How Pilates Healed My Relationship With Exercise
I Took a Break From Fitness During the Pandemic; Pilates Brought Me Back
"Angie is 90 years old and uses 10-pound weights," the Pilates instructor says to me, a 26-year-old, gripping a pair of two-pound dumbbells. Instead of feeling discouraged, I laugh and accept that I'm a beginner. It's true: Angie is stronger than me.
The reformer Pilates class I take every Saturday is filled with Upper East Siders ages 75 to 90 who grew up in the city. They've probably been doing Pilates for longer than I've been alive — or at the very least, way before TikTok made it trendy. The internet has been obsessed with Pilates and hot girl walks since last summer, but I just hopped on the bandwagon. After a long hiatus from exercise, I wanted to start the new year by moving my body again.
I had forgotten what happens when you're actually in tune with your body — you feel sexy.
This approach was in sharp contrast to how I've felt about fitness in the past. After years of struggling with body dysmorphic disorder and an unhealthy relationship with exercise as a teenager, I completely gave up on attempting to achieve "wellness" — whatever the term really means. A couple of months into the pandemic, I found myself lying in the fetal position on the floor of my living room crying. Why? Because I couldn't keep up with an online fitness class. I watched as the perky blonde yelled encouraging words at the screen as she effortlessly jumped into another set of burpees.
My reaction was tied to an insecurity I was too ashamed to say out loud, for fear of acknowledging the vanity of it all: What if I could never be a hot girl? What if no matter how many burpees I forced upon myself, I'd never look the way I want? I was 23 at the time, yet I felt my inner 16-year-old screaming for a break. She was tired of the pressure to look perfect, and so was I. It was 2020, and while I was unsure of the state of the world, I knew I needed a break from constantly thinking about my body. So I closed my laptop and didn't look back.
For three years, I had almost completely abstained from an exercise routine, besides long walks with my dog and the cardio of walking up the stairs to my fifth-floor apartment. I did nothing but fill my body with bagels and beer. And I was genuinely happy with my new antifitness lifestyle.
But recently, I walked by a Pilates studio in my neighborhood that was offering a free intro class. It stood out to me because my FYP page was filled with celebrities and normies alike who were embracing the Pilates and hot girl walk combo. I walked by it again a few days later. And then again the following week. Eventually, I paced back and forth in front of the studio door, willing myself to go in.
An older woman who ran the reception pushed open the door and said, "Are you coming in or not?"
So I took it as a sign from the Upper East Side gods to sign up for the free class. At the end of the intro session, as part of the sales pitch, one of the instructors said, "Wanna know how the Kardashians look as good as they do? It's Pilates." I held back an eye roll — I mean, sure, maybe they do Pilates, but they also spend thousands on plastic surgery. Still, her comment made me realize something. Maybe I'm allowed to want to feel like a "hot girl." Instead of mocking the vanity of it, maybe it's totally normal to want my body to look good.
A personal experiment was formed: could Pilates give me the body I'd always dreamed of? That day, I signed up for Pilates twice a week and bought the special grip socks in bulk. Each week, I tried something new — from learning the footwork on the reformer to perfecting my plank on the mat. But during each 50-minute session, my brain was always focused on form, not how I looked in a sports bra. A peaceful break from the criticisms that liked to run rampant in my head.
After a few weeks, my libido was higher than it had been in a while. I had forgotten what happens when you're actually in tune with your body — you feel sexy. Not because of some stupid body standard, but because you're warmed up, you're stretched out, and you feel strong. "Is this what fitness is supposed to feel like?" I thought to myself as I'd walk home.
While being a "hot girl" was the original goal, I felt the male gaze dissipate every week when I was surrounded by a group of women at least three times my age. Instead, our little group talked about ways muscle building can protect our bodies and our mental health. Slowly, it became less about how my body looked and more about how I felt in it.
Now, three months later, I allow the instructor to tease me on my lightweight dumbbells. As we move into bridge, I make eyes with the octogenarian on the reformer across from me. She winks, and I laugh. We're here to make our bodies stronger, not hotter. And I love it.