Is There Any Way to Exercise Ironically?

Photo: Corbis

I was waiting for takeout with my friend Amanda when the conversation turned toward exercise. It was late in the year, mid-winter, had been raining for a month straight, and we were about to trudge home in the dark with armfuls of tacos for our friends, so we were both full of ways we could self-improve, leave the house more, “stay sane.” We listed cheap gyms in our neighborhoods or yoga classes at convenient times for both of us. I was trying to gather hope, to believe what I was saying, when Amanda looked at me with a glint in her eye.

“My sister’s been doing this workout alone in her room at night, it’s this series of exercises, I peeked through her door one day and saw her jumping around —”  

As soon as she said it I knew exactly what she was talking about. I gasped and grabbed her hand. “Kayla Itsines?” I said. “Bikini … body … thing?”

“Yes!” she said. “That.” We both knew damn well what it was called: The Bikini Body Guide. The Bikini Body Guide, or #bbg, as its millions of adherents tag their photos on Instagram, was pioneered by Kayla Itsines, an alarmingly young Australian woman and internet sensation with great abs and greater business acumen. Said abs and inspirational quotes are shared daily and duly with her passionate and supportive community on social media, which is otherwise known and hashtagged as #kaylasarmy.

Though I’d sooner die than post a photo of my body in anything but a garbage bag on Instagram, I had spent the last four weeks jumping up and down in my own living room, huffing and puffing and red and sore for days after. I’d learned about the workout from a friend of a friend, secretly downloaded the exercise guide, and, for the weeks before I started, was convinced it would change my life.

Back at home with tacos, I demanded that Rachel, Amanda’s sister, talk to me about the Bikini Body Guide. We shared what felt like confessions as we passed around a takeout container of queso and I tried not to make eye contact with Amanda’s novelist husband. We were not exercise people, or not publicly. We talked about work, about books, about restaurants. Exercise to stay sane was one thing; embarking on a program with the word bikini in it, one known for taking photos of your body and sharing them with an obsessive internet community — this was decidedly not our thing. Still, we were doing it. Secretly. We needed something, something to ward off winter ennui and self-loathing. At least this could be done behind closed doors. Kayla is a phenomenon, a hero to many women, and now, to others, she is an object of fascination. To women like me she is a name that makes you gasp and grab your friend’s hand and confess to having gone down that rabbit hole, to having downloaded that PDF.

Rachel said she first found out about the workout when she met an old friend for dinner: “Why do you look like you can beat me up?” Rachel had asked her. “I hadn’t seen her in a couple months and in the intervening time she had gotten completely ripped. Turns out she was about ten weeks into BBG.” As Amanda put it weeks later in an email, “My experience with Kayla’s BBG is that it is a way to create long-term changes and routine, and is an almost overwhelmingly positive community. That I only lurk in and would never publicly admit to being a part of.”

Rachel is now 12 weeks into BBG, and Amanda is a recent convert. Both try to avoid the online community, though Amanda is weaker. “I followed Kayla on Instagram then unfollowed her because it was embarrassing for photos of girls in their underwear to pop up when I was scrolling Insta on public transportation,” Amanda told me. “But then I followed her again because I secretly love those ‘transformation’ photos.” To people like me, Kayla Itsines and her empire may be alienating, but so are all “workouts.” So are all conversations about my body, getting in shape, feeling good. The sincerity makes me feel particularly vulnerable. I’d like to find a way through, but it’s easier to wave my hand, roll my eyes, pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s difficult to exercise ironically, but there are ways. SoulCycle is expensive, urban, and camp, which makes it almost ironic and kind of cool. Zumba is still pretty embarrassing but in a harmless-feeling way — so corny it’s almost punk. Running, solitary but public, is neutral, I’d say, though tweeting about your runs is decidedly uncool. (Automatically upload some sort of Nike-branded map and consider yourself muted.) Swimming, though! Swimming might arguably be the only cool exercise to do.

