“Your ankles are showing,” I overhear one instructor say to another on an April Saturday in Los Angeles.
The ankle-barer laughs, all leggings and self-awareness. It’s true.
Her colleague is not the only to notice. At Pure Barre, covered legs are de rigueur. A chalkboard announcing studio rules prohibits legwear cut above the knees. Most “Barrebies” wear their exercise tights—studios sell pricy celeb-favorites like Alo and Beyond Yoga—pulled down over the heel of the foot so what sticks out is the toe of black sticky socks. These socks are akin to hospital wear. They’re $15 a pair, with dotted treds on the bottom and the words Pure Barre on top. I have pairs with turquoise, hot pink, and periwinkle dots.
Founded in 2001 in Michigan where dancer/choreographer/lawyer Carrie Rezabek Dorr taught ballet-inspired Pilates classes, the Pure Barre brand—“it’s more than a workout; it’s a lifestyle”—includes a clothing line, a DVD workout series, and more than 300 studios. For the past seven months, I’ve “embraced the shake” and “tucked” in two time zones, with at least eight instructors. I like the workout—I’m the sort of adult exerciser who’s still overcompensating for years of pallid performance in Phys. Ed., so group fitness always motivates me: I work hard, I show up. Recently, a friend and I passed a yoga studio; I have so many class cards I never use, my friend confessed. Mentally, I high-fived myself and thought, that’s so not me.
But is Pure Barre so me? Though I’m at the studio four or five days a week, I’m not sure. Before class, I bring my equipment—a red tube and a set of dumbbells and a red Pure Barre playground ball—to a spot on the carpet and try not to make eye contact with anyone in the mirror. What is a resting face supposed to do, I wonder. I stretch, I examine my nails, I pick lint off my socks. I look at the rushed job I did shaving: my ankles always show.
The more I “lift, tone, and burn” (L.T.B. is written on the chalkboard, along with warnings about bare feet and exposed navels) the more I wonder what effects these workouts are having on my mental health. Pure Barre cultivates sameness, a one-size fits all model of long, lean lady-strength. It’s no coincidence we all wear the same socks.
Pure Barre promotional photos feature women my age, somewhere between twenty- and thirty-something. They’re all white, all tank-topped, all with the same trim body-type: toned but not overtly muscular. A recent Tweet on Employee Appreciation Day shows a cluster of five, smiling white women—even their hair is parted the same direction. The Corporate Team appears to be all white; the faces in the photo collage at the top of the same page are mostly white. The only acceptable bodily variation seems to be a baby bump (a baby from which you must bounce back). The only distinctly non-white face I could find on Pure Barre’s Instagram page was in a post-class shot from a studio in Auburn, VA. (It’s May—I had to scroll back to February to find her.)
Strange—in a Stepford-wives-under-our-noses way—and also damaging. I’m troubled by how that imagery interacts with the brand’s language, or what Harriet Brown, author of “Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do about It,” calls the “‘insider’ speak … that creates a sense of community among students/members, but [suggests] that anyone who's not part of the community is ‘other,’ ‘impure.’”
It turns out, bared ankles and banned midriffs are just the tip of Pure Barre’s purity iceberg, and that iceberg is one big, outmoded stereotype of womanhood. When we lean our red, Pure Barre-emblazoned mats against the mirrored walls and focus on our upper abs, the instructor tells us, “It should feel like you’re being punched in the gut.” (Shaping the female body demands self-abuse.) During warm-ups, we “diamond out” our legs. (Let’s remember our wedding rings, BTBs.) We crunch, “back an inch, up an inch” and then “it’s one squeeze of the thighs, one tuck of the hips.” Sometimes we spend almost half the class in these exaggerated chastity poses. “Our plumbing hates your time of the month as much as you do,” reads a sign hung over the toilet at my current studio. Does the pureness of Pure Barre stem from erasing what’s in-between our legs? Is it inconceivable that someone sporting a tank that says “MY THIGHS ARE HUNGOVER” might have neutral feelings about menstruation?
But no word in the PB lexicon is as codified and in-spoken as “tuck.” Tucking might be the brand’s most pervasive move—and the most implicitly body-shaming. The word “tuck” comes from the Old English tūcian: to punish, ill-treat. In Pure Barre, we tuck it out, from side to side, tuck right, tuck left. Depending on your position, that can involve anything from tucking the hips under (dropping your tailbone is key) to tucking your navel toward your spine, a contraction of the lower abs. The only time we’re not tucking is during final stretch. The goal is to tuck until your abdominal muscles quiver.
If the tuck is Pure Barre’s butter, “embrace the shake” is their bread. “We’re looking for that shake zone,” the instructor says. Like a squad of legginged cheerleaders, we move in formation, kneeling, blank gazes facing the center of the room, our legs a fist’s distance apart, “while we burn out the tops of the thighs.” Sometimes we hinge at the waist, a fist pump frozen in the air. We’re looking for that shake when we stand “on highest tippy toes, heels, knees, thighs glued together,” and pulse down for two and up for two because “shaking is where the change happens.”
I have injured hips—I noted this on the questionnaires I filled out on my first trips to both Pure Barre studios. My hips are tight (“youch,” my physical therapist would say when he strapped himself into a seatbelt contraption to work on them), plagued with tendonosis from overdoing Ballet Beautiful exercises (Butt Series 1 and 2) from 2012 to 2014. Any intensive lower body engagement causes my legs to quiver at hummingbird-speed.
