Posted on March 20, 2018

Is Your Spin Class Too Young, Too Thin and Too White?

Lavanya Ramanathan, Washington Post, March 18, 2018


Boutique workout studios — specialized, exercise-specific gyms — are exploding in gentrifying urban areas. They include not only hot yoga but also CrossFit, which is everywhere; Barry’s Bootcamp (in Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington, along with other major cities); SoulCycle (nearly 20 markets); or Orangetheory (hundreds of studios nationwide).

They are the modern answer to the sprawling, soulless gym, which insists on financial commitment but doesn’t really care whether you actually work out. In the boutique world, you make reservations. You’re greeted with smiles. You’re served an ice-cold glass of the “spin class is self-care” Kool-Aid.


But some people have begun to question the stark differences between the studios and the neighborhood YMCA. Like the prices: In Washington, a single 50-minute Barry’s Bootcamp class is $34. Spinning studio Flywheel charges $30. Solidcore, a Pilates-like workout, can run as much as $37, or about half the cost of a monthly membership in most urban gyms.

{snip} fitness junkies have begun to notice who isn’t coming. Sweat through a class in one of these studios and it’s very possible that you’ll see it, too: many, many lithe young white bodies and very few people of color. Or older or heavier exercisers.


Daniel T. Lichter, a Cornell University sociology professor and demographer, agrees that cities are more integrated, but he sees the rise of boutique businesses such as juice bars and studios — with their specific clientele — as a trend in keeping with larger demographic shifts. “We’ve seen this return of the white-middle class, minority professionals, and professional immigrants. There’s more money in the city now,” he says. “There’s now a large enough clientele that they can cater to and specialize in.”

Some have made efforts to foster diversity. In an email, SoulCycle chief executive Melanie Whelan described her company’s effort to maintain a team of instructors that give “riders a range of genders, races, backgrounds and personalities to identify with.” The company also maintains an inclusivity and diversity council and offers underserved youths in some markets 12-week scholarships to take classes and learn nutrition. Barry’s Bootcamp declined a request for comment, while Flywheel did not respond to a request.

But Stanley [Jessamyn Stanley, a North Carolina-based yoga teacher and author], who has gained some fame with her criticisms of boutique workout and yoga culture’s lack of diversity, describes the studios she has visited outside the big-city bubble as anything but diverse. {snip}

She’s often the only fat woman in the room as well, she says. And if you’re looking for a mature crowd, you’ll have to keep looking, too: By the health club association’s reckoning, the average age of studio exercisers is 30.

“The messaging,” says Stanley, “is essentially: You’re allowed in this space if you are white, slender, able-bodied and less than 45, cis-gender and heterosexual. And if you’re not, then you’re not welcome.”

Todd Miller is director of George Washington University’s Weight Management and Human Performance Laboratory and has researched commercial gyms. {snip}


His research into workout habits reveals that “people want to be around others who are like them. That’s almost universal.”


What makes such studios appealing, a spokeswoman for the health club trade group wrote in an email, is “the sense of belonging, where everyone is ‘like them.’ ” What they foster is known in the business as “tribes,” spandex-clad warriors who feel a special kinship after enduring a couple of dozen burpees together.

The tribe model has a distinct upside, says Miller. The sense of community encourages exercisers to keep exercising — something conventional gyms haven’t been successful at.

But it has a downside as well.

“If you’re trying to get a select group of people by saying ‘This workout is really hard,’ you’re sending a message to unfit people — who really need exercise. ‘Don’t come here, because you’re not wanted.’ You’re making it unappealing to the people who need it the most,” Miller says.


Kinnicutt, who is of South Asian descent, says she’s aware that there are efforts to show more diversity in the exercise space. Except, she says, they continue to show “the stereotypical long-bodied or brown-haired ‘yoga person.’ ”