Being The Big Girl At The Barre Class

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.

The first time I walked into a bar workout, I did it with arms crossed and eyebrows raised.

"What do I even wear to this thing? Like, a tank and leggings?" I had texted my friend hours earlier, incredulity oozing through the phone.

"A tank top and leggings is fine," she replied.

"And, like, those sock things?"

"Dance socks, yeah."

"Well, do they even sell them there?"

"They do."

There was no excuse. So, with the grand sulk of a teenaged goth at prom, I slouched toward the Bar Method Brooklyn studio in my blackest leggings and tank.

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.

The primary pillars of my new health/lifestyle are intuitive eating, body positivity, and rational, sustainable fitness. The "anti" part of Anti-Diet Project means anti-fad, anti-trend, anti-get-thin-quick bullshit. I now know that exercise doesn't necessarily require a gym, and that a workout is a workout even if you don't hate it. I work hard to un-link the concept of fitness from calories spent and fat burned. I work out to feel better — not to look like someone else's idea of "better."

So, whenever the topic of barre workouts came up, all my "anti" alarm bells went off. Because, what could be more trendy? In my mind, bar was the engagement workout. It was the realm of the tall and reedy; the lifelong blondes. It was for girls who fancied themselves ballerinas, and me and my thunder thighs had no place in that pretty, pink world. I mean, not that I'd even want to be there, gawd.

Then, my friend Kelsey Osgood got hooked on it, attending classes at Bar Method Brooklyn. Kelsey and I have more than a name in common: We're both writers, and we've both written extensively about our fucked-up food issues, she most notably in the kick-ass memoir, How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. She's done many more years of work on this than I have and therefore has an even higher bullshit meter than I do. So, when she urged me to give Bar Method a shot, I gave her an earful about the evil, shaming construct of contemporary fitness culture, irrational expectations that set us up for failure, and also FEMINISM. She replied:

"I can do 25 push-ups in a row now."

Fair enough.
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
The workout began with loud, pumping music and a simple, knee-raising warm-up. Our instructor, Amy, led the class with a microphone headpiece and an astoundingly upbeat attitude. Like many instructors, she had the carriage of a dancer and the charisma of a cult leader — but a really, really fun cult. Immediately, I wanted her to like me.

"Bring those knees to waist-level, Kelsey!" She called with a smile. OMG, she knows my name!

Then came a series of arm moves using 1- to 3-pound weights. This, I knew, was one of the criticisms of barre-style workouts. I'd heard other fitness folks say such minimal weight wouldn't have much impact on someone who'd already been working out consistently, as I had. I thought about that as my deltoids began to light up with heat.

Next, we hit the ground for planks, push-ups, and reverse push-ups, at which point I knew the rumors were not true. My face squished up in effort, sweat beaded at my hairline, and I knew nobody in that room looked pretty or pink. It was a legit workout, and most of us had gone red in the face. That's when we hit the bar — and the mirror.
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
In the weeks to come, I would adjust to the class and discover that while it was challenging at times, it wasn't hard. Each set seemed to go just to the point where I thought I couldn't do it anymore, but no longer. Between the instructors' generous cheering and the rapid pace, the hour always flew by. But, from day one, the mirror was hard.

Amy told us all to take our place at the ballet bar, anchored to a mirrored wall, where we'd begin a series of leg-shaking thigh exercises. All at once, I saw myself up close and a little too personal: that round face, the meaty thighs, my belly folding into rolls as we squatted and stretched. Here, I was forced to face all the things I instinctively look away from while lined up alongside a dozen other women, all of whom I'd gladly have traded torsos with.

"Come on, everyone. This is the endurance part," Amy urged as we raised our heels higher and squatted even lower. "Here's where you really burn up those calories."

Quietly, I snapped. To all outward appearances, I kept doing the teeny, tiny, thigh-scorching squats, but on the inside, the rant began: Um, I am not here to "really burn up those calories," okay? Calories are just energy, not heretics I need to burn, and by the way, there is nothing wrong with my body because, as you can see, I can do just as many fucking teeny, tiny squats as every other woman in this class, so you can just keep it to yourself — okay, ponytail?

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
I'd like to say I realized right there what an ass-hat I was being and that I was never quite so ass-hatted again. But, this was just the first of many mental tantrums I had while staring at myself in the mirror for the next month, as I took more Bar Method classes. Every time an instructor made a motivational remark about calories or leaner limbs, my hackles went up. It was as if I had been proven right; the pretty girls were mean, and therefore I had permission to feel like an outcast, getting righteous and rant-y about my workout.

Still, I kept going. For one thing, I'd committed to doing Bar Method for a month, wanting to give the workout a real shot. But that wasn't the whole truth. About three weeks in, the whole truth dawned on me: I liked it.

I liked the high, cheerful energy of the class. I liked that it was tough, but not soul-crushingly tough. I liked that the instructors knew our names and shouted encouragement as much as correction. Finally, grudgingly, I could not deny that I liked how my body felt. And, according to my own fitness rule, wasn't that why I was here in the first place?

That day, as I squatted in front of the mirror in another one of Amy's classes, she shouted something about getting a tight tush. My internal soapbox did not present itself, and I didn't climb up on it for a good scream. Instead, I smirked at myself in the mirror for a second, then refocused on my posture. Eh, I thought. Whatevs.

I'm an adult, and that means I'm old enough to admit the truth. The truth is maybe it's still hard to stare at myself in the mirror, despite my deep belief in body positivity. Maybe I'm still a little intimidated by scary, new workouts. And, maybe I was being a little too sensitive about the calorie talk. Because, really: whatevs.
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Another part of being an adult means my sense of self won't dissolve at the mere mention of something I don't agree with. I don't need to mount my high horse for every man, woman, and workout that doesn't wholly align with my values. I can really enjoy Bar Method without becoming obsessed with thigh gaps and calorie debts — and, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

My self-declared ethos around fitness is supposed to be non-judgment: You do you, I'll do me, and happy workouts to us all. So, why shouldn't that apply here? Because it's popular?

I've been judgmental about the tall, blonde, skinny girls — the Amys —my whole life, because I assumed they were judging me. When I stepped into their world, arms folded, it was with that old, defensive attitude. Then, I stood in front of the mirror with them and realized how blind and silly and — shit — mean I'd been myself. Because of course it wasn't true. It wasn't "their" world, because there was no "they." There were women of all heights, sizes, and hair colors in that room. I wasn't the only not-thin one. And how dare I assume I was the only one grappling with her reflection in the mirror?

Again and again, I've learned this lesson: If it's scary and uncomfortable, you've got to give it a shot. Even if you don't like it, you'll get the chance to stand in front of the mirror and confront whatever it is that makes you so scared and uncomfortable. Bar Method reminded me that my body is capable of trying new challenges, and so am I.

Even better, it reminded me to get over myself, get out of my head, and just keep on going — because I can.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Got a question — or your own Anti-Diet story to tell? Email me at

Special thanks to Bar Method Brooklyn.

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