Goodbye to the Cult of SoulCycleRoundup
tags: COVID-19, Fitness, affluence, exercise
Dr. Petrzela is an associate professor of History at the New School and is writing a book about American fitness culture. She has taught group fitness for over a decade.
I resisted SoulCycle, the trendy boutique fitness chain, for years. My last indoor cycling experience had been in the 1990s, when spinning was “Spinning,” and my most vivid memories were bruises from the bike seat and an instructor who looked as if he’d forgotten to shed his Lance Armstrong Halloween costume. But in 2011, I was too hugely pregnant to run or dance. One day a friend who worked at Soul, as acolytes called it, invited me along.
The class felt less morning-at-the-gym than night-on-the-town: its pounding music, synchronized movement and semidarkness afforded both a sense of security and the thrill of belonging among beautiful people. The experience was orchestrated by the instructor, a title that didn’t do justice to the radiant woman calling out inspirational phrases from her own bike atop a stage illuminated by candles. I didn’t know her, but after 45 minutes, I wanted to hug her. Maybe I wanted to be her. “You did amazing, Natalia,” she told me. I booked another class.
The ritual became intoxicating. But the same aura that makes these experiences so enticing can also have a dark side.
Popular instructors at SoulCycle have recently faced allegations of sexual harassment, racism, fat-shaming and general misanthropy. They’ve been accused of coercing riders into oral sex, calling a Black rider in a bandanna “Aunt Jemima,” and throwing fruit at employees in fits of rage. Last week, one of SoulCycle’s most famous instructors committed the cardinal sin of the Covid-19 era: jumping the vaccine line, and posting about it on Instagram, claiming she was eligible as an “educator” tending to the “health and wellness” of her community. (She apologized.)
The fact that brands built on “inspiration,” “authenticity” and “wellness” can foster such unhealthy behavior shows how easily our instinct to confer positivity on the pursuit of health, and the people who help us achieve it, can be exploited. Allegations checker the industry, from Bikram Yoga (a charismatic leader was accused of sexual harassment and rape) to CrossFit (the chief executive was accused of sexual harassment and racist remarks). Like so many community institutions — the Boy Scouts, churches, college campuses — the spaces where we gather to sweat can sanction abuse as easily as inspiration.
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