“Great shake right away,” the instructor tells me when we begin seat work. Sometimes we hinge over the barre, softening the standing leg and lifting the other (with a three-quarter bend and a soft foot or hip turned-out and foot flexed). “We’re slenderizing that side seat” or “we’re working our Pure Barre ledge, where the crease of your seat meets the top of your thighs.”
My hips cringe during seat work, so maybe that’s what leads me to start poking holes—“dime-sized holes,” like the “dime-sized circles” I’m supposed to be making with my foot—in the PB dogma. Does anyone else in class hear "dime-sized" and think of the slang (to describe a woman, not a bag of drugs)? Does a dime-sized woman need to cut her movements in half and strive constantly for a narrower seat? Are all seats meant to look the same? Doesn’t each seat have its own character? And are they all supposed to shake the same? Is embracing the shake really the secret to strength? And is strength predicated on the desire to change? Is it impure (or lazy or weak) to want the body I’ve got?
Potentially. Harriet Brown thinks “there's a fundamental confusion at the heart of programs like this. On the one hand they promote fitness, which is a fine concept. On the other hand there's nearly always an unspoken (or maybe it's spoken?) goal of weight loss, visible abs, etc.” Participants are encouraged to be strong, she says, “but not too strong? Strong but not strong enough to challenge certain cultural conventions? Which somehow seems almost worse than more overtly homogenous spaces or practices. At least with foot binding you know where you stand.”
In middle school, I was obsessed with The Limited Too. I spent hours picturing how great I would look wearing leggings and one of their sweatshirts. The fabric was sumptuous, the length (butt-covering) just right, the styles (one navy variety with red plaid block letters still comes to mind) perfectly preppy-chic, I told my mother, but really I wanted the name and the social status I hoped it would bestow on me. All the popular girls wore The Limited Too. You could tell by theirs chests.
“Fifty dollars?” my mother balked. “No way.” Then she echoed my dad. “You want to be a walking billboard?”
I do, I thought then, though now I’m more conflicted. I pause when I see, “Thanks for my Pure Barre booty,” on another chalkboard (the studios favor a Pottery Barn-brand of rustique) during Teacher Appreciation Week. There’s something “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” about the whole enterprise: We will all squeeze a little red ball and march in black stockinged feet. We will all bounce back from baby. We will all aspire to the same ass. Is that community?
Beneath the guise of fitness and self-improvement is Pure Barre’s body negativity. Your side seat is meant to be slenderized. And that may be what’s just so addictive about the brand’s particular strain of antifeminism, which Brown describes as “layered, which is why it's so difficult to characterize. On the surface there's nothing more feminist than strong women. But it all depends on your definition of strong. And theirs is quite complicated and not entirely empowering.”
The strong woman can push through that shake (and embrace it). “You came here because you wanted to change your body,” my Pure Barre instructor says in the middle of a grueling set of bridges—and I can’t disagree with her. Even if I’m not one of the women penning glowing PB reviews on blogs or YouTube, I’m part of the group, what Brown terms “a community of people who all want to ‘change their bodies’ … women who are all invested in the notion that the female body is a perpetual project. If you buy in to this idea, you're one of the group; if not, you're not.”
Perhaps my growing ambivalence about this project foments my isolation before class begins and I have to confront my own body and the dissatisfaction I still harbor toward it. I have to accept my culpability in this feeling—I have to embrace the shake—the shake of comparison, the shake of wanting to look skinny in my black tights, the shake of obsession, the shake of self-flagellation.
Perpetuating this notion of conditional self-worth is dangerous, of course. It invites the attitude to infect other parts our lives and allows the body to become a site of retribution. In a Dudes Digest article titled “True Life: I Went To Pure Barre and It Was Fucking Miserable,” TheeMattB recounts his grueling experience attending a class. “My [sic] fiancee keeps looking at me and smiling. Borderline laughing. Can’t wait till she’s pushing out our child between her legs. I will be standing over her with a [sic] shit eating grin on my face.”
Sucks for you, the douchebag above seems to say, and sucks for you, says the weak part of me who can’t rid herself of the desire to lift and tuck her way into a new body even as I know I’m setting myself up for failure. When we conflate fitness with self-loathing, Brown observes, “we throw that moral overlay over the entire experience, so we're … ‘good’ if we ‘get stronger’ and lose weight and ‘bad’ if we don't. Also, maybe more importantly, it sets up an outside standard for our basic feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy. So instead of being able to follow our own internal cues—whether they're around hunger or exercise—we assess ourselves according to the program's criteria. And judge ourselves harshly, usually.”
So despite my lingering hip pain, I keep going to class. I tell myself Pure Barre hasn’t exacerbated the condition. My tendonosis hasn’t worsened, but for the most part my body is the same. I don’t have a transformation story, like the kind on the PB website, where “every tuck tells a story.” I’m ashamed of that. It’s like the fitness gods can tell I haven’t fully subscribed. What I’m not ashamed of, though, is having my eyes open. You can’t help but see the other women working out around you during class. And when I watch them—none of them exactly like me, all older and younger, bodies larger and smaller, and, despite the misleading photos, with skins of many colors—and think about everything unsaid, all the mixed messages and aims we’re trying tuck toward, that’s when, for a second, I feel completely different and strong.