This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.
I never thought that I’d be saying this, but I live in a fitness center. I don’t mean that I’m a gym rat, pumping iron and downing protein shakes. I actually live on top of a gym, otherwise known as the 92nd Street Y. The first few floors contain cardio machines, free weights, and a pool, while the floors above are reserved for residents and I just so happen to work there as one of the Resident Advisors. Gyms have grown increasingly popular in NYC over the years and the most expensive ones have reflected our capitalistic society, in that they are microcosms of the distribution and production of wealth maintained by corporations and private individuals. Of course, I enjoy the perks of sharing in the capitalist ethos and attending the gym at no fee; however, I also occasionally bump into a fitness fanatic who shakes their head and mumbles a curse word or two as they push past, racing to make it in time to the heavenly gym. I get it though, I’d be upset as well, if I was late in worshiping Kratos.
When you walk into the gym, you notice that everyone has a set of headphones, or seashells (as Ray Bradbury described in his novel, Fahrenheit 451) stuffed into their ears. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them were listening to the new pop hit by Ariana Grande featuring Nicki Minaj, titled “Side to Side” or even Kanye West’s song “Fade,” both of which were released on the same day at the VMAs. These pop hits highlight the very prevalent voluntary servitude, protestant work ethic attitude, and reinforcement of capitalism that we see brought to life as people sweat it out at a fitness center, health club, or gym.
“Side to Side” starts off with a line that perfectly describes this craze: “I’ve been there all night… I’ve been there all day,” and a scene to match, the music video showing young women in revealing gym-wear cycling not outdoors, but in a — yes, you guessed it — gym. People attend the gym religiously, treating their time there not as leisure, but as disciplined work aimed at the control and perfection of the human body. The term itself says it all: working out… literally work outside of work. The young women in the music video emphasize the sex appeal of exercising by popping their butts up into the air as they complete their workout routine. Along with regular workouts which consist of reps and sets and instruments to measure body fat percentage, many gym-goers also have a strict eating schedule. These eating schedules usually contain a measured pre workout snack and a timed post workout protein shake, with the calories and grams of protein pre-calculated; all of which is enough to pass as a new eating disorder. These vigorous routines and reliance on numbers and measurements may perhaps provide relief from some angst through a form of escapism at the gym, however this type of overtime work has become almost an expectation of our society. It’s overtime that we’re not getting paid for — in fact, we’re paying to work.
As La Boetie mentions in The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, “the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.” When working out is such an expectation and obligation in our society, it appears as a custom, building a habituation to subjection through structured routines for people. This custom, built up by commercials, ads, movies, Hollywood, and pop music turns into a blind habit for people, which in turn accustoms them to comply and oblige. This custom has been slowly building over the years though, as can reflected by Olivia Newton John’s 1981 hit, “Let’s Get Physical.’ Now, with movements such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, working out has become as necessary as breathing. The problem isn’t with the heart healthy cardio and strength training though; the problem is with purchasing the right to an attractive body through a gym membership, which further feeds capitalism.
The truth of the matter is that exercise is free –it can be done at no cost outdoors or even at home. Yet somehow, a gym membership seems to provide people with a key to the ladder of success. In The Neoliberal Subject of Feminism, Oksala claims, “People enhance their capabilities as producers and consumers by investing in themselves. The many ways of doing this include activities such as schooling, training, medical care, vitamin consumption, acquiring information about the economic system, and migration.” Owning a gym membership should in fact be right up there, along with medical care and vitamin consumption. By treating our body as a brand and investing in it through the ownership of a gym membership or health club (rather than something more lasting, such as therapy), we are becoming, as Oksala states, “ability machines that will produce income.” We, as ability machines, further prolong our life in order to work even more and benefit capitalism. Oksala continues, “Neoliberal governmentality thus scrambles and exchanges the terms of the opposition between ‘worker’ and ‘capitalist’ by aiming to construct a society in which everybody is a capitalist, an entrepreneur of him or herself.” Simply stated, working out adds to our capital: our sexual capital, our health capital, and our social hierarchy capital. In order to have a successful entrepreneur and capitalist, you must have some successful investments, and in order to be a successful woman, such as Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, or Teyana Taylor, you must have a gym membership and structured fitness routines, which continue disciplinary actions in manageable economic subjects. Even corporations today provide their employees with gym memberships, with some even offering a percentage off of their health insurance if used regularly. Colleges and hotels are other businesses that also offer this amenity to appear successful and attractive to consumers. While individuals work on investing and building their capital, corporations and businesses work on investing theirs through offering the opportunity for their employees and clients in individually building their own, thus resulting in a never ending cycle (just like the never ending cycling happening in gyms).
Having so many corporations and businesses offer this amenity makes people treat the gym as a second or third job, rather than a luxury, which is exactly what instills this protestant work mentality in people. Following Weber’s idea of the protestant work ethic, people’s hard work and discipline at the gym pushes their social status up the social hierarchy, inferring that people with a gym membership, fit body, and clean diet are blessed to be the most successful and attractive. The trick to selling this lifestyle as work rather than leisure is in emphasizing the benefits of working out: a reduced chance of heart disease and obesity, a longer life span, a release of endorphins contributing to “better” mental health, more energy, a decrease in insomnia, an increase in sex appeal, stronger orgasms, and a better sex life. The list goes on.
However, these benefits come at a cost. For those corporations which do not provide gym memberships, employees are tragically financially responsible for their own membership. Further, for those who are provided with a membership, but wish to attend a more elite facility, they, too, are financially responsible for their second membership. While memberships may help in gaining muscle and losing weight, they also help with financial drain. We feed the beast of capitalism, while depriving ourselves of certain foods, unless they’re wholly holy. These holy foods are of course sold at more corporations which feed capitalism, such as Whole Foods.
While these benefits certainly are pricey, who can turn away from the seductive allure of appearing more attractive? With benefits such as an increase in sex appeal, stronger orgasms, and a better sex life, we are more likely to pay any price for being a voluntary servant, because after all, sex sells. “Side to Side” actually uses working out as a metaphor to having sex. Even Nicki Minaj, who is featured rapping in the song hints at this metaphor and the sex appeal aspect to working out, “Wrist icicle, ride dick bicycle…If you wanna Minaj I got a tricycle…Body smoking, so they call me young Nicki chimney… Gun pop and I make my cum pop.” Gym bicycles are portrayed as phallic objects and Minaj plays with words when she compares her name to a ménage á trois, referencing herself as the third person in it. The phallic imagery continues with the gun popping; like the weapon popping out a bullet, Nicki can also pop her own “guns” or muscles because all fit bodies today are “smoking” and deserving of sexual inflation, like that of a phallus and capitalism. All this is rapped while Grande and Co. cycle in synchronized fashion as their ritualized gym routine. West’s “Fade” further sells a song of love through a hyper-sexualized female body that literally turns into a pussy (cat) at the end of the music video. A successful woman seems to be one who has a fat bank account and a thin, fit body. Yet who’s to say this prevalent emphasis on successful women living in sexually attractive bodies doesn’t further encourage the sexualization of women in the workplace? While we continuously worship our bodies at the gym (as if worshiping a god) and attend the sanatorium (a.k.a the sauna) after to release some toxins, we can say for sure that God is dead and we deadlift.