SoulCycle apparel commodifies fitness and health

Target has collaborated with high-end brands and designers in the past, but its recent partnership with SoulCycle will be its first time teaming up with a fitness company. The boutique fitness chain’s 10-city tour, complete with six free classes a day and a capsule collection of lower-priced Soul-branded apparel at select Target locations, stops by Los Angeles from Feb. 12 to 14.

While it seems all glam and dollar signs, this isn’t just a sign of fitness infiltrating the fashion world — it’s a mark of an increase in commodifying the “active lifestyle” and associating it more closely with the luxury and status that few can afford.

The big question, though, is: what drives people to pay $34 for high-end classes at boutique fitness programs? SoulCycle, with its 45-minute intense candlelit workouts complete with rocking music and stylish gym wear, is one among many that have amassed cultish followings nationwide. Today, joining the ranks of Zumba, hot yoga, Pilates and Crossfit, are companies like Pure Barre, Solidcore and Flywheel that are shaping up many a wallet. Groups like Potomac Pilates price classes at values as high as $40.

Perhaps this fitness frenzy reflects something more profound than skin-deep narcissism. Perhaps SoulCycle is more than just an industry that Target is capitalizing on, and the emerging fitness boutiques don’t just boil down to business and profit.

The reason behind the obsessive culture, inspirational mantras and big dollar signs lies not just with the new body or “active lifestyle” that these programs are selling, but the promise of a community, a sense of belonging — things that resonate deeply with consumers. As SoulCycle’s website says, “SoulCycle doesn’t change bodies, it changes lives.”

While the play on spirituality and personal transformation does sound a little like deceptive marketing, there seems to be some truth to it. After all, in today’s culture, people are more digitally connected yet locally isolated than ever before.

Groups like SoulCycle and CrossFit rush to meet that need. In fact, for some, membership borders on religious experience. In an increasingly secular America, people seem to be turning to “activities and subcultures [to] provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did,” as The New York Times put it. At Harvard’s School of Divinity, researchers Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile conducted a study on spaces other than churches that serve as spiritual communities, finding that “as traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency.”

Those places, it seems, include fitness boutiques. One “Soul evangelist,” Nick White, told Thurston and Kuile, “What we share is a passion for personal improvement — be that physical, mental, or emotional — that we express through music, syncopation and shared experiences.”

Programs like SoulCycle create a space for shared, transformative experiences. Clients feel special because they are set apart from others who aren’t investing as much in terms of time, energy, and money. It gives them a tribe to belong to, and the company’s sartorial branding of athleisure, emblazoned with a scarlet bulls-eye and “Soul,” is a part of that experience.

Elements of elitism and the exclusive also come with the higher prices. Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times noted that the rise of high-end gyms “ensured that working out, like drinking coffee, would become another socially tiered experience with occupiers of top tax brackets doing it one way and secretaries and civil servants another — left to leg lifts in front of their televisions or discounted gyms that did not aim to make you feel special.” And naturally, for the why-pay-less customer, the more expensive, the better the quality.

Honestly speaking, getting fit really doesn’t take all that money and merchandise; the bottom line is that these classes bring a sense of privilege and exclusiveness. You don’t really need those $90 yoga pants to look good while running around campus. A pushup doesn’t cost a thing.

But a tough instructor, a $40 down payment, or 50 new cycling enthusiast friends just might give that extra push someone needs to start their soulful journey. Paying to exercise may be a relatively new concept, but people are buying it. To each his own.

Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs  every other Thursday.