Pleasurable and solitary and respectable or not, the barrier to entry of swimming means I will probably never do it. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, you can’t swim in your living room in the middle of the night, at the very last minute. It requires a body of water, a swimsuit, basic knowledge of form and breathing, and a membership somewhere that probably has normal-human hours. There are other people involved. Too many initial errands. Goggles? Forget about it.

This is where BBG wins out. I find the internet community fascinating in the same way I find Mormon mom blogs or YouTube wedding proposals fascinating, that is, “People like this really exist, don’t they? And we both live on the same planet?” God bless them. Their abs are much better than mine. But the alienation can be set aside. You can join Kayla’s Army furtively, haphazardly and eschew the complicated discourse altogether. The workout appeals, and endures, because it can be done at home, whenever you can squeeze it in, without anyone knowing.

My fiancé jumped around with me most mornings, with our son laughing and crawling all over us, but he begged me not to do the “transformation” photos, calling them “a recipe for body dysmorphia.” I wanted to say that this would more likely be a recipe for a devastatingly accurate conception of what my body looks like in a bra and biking shorts, and an appropriately punishing workout I could use to atone for the shame I have brought upon myself and my family. Either way I didn’t press the issue. No one wants to take a “before” photo.

Semi-nude selfies aside, there is no glamour in the workout. The exercises themselves are fairly straightforward, with two sets of circuits, with reps in each meant to be repeated as often as possible in four seven-minute windows. “Wow, this isn’t so bad!” I said the first time I tried it, thinking you just had to do each set of exercises once. Ten squats! Twenty jumping jacks! Fifteen leg lifts! I broke a sweat and limped for a week, doing just a fourth of the regime. Scrolling through transformation photos, I wondered how ten squats a day could turn these women into amateur bodybuilders. Oh.

Still. You just do a bunch of exercises over and over, ones you probably could have made up yourself but, let’s be real, never would have. You can do it in private, and you’ll want to, at least at first. It is very, very difficult, when done correctly. BBG is more punishing than pleasurable. The only pleasure I found was screaming and laughing at how hard it was, how inept I felt trying to do push-ups. I had not attempted to do an actual sit-up since having a child 18 months prior. I lay on my back staring at the ceiling, the seven-minute timing winding down, and said, “There’s no fucking way I can do this.” I did crunches instead, groaning and collapsing and feeling like I was going to puke, feeling like somehow I was beating the system when really I was just cheating it.

The regimen is designed for someone who is already in reasonable shape: This cannot be overstated. Most of the women posting #bbg photos are thin to begin with — or this is what I thought about as I heaved myself up and down on my yoga mat and hoped I wasn’t on the verge of some kind of cardiac event, about to endure the truest transformative experience of them all (death). “This isn’t for me, this isn’t for me, OH GOD, this isn’t for me.” I thought of water aerobics, Zumba, the elliptical, and the $30-per-month gym — all the gentler sorts of exercises that I also never do, ones that might not give you a six-pack but are gentler; less punishing and better-suited for a person who does not exercise but thinks about it all the time.

For her part, Kayla promises no shortcuts, no workarounds, no big secrets aside from the fact that there is no secret. She doesn’t say anything about clearing your head, relieving stress, getting a runner’s high — all the reasons I try to tell myself are the real reasons I should exercise. Punishing your body to get a better body, well, it’s an idea I don’t like, that I want to take issue with. But it works for a lot of people. I gave up on week four, a fallen soldier in Kayla’s Army, though sometimes when I’m lying on the floor of the living room playing blocks with my son, I catch sight of the five-pound dumbbells I bought at Target. I think maybe I should roll my eyes and then do 20 burpees, take umbrage, and sweat until I puke. Unlike the Kayla Itsines Facebook page, but keep doing the workout. Maybe I could do all that and then take my coat off at dinner 12 or 20 or 30 weeks later and inspire everyone to gasp at the sight of my triceps.

Or else spend the afternoon looking up indoor pools, contemplating buying goggles online, thinking that maybe I’ve been a swimming person all along and didn’t know it. Maybe swimmers are more my people. Maybe this will be the thing that changes everything, at least for a few weeks.