Friday, October 7, 2011


Oh Curves, You're So Weird. Bless Your Heart.

You know, Curves? For Women? Been around since the days of Jazzercize and, just like that bygone fad, somehow ekes out an existence in strip malls and office suites across America? Ahem, I mean across the globe. As I learned from Sally, the “Coach” at my neighborhood Curves, the franchise exists on six continents. Yup!

“We’re not in Antarctica … yet,” Sally said with a wink.

I visited Curves because I am an intrepid explorer (read: restless dilettante) of exercise — you can sign up for a week’s free tryout on their website — but mainly to satisfy my curiosity. As in, WTF is up with Curves? I knew it had something to do with circuit training (Ed. – And that its owner donates to shady anti-choice organizations), but was there more to it? Was there a cult culture of Curves inside those drab walls?

Kinda. Maybe. Or not really at all.

Short answer: It’s just circuit training for ladies — typically older and/or out-of-shape ladies. (Them’s the facts, Sally said, in giving me the straight dope on Curves’ target demographic.)

Their slogan is, “No makeup. No mirrors. No men.” If the male gaze or, more important, your own gaze makes you feel shitty when you try to work out, Curves may be for you. (OK that sounds kinda sad, but anyone who didn’t grow up with gazelle-like athleticism, and maybe some who did, can relate. Admit it.)

It’s not a gym. There is one thing you do at Curves: the Curves workout, which is a circle of resistance machines and cardio stations that you go ‘round, 30 seconds at each stop, for 30 minutes total. That’s it. There’s no other equipment, save some mats for stretching. The music is all techno-lite, 140-bpm covers of oldies — think “We Are Family” and “Downtown” — and every 30 seconds, an automated woman’s voice announces, “Please move to the next station.”

If that sounds depressing, it sort of is, but it takes all the guesswork and potential for procrastination out of exercise. You’re basically strapping yourself into a 30-minute exercise carousel, and if you’re under 50 and not extremely obese or injured or suddenly ill, you have no excuse for not finishing.

Sally explained the concept and told me to pick a starting point. I went with the nearest cardio station, which, like most of them, consisted of a 3-inch-high square pad with instructions on a laminated sign. “RUNNING FROM A BEAR,” it said. A cartoon helpfully illustrated what that might look like. “Run or jog in place, periodically looking over your shoulder.”

I cocked my head to take this in, but the Curves audio ringmistress announced a station change, so I followed orders and started jogging in place. Fine. I rotated my torso to look over my right shoulder. Easy enough. Tried looking over the left, and almost fell off the pad. “Is the looking over your shoulder supposed to work your obliques?” I asked Sally. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I never do that part.”

The other cardio stations were similarly interpretive. Hula and boxing were pretty straightforward, but “CASTING A LINE”? I stared at the sign and looked at Sally for help. “You know, just throw your arm forward like you’re casting a fishing pole, then reeeeeeel it in!” she said.

“ROWING A BOAT” seemed pretty awkward to translate into a standing cardio exercise, because all you’re supposed to do is chug your arms like a choo-choo train, and that just feels stupid. I did jumping jacks.

I liked the resistance machines, which run on hydraulics that match your strength with resistance instead of actual weights. SO much easier than fiddling with those pins and clanging bits on traditional weights. Also, Sally said, you can scan your membership card on the front of the machine, and it’ll let you know if you’re working more or less resistance than your last time around.

So there we went, Sally and I, cardio to resistance to cardio to resistance, around the Curves circle of sisterly solidarity. There was one other woman there, a 70-something lady, and Sally would bounce between the two of us with small talk (she loves Weeds, was disappointed with The C Word) and words of encouragement.

