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Guest Post: "Paris Gyms: a Spectacle"

By February 3, 2010 7 Comments

Intrigued by my friend Lindsey’s tales of Parisian gym culture, I have asked her to write a blog post about it. Here it is:

From a very young age my mother instilled in me a certain logic, if you can call it that. There were clothes that could be worn to school, to friends houses, out to dinner and to events and then there were what she called “play clothes” – clothes for hanging around the house, playing outside or engaging in any kind of athletic activity. They were not to overlap. From the minute I would get home from school I was told to go upstairs and change into my play clothes before doing anything else. I never found this to be unusual since the only time I would see my mother in anything but her play clothes (jeans, a sweatshirt and slippers) was when she’d run errands or go out to dinner with my father on the weekends. It was an irritating habit but not something I perceived as abnormal.

Although I had many friends whose mothers did not maintain such an approach to dressing, I grew up buying into this notion that there was a time to get dressed up (aka make an effort to look good) and a time to be comfortable. In my experience, this is very American.

I didn’t realize how American it was until I came to Paris where looking good is an art form, an innate ability that we sartorially inferior beings lack. It goes far beyond good grooming and fashion sense. Nowhere was this made more obvious to me than at the gym in Paris (the French are late adopters, fitness being no exception. Indoor exercise is a relatively recent phenomenon).

To a certain degree I can understand how looking good for your workout might contribute to a positive body image. I refuse to believe, however, that I should be spurned because I left the house in running shoes, stretchy yoga pants, a t-shirt and a trace of the previous night’s mascara. I’ve been a member of a fitness club since High School in a culture where, unless you go to the gym straight from work, you arrive in sneakers and fitness gear without thinking twice. This falls into the “play clothes” category of dressing. However, looking sporty in Paris is a major faux-pas, one that provokes looks of disdain steeped in judgment – as if I’m not only inferior but about as stylish as a bag lady. The only context in which athletic-wear is permissible is for running outdoors but let’s be honest, this also confuses some Parisians. Why would anyone subject themselves to such sweaty torture?

I was immediately astounded by the get-ups women would sport to the gym, women that I would quickly learn were either stay-at-home trophy wives or stay-at-home mothers.  Even at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, these characters would show up to the gym in heels, skinny jeans or a skirt, a painted face and an aroma that could only come from an entire bottle of perfume, and not the pleasant kind. All of this just to head straight for the locker room, gossip with their girlfriends, change (into what can only be considered in appropriate gym-attire) and, presumably, sweat off their liquid foundation.

The first time I saw some of these women I thought I was stuck in an 80’s horror flick, convinced that a crazed killer was going to storm through the gym and ravage one of them. Leotards, fishnet stockings, brightly colored spandex, scrunchies (gasp!), jewelry, lingerie, converse sneakers – all have made up the Parisian interpretation of athletic-wear. Yet somehow, in my City Sports Philly tee, yoga pants, pro running shoes and a slicked back ponytail I am the evil-doer, the one who merits the looks. And when I head to the weight lifting room where the smell of sweaty socks fills my nostrils and hits me like a brick, I am the outsider among virtually all men. Some hopelessly scrawny nerds, some beefed-up meatheads, some flirty homosexuals in short-shorts that leave little to the imagination and a lot of excessive staring. As a female, I breach the male-dominated muscle fortress the second I sit down on the hip-abductor machine. Because of this, these surly representations of French masculinity feel the need to comment on how I use the machines, remarking that muscles aren’t attractive on women. Luckily, I have perfected my look of death and am able to shoot them down without even opening my mouth. I have also learned not to take this personally and have concluded that French men are merely unaccustomed to seeing women with a little meat, muscles and tone (aka real).

Yes, these seemingly bizarre clothing choices and social behaviors could be attributed to a difference in culture (didn’t their parents ever teach them not to stare and judge?) but it really speaks to a much larger issue in the Parisian gyms, the idea of spectacle and prestige. It’s all for show – the outfits, the blatant yearning for perfection, the condescension, the visual competition – a great number of these Parisians are not there to lose weight, get fit or stay healthy (besides, any health benefit is negated by the smoking the moment they leave the gym) but to socialize and show off.  Chalk it up to American Puritanism but I find it quite uncomfortable when women of ALL shapes, sizes and ages lead full-fledged conversations in the nude, often while oiling down.

This approach to fitness wouldn’t necessarily be problematic if it weren’t for the scowls and looks that scream “you’re inferior, you don’t look good, you have no style”. I’m not sure which is worse, their occasional blatant disregard for my existence or the more frequent looks of disgust likening me to a hobo.

Paris is not only the capital of fashion but of the thin ideal. Sure, it underwrites almost all messages diffused by American fashion media as well, but you can feel the yearning to be thin and stylish on and off the runway in Paris. For the most part, the women don’t have “play clothes” because, well, you never know who you might run into on a quick trip to the market or pharmacy so looking your best is imperative. I’ve had to completely change my habits and approach to dressing and I fear my American nonchalance is being quickly replaced by Parisian snobbism. But as much as I become more French in my style, I will always follow my mother’s logic and wear my “play clothes” to the gym. I can take the looks.

Note: I have since joined a different gym which seems to welcome a more Americanized fitness crowd, serious about exercise. I think it voids everything I have just written. I’ll report back in a year.

Lindsey is the creator of Lost In Cheeseland: Musings on food, love, life and struggles in Paris. She is a Paris transplant from Philadelphia, married to a Frenchman and on a permanent quest to understand the idiosyncrasies of the French. Having battled food and body image issues, she has struggled to find a balance in Paris where food is ubiquitous and bodies are tiny.  In real life, she is in charge of Marketing & Communications for an online boutique. Check her out!