on myself more than I already do, it’s fucking suffering.
When Arzón talks about hustle, which she says in one class is her favorite word, she is talking about struggle. When she talks about “fueling your hustle” she’s simply saying struggle better and for a reason, in nicer sounding words. In one lesson that was focused on finding one’s purpose, she asks the viewer to consider whether they’re “in it for the hustle or in it for the accolades and praise.” The “it” is hustle. Confusing, right?
But hustling for the sake, or love, of the hustle is Arzón’s bread and vegan butter. Suffer for your suffering. Suffer because you aren’t thin and suffer to get thin. At some point she even says, “Success feels just as uncomfortable as the work it took to get there.” Why doesn’t anything get to feel good?
Although Arzón’s MasterClass was not intended to be solely about fitness and was a retrospective of her own mental strength, I found that I was constantly coming back to my own fitness journey. How was this woman going to help me positive-talk my way into a six-pack in 11 sessions that ran for about an hour? It was somewhere around the midpoint of the hour that I figured out all of her positive talk was just a more advanced version of what I’d seen in Physical: unworthiness wrapped in a prettier bow.
This isn’t to say that Arzón was projecting her own unworthiness onto the audience. I have no clue if that’s an emotion she feels regularly. Instead what she was able to expertly do was hone in on the big things the average person might already feel shitty about—their jobs, bodies, diets, etc.—and reframe those negative feelings into aspirational messaging. More than that, she was able to make my personal failings feel like choices I had made. I chose failure because I didn’t “wake up every morning and decide whether I was going to be the victim or the victor.” I was even failing the wrong way, because as Arzón said, “Failure is feedback. Fear is fuel.”
While Arzón’s choice of words are uniquely her own and play up her brand, the ideas behind them are old and well-worn. Modern health and wellness is built on the hollowed-out carcass of classic diet culture, which is built over the grave of overt fatphobia. Arzón and others like her can inspire and coddle an audience until they’re blue in the face, but when you peel back the glitter, what’s left is a naked desire to be thin and beautiful and a reminder that one can never be enough of both.
No matter what advice Arzón gave in relation to being mentally strong, it all came back to the body. “Our ability to combat stress is directly related to how healthy we can be in our bodies,” Arzón said during a lesson about food. There was no escaping the subliminal messaging that if I ever wanted to become the woman that Arzón was telling me I could be, I had to have a different, better, high-performance body.
By this point, I was ready to renounce my allegiance to Arzón and find a new messiah to follow because there was simply no way I could become this new person. But then, her penultimate lesson was a perfectly laid trap waiting for an unwitting deer, like myself. Arzón told viewers to “embrace jealousy” because in doing so, we see “glimpses of what we really want.” Arzón explained that the attitude of the grass being greener on the other side “is only debilitating if you do nothing about it.”
The concept of positively reframing jealousy resonated with me the most because it’s simply not an idea you hear every day. We’re taught to shy away from jealousy but in the world of fitness, the rules and the morality are completely different. Up is down, right is left, and every negative thing you’ve ever felt is fuel. Whether or not existing on a diet of repurposed self-hatred is good for you or not isn’t for me to say. The path to a six-pack is a perilous one and if my messiah tells me to pour fear into my cereal bowl in order to get there, then guess what I’ll be eating when I wake up?