“A Lawyer Walks Into A Barre,” by Lisa Sullivan Ballew

Apr 17th, 2019 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

It’s a typical Wednesday morning at the office, and I am alternately revising a contract, sending calls from my mother to voicemail, Googling birthday party venues for my six year old, and scanning the latest Trump / border crisis / senseless gun violence related headlines. Looking down at my lap, my once crisply tailored slacks are noticeably straining over my splayed hips and thighs. The waistline digs into the soft folds of my belly a little too snugly for me to ignore.

I know where this is headed. My mother, her sisters, my cousins—all of the ladies in my family—bear witness to the unfortunate, seemingly inevitable, soul-crushing reality that is the middle age spread. It’s coming for me. Who are we kidding? It’s arrived.

Resolved to reverse fate or, at the very least, forestall the inevitable, I sign up for that afternoon’s barre class at the boutique fitness studio in my town, the one my husband gave me the gift certificate to last Christmas. It was the perfect gift, really. I was always saying things like, “I should really check that place out,” when we drove passed, where young women in the latest athleisure fashions, their long ponytails swinging, spilled onto the sidewalk. Glancing again at my soft folds and overall ampleness, I promise myself that I will not let a dime of that gift certificate go to waste. “You might as well just throw your money away,” my mother would say. Everyone knows there’s no greater sin than wasting money, and if I could tone and tighten this mom bod in the process? Not only would I fit into my slacks again, but I could be an inspiration to my daughter, and her entire generation of petite, yet sturdy, wholesome women, descended from potato farmers and laundresses and the like, with pale eyes, thick manes of ropelike brown hair, narrow shoulders, and nonexistent waistlines.

Before leaving the office I change into workout clothes. The black leggings are much more forgiving than the dress slacks, and the sports bra and flowy tank top do a fine job concealing and constricting a multitude of fleshy, freckled sins. I consider that I might be overreacting. It’s not like I’ve let myself go entirely. Not that long ago I was running half marathons on the reg and even the occasional sprint triathlon for kicks. That’s right, for kicks!

Upon arrival, I decide that the fitness studio might be considered cozy if it wasn’t so filled with women. Several of them are already seated on their mats, scrolling through Instagram. They do not look up when I enter. Other women step over and around them, busily going through the motions of setting up for class. This is an elaborate process that starts with securing a spot under one of the two ballet barres for your mat and ends with successfully gathering the many props you will need during the fifty minute class: a rubber ball, a strap, two foam blocks, 2 sets of free weights, and a resistance band. I steel my nerves and wade into the fray.

With my props arranged around my mat, I take care not to invade the personal space of my lady neighbors whom are close enough for me to read their tattoos (“Breathe” and “Let Love Live”). Themes begin to emerge as I look around the room: Tans. Fresh mani-pedis. Silver bracelets jangle, slide down wrists. Spaghetti straps reveal taut shoulders and muscular backs. Everyone is wearing black leggings, including me. I look in vain for evidence of a camel toe and find none.

Ally the instructor walks to the front of the room. Smiling sweetly, she congratulates us for making some “me time, which is, you know, so important.” “Now let’s start at the top of our mats,” she says as she plugs her iPhone into the sound system. Heavy pulsing beats fill the room. “Hands over head,” she calls out. “Now bring up those knees!”

The women around me spring to life raising knees to chests, swiftly alternating legs. I fall in and the heat begins to build inside me as the music builds in the room. Like a cartoonish drill sergeant Ally parades in front of us as we continue this exaggerated marching in place. The expressions on the young smooth faces around me are stony, and I grow alarmed by the persistence of Ally’s smile.

From side plank position we are told to raise our hips, “Raise ‘em, raise ‘em!” The view of the woman’s back side in front of me reminds me why I am here. No fleshy bits protrude from the top of her leggings. No bulging rolls escape from her sports bra. With smooth precision she raises and lowers her top leg with nary a wobble. She is #plankgoals personified.

As Lady Gaga sings “muh muh muh muh ppp poker face” it dawns on me that, of course, smiling is out of the question in barre class. This is modern warfare on flab. Go to Zumba if you’re looking for laughs. As I rotate through center plank, Lady Gaga says “bluffin with my muffin,” and I wonder if it is just the song, or am I picking up on a distinctly cynical vibe in the room? To whom is the serious business of barre class in the service of, anyway, because no one I could see was squeezing a partially deflated ball between her thighs for the amusement of it.

I am firing my glutes.

I am isolating my pelvic floor.

I am the least fit and oldest woman in the room, and that is about the only thing I am certain of at the halfway point of class. With every lift, lift, lift I try to banish the burning pain emanating from my gluteal region. A hot pink tank top on the apparel rack by the front door catches my eye and like a beacon of hope I hone in on it as if my life depends on it. The front of the shirt reads “Feminist AF” but at that moment I feel anything but.

This isn’t feminism, this is the collateral damage of a supercharged consumer rich patriarchy. This is young women in a contest with rules written by men. This is me, feeling envious of the vitality and physical beauty all around me, of women who believe they don’t have it when it is plain as day that they do have it, in spades; Women who will wake up one day, years from now, startled by the realization that like me, they did in fact have “it,” at one time, maybe even for a long time, but it’s good and gone now; Now, after college and grad school and jobs and marriage and babies and different jobs and parenting and parenting our parents and all of that. Now, collectively, we will appreciate it. Now, we promise to respect its power. Now, “Give it back,” I want to say.

The class ends, and as I shove my feet into flip flops Ally flashes me a smile. “Nice work today,” she says. I feel a rush of gratitude toward her. As terrible as it all was I know I’ll be back. It’s not feminism, it’s hardly self-care. It’s closer to masochism but if I can look even half as good as one of these miserable barre girls it will be totally worth it.  Totally.


Lisa Sullivan Ballew is an arts and media law attorney, wife, and mother of two irrepressible youngsters. She blogs about running and being out of shape here. She lives in Melrose, MA.

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