Scanning my surroundings, I saw a lot of Curves-wear for sale at the front counter and some posters with cutesy slogans. (Girl wearing a tiara and smiling serenely: “You could be hanging out. But you’re working out. YOU RULE.”) As I started my third lap around the circuit (three times around = 30 minutes), I asked Sally if people could keep going beyond 30 minutes. Nope, it turns out. This is a gym where you are not allowed to work out longer than 30 minutes. “I mean, if you want to keep going, I won’t stop you,” Sally said. “But I’m not supposed to let you keep going around it like a hamster wheel.”

After finishing the circuit, I had a nice long cool-down on the mats and Sally walked me through the membership application process. Gist: You’re asked a series of semi-probing questions about your fitness history and goals, then are presented with two price plans, both about $45/month plus either a $49 or $99 sign-up fee, depending on whether you choose a month-to-month or year-long plan.

I passed. Curves would have been right for me at an earlier point in my fitness career, and it still got me sweaty and happy-feeling, but when you eat and drink as much as I do, 30 minutes of light cardio and strength training just ain’t gonna cut it.

If you need a non-judgmental, non-flashy starting point, though, and you can ride the inevitable wave of OMG-I’m-actually-going-to-Curves self-consciousness, it could be a beautiful thing. There’s got to be a reason it's stuck around – on six continents, no less! – for this long.

Molly Reid is a journalist based in New Orleans. Her blog, which surveys the world of workout videos, can be found at worldofsass.blogspot.com. She is not affiliated with or paid by Curves to write this.

57 Comments / Post A Comment

Vera Knoop

There's also the fact that their owner is extremely cozy with violent anti-choice groups.
And yeah, I snopes'd it. It's legit.


@Vera Knoop That makes sense. There seems to be a big church lady demographic involved in it, at least where I live. In fact, the first franchise that opened in my hometown many years ago was owned by the director of the crisis pregnancy center...so, draw your conclusions.

The Lady of Shalott

@Vera Knoop There was a nice piece in the NY Times the other day about "pregnancy crisis centres" and the fact that they are BS: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/opinion/crisis-pregnancy-centers-and-propaganda.html?_r=2&ref=opinion


@The Lady of Shalott I once did an unpaid internship at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood HQ. the woman who ran it was pregnant, & once she found out (but before she started showing), she went to a bunch of "pregnancy crisis centers" saying, "I think I might be pregnant & I don't know what to do."

they all gave her pregnancy tests, & they all said, "oh, good news--you're not pregnant after all!" because obviously prenatal care is way less important than trying to keep someone in the dark until they're past the cutoff for a readily attainable abortion.

Vera Knoop

@nonvolleyball That is... impressively evil. I am impressed.


@nonvolleyball fuuuuuuck! that is horrible. makes me think that the battle being waged against our bodies isn't really coming from the politicians but the nice-looking church ladies who seem to believe, with some sort of earnest delusion, that they are doing god's work.

Edith Zimmerman

@Vera Knoop Ah, yes, I will add a link to that in the piece -- thank you.


@nonvolleyball That's, like, stroking a white cat while sitting in a big leather office chair evil. That's eyepatch evil!!


@kayjay I know, right? I wouldn't even believe it if I hadn't heard it straight from the source.

although I should note that this was back in 2001, & it was an experiment undertaken to confirm suspicions they already had about these clinics' practices. while I'm not optimistic enough to believe that they've changed their ways since then, I can't entirely rule it out either. let's hope!

(also, worried possibly-pregnant ladies: go see a doctor! even one at Planned Parenthood! even if you'd want to keep any potential babies you might be carrying! trust me, they're not in the business of talking people into getting abortions. at all.)


@nonvolleyball WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK


@kayjay Mom from Futurama?

Nicole Cliffe

@Vera Knoop YES. There's a special place in the hell I don't believe in for weirdos wearing scrubs and pretending they know ANYTHING about what's going on in your uterus.


@Vera Knoop Let me tell you from someone doing undercover work at St. Louis Crisis Pregnancy centers (what up, Hairpin community?!) in 2011 that these days they're pretty big on telling you how AIDS justs swims right through the little holes which condoms are apparently covered in.

