The room with the machines was lit magenta. The instructor wore black spandex separates, we all did. It wasn’t a rule, but we all just knew. Maybe it was hive mind, or we all had the same strain of female hysteria, or the same eating disorder, if there’s a difference. The machines were grayscale, white metal base, black straps and a black sliding platform, silver pegs for the straps and silver metal springs. Originally, the guy who invented it called it The Apparatus, but I guess that sounded too much like a torture device, so he went with The Reformer when he brought it to America, where we were prepared to apply the protestant ethic to exercise, where girlhood is reform school for the body. That guy died decades ago, and then the girlbosses grabbed his gravestone, exhumed his machine and rebranded. Pilates was reborn, but the experience remains religious, and like all religions causes collateral damage: more corpses, the cruelty of any cult, the pining for perfection that brings devotees to their knees.
In the pink room, she spoke softly but with certainty, directing our miniscule movements. We were sweaty, done with class, in the cool-down section. Lying on our backs, we tilted our pelvic bones up and down, pretending to get in touch with our breathing. I usually spent these minutes thinking through the myriad ways I might have died during class. A rollover taken at the wrong angle setting off a snap of the neck. Sweaty feet slipping off the bar during the final plank series, falling face first into the coils, metal wire slicing my throat. Staring at the white cinderblock ceiling lit the color of a Barbie’s favorite bikini, overheated and hopeless, it was hard to tell whether these were nightmares or daydreams, my fantasies or my worst fears.
In retrospect, that was probably part of the business plan, which was pretty flawless. The girl in charge figured it out about a decade ago, when she opened her first studio, sandwiched between a juice bar and a clothing store that sold silk separates, clothes that clung in all the wrong ways unless you had the type of body this girl promised to get you, if you would stop whining and writhe around on her machines multiple times a week. She accumulated acolytes quickly. She renamed all the moves the man had invented to be done on the machine, giving them cute yet confusing codenames so girls felt like they were in on a secret, and like they were doing something fun, flailing around on the sliding platform and squat jumping, sweating until they couldn’t see straight.
She hadn’t thought about all that sweat leaving the platform slippery. The first time it happened, she got lucky, she was teaching a private lesson. When the girl fell the sound almost made her sick, the crack and then the thud and then the gasp and then the silence. But it was the way her skin changed color that did it in the end, the way it paled and then purpled in the fuschia light. She should have seen it coming, but she was shocked when the dead girl did a sit up and hopped back on the machine, shrugging. She wouldn’t have spent so much time at Pilates in the first place if she’d had anything to live for. So that became the business plan, the machine’s coils were spring-loaded and the coffers filled up fast, ghosts are great gig workers. It turned out that the girls were most likely to die during a too-quick transition from catfish to wheelbarrow, so she started slipping that series into the end of every other private session. When it happened to me, I––well, I won’t tell you how I felt about it, what’s more boring than an anecdote about exercise class?
Emmeline Clein writes about girl problems (pop culture and mental illness). She’s currently working on a cultural history of disordered eating for Knopf.