I went to check out a new gym today. An actual gym, with a prowler. I thought it was heaven, but before I touched a kettlebell I had to sign the usual form, saying I wasn’t planning to die in the middle of a heavy squat. I also got asked what my goals are. I seem to have a bit of goal-setting ADHD most days, but I didn’t hesitate to write down “I want to be strong.” And it’s true. Even when I’m not at the gym, I’m thinking about what I need to do to get stronger.
I sometimes feel conflicted when I go to the gym: I see people who are just dicking around and getting nowhere. I want to yell and scream and shake them and demand, “WHY AREN’T YOU ACHIEVING YOUR FULL POTENTIAL?!” This includes most of the women at zumba who at least look like they’re in better shape than I am. But then I remember that I haven’t always wanted to be strong, and if I’m honest with myself, I owe a lot to zumba for saving my life.
When I first started doing zumba, my lifestyle was sedentary and I weighed 232lbs. If I were a news anchor, people would have been writing me letters to tell me I was obese. At some point I had to admit that I was unhappy with my life, and I paid for a zumba class that I couldn’t really afford. I told myself that if I went to every class then the expense would be worth it, and I could cut some of the budget out of my junk food habit. Then I went to the classes. I nearly died. I used to come home, drenched in sweat and lie on my couch for hours afterwards. I was too chicken to go to a real gym, so I made it my goal to go to the class at the local community centre twice a week and I felt awesome just for achieving that goal.
I will say this: zumba was a totally new experience for me. The instructor, Tracy, always greeted me with a smile and knew my name by the second class. It was quite unlike high school phys ed: instead of feeling like the weak (and fattest) link, I was made to feel good just for showing up and working out. In that sense, zumba established a foundation of good habits which I continue to rely on today, and I understand that it’s a starting point for many people in our lard-ass society.
So what’s the rub? I lost a lot of weight on zumba, but much of that comes from the fact that I also made the conscious effort to educate myself and improve my diet. I’m lucky in one sense, because I’m naturally curious and smart enough to figure out how things work. It seems pretty common that when other people take up a gym routine, they compensate by eating more and essentially undoing all of their hard work. A good health intervention needs to educate participants on diet and most group fitness fails on that front.
I also question the motives of women who’ve been going to zumba for over a year. I got tired of zumba after a few months because it wouldn’t push me further. I started zumba to relieve the tedium of everyday life, but like any aerobics class, you stagnate because you can’t push yourself any further. Aren’t these ladies curious about what would happen if they tried something else that was just a little bit harder and left them feeling gassed like the first zumba class they ever went to?
The biggest issue I have with zumba is the whole idea of a “toning” class, which is basically dancing around with 2.5lb dumbbells for an hour. I remember the instructor telling me that I wouldn’t get bulky. Lady, I was 200lbs: if that’s not bulky, I don’t know what is. And as a more philosophical question, is it so wrong to get “bulky”? Why do we discourage women from putting on muscle?
Nowadays, it is not uncommon that when I tell a girl that I lift, she’ll respond with, “Ya, I’m trying to lose some weight – I’m just working on toning.” I usually just sigh and move on. From my own experience, “toning” seems to mean low body fat and very little muscle; what essentially equates to looking anorexic. Why is that appealing? When we live in a world where women and men are equal, what purpose does it serve to idealize a weak feminine ideal?
I’m going to assume that most women who lift already know that the idea of toning is total bullshit. Being “tone” essentially means building muscle, and you’re going to need to move some serious weight to get there. And ya, diet’s still important. But the bigger issue here is that when I started lifting weights, my philosophy changed. I still want to look hot, but more importantly, I started to value physical strength as an end goal in itself. All of a sudden I stopped caring how many times I went to the gym each week, and I stopped being obsessed with “Are my thighs getting slimmer?”. All that mattered is what I could push my body to do.
There is a crisis in women’s fitness in general: we treat our bodies like furniture, and everyone wants the nicest looking sofa. “Get abs for summer!” or “Look hot in that sleeveless dress.” are not the goals that modern women want or need, they just make us miserable. When we live in a society of instant gratification and can not achieve the goal of looking hot, we set ourselves up for failure. I would have failed a long time ago if I hadn’t found an alternative to zumba; and it’s certainly not because I’m weak.