Fitness trends come and go. But the weight, about as low-tech and simple as it gets, is an anchor in the shifting tides of culture. As workout equipment has become canonized within the realm of home appliances, this heavy metal object aids in our dual — and sometimes conflicting — pursuit of athletics and aesthetics.
Transformation into a more idealized version of yourself is intimately bound to exercise, often for physical- and mental-health reasons. It’s also a performance of self-identity. The bodies people build through exercise reflect moral codes, beauty standards, and societal expectations related to race, gender, and class. Meanwhile, the amount of money people are willing to spend on home-fitness equipment has only gotten higher and higher over time, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of physical fitness and a professor at the New School, and “that’s in part because we sacralize exercise even more as a legitimate expense and a legitimate pursuit and something desirable to show off.”
Over the past century, most home-workout equipment — the treadmill, the exercise bike, the elliptical, the Mirror, the Tonal — is centered around creating identical lean and lithe bodies. But more recently, a shift has taken place in mainstream physical culture. Olympic-style weight lifting and weight training is everywhere. So is equipment like the barbell, which was originally used by people who performed feats of strength for entertainment, and the kettlebell, which was originally made as a counterweight in the sale of dry goods 350 years ago. The design of weights hasn’t changed very much over the years, but who uses them has changed. It’s a shift in physical culture that represents a more inclusive ideal around the types of bodies that are accepted, valued, and celebrated.
Episode four of Nice Try! Interior ventures into the home gym through interviews with Katie Rose Hejtmanek, an Olympic weight lifter and a professor of culture and anthropology at Brooklyn College; Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of physical fitness and a professor at the New School; Jan Dellinger, a historian at York Barbell; John Fair, the author of Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell; Maillard Howell, a co-founder of Dean CrossFit; and author Torrey Peters. Special thanks to Justice Williams, executive director of Fitness4AllBodies, and Ilya Parker, the founder of Decolonizing Fitness.