Vera Knoop

@CupKates UGH!!! Wish I were more surprised. Also, thank you for doing that, seriously.


@nonvolleyball That is the WORST thing I have read in maybe a month, holy shit.


@Nicole Cliffe It's times like this I wish there really WERE a hell. Or at least a chance for me to tell some of them, "I TOLD YOU SO!" after they die but don't go to heaven.

The Lady of Shalott

I would work out more if they could come up with a way to involve my adrenaline system and/or give me practice for real life. "Running from a bear!" or possibly "Swimming away from a school of hungry sharks!" or "Cycling away from a bunch of angry double agents because you have stolen their briefcase containing diamonds and secret files for the destruction of the world!"

Or even practical things, like "Lifting weights to make it easier to carry home your groceries" or "Balance to improve your odds while walking on a moving bus wearing heels and carrying five things" or "Stretching to more effectively carry the wineglass to your mouth."

Quick Brown Fox

@The Lady of Shalott If you have a smartphone and can wait a few months, some folks are developing an app called Zombies Run! that makes your running workouts seem like you're in a zombie apocalypse. I'm really excited about it, actually.


@Quick Brown Fox Will you hate me if I say I already have it(or at least something VERY similar)? And it is quite stellar?


@Quick Brown Fox Oh my goodness, if I had a gym membership I would be on this SO HARD. I always got bored running at the gym because there were either the sweaty dudes grunting while they lifted huge weights three times (my Mom gets pissed and says, "They're not even doing enough reps!!") or the TVs whose subtitles would occasionally lose track of what words they were translating and just type nonsense like, "dalfjljf ngeth" to fill space

major disaster

For anyone considering joining, if such things matter to you, the CEO also gives money to pro-life ("pro-life") groups.

*(oops, I'm slow.)


Yep, global. Saw one in South Africa last month. Kind of freaked me out.


Ok, well, after reading all the unfortunate comments about the Curves CEO, I feel bad saying this, but I actually joined a Curves when I was in college, because I was so terrified of working out and looking like an ass in the gym that Curves was all I could manage (and afford, as it was pretty cheap for me because they offer poor-people scholarships). And, all those smiling old ladies and silly jogging-in-place stations really helped. I got to a point where I could run a mile without falling over in a hyperventilating heap, and took up running when my 6-month membership ran out. Curves was my encouraging, supportive, old lady friend for a while there.


@candybeans You know, I had joined one and then cancelled my membership because of the affiliation (I was working at a pro-choice no profit at the time and it just seemed wrong for me to stay) but then I re-joined with my mom for a spell and the fact that it was somewhere she would actually go made it up for me, she's not a fan of exercise. And, the people who run the franchises are not all crazy, we really got to know the lady that ran ours and we'd be taking money out of her pocket, too, if we cancelled. We did cancel eventually because after a year of doing it, it feels really boring and like you aren't doing much but we had fun for a while, gossiping with old ladies mostly.


@candybeans I actually wasn't aware of the political affiliations at all until now. The ladies who run the Curves in my hometown are generally really sweet and just love an excuse to chat. My mom, sister and I joined together one summer and it was amazing that we could all do the same workout together given our very different fitness levels. It's definitely a "Working Out for Dummies" situation, but hey, I love those books. (and by the end of the summer I was getting regular compliments on my cut arms!)


I was so sad when I found out about their totes unsavory affiliations. It was the highlight of one of summers home from college hitting up Curves with my mom and sister, trying desperately not to lose our shit as our amped, bleached-out, club leader Randi would do the Roger Rabbit in the center of the circuit. Loved.


Misogynist Starts Shitty Gym to Keep Women Weak.


"but when you eat and drink as much as I do, 30 minutes of light cardio and strength training just ain’t gonna cut it."
<-- Eating and drinking is what New Orleans was made for. You're doing it right!


I was just this morning wishing that my gym would have a Curves-style room, because I had some success with Curves a few years ago. It's a good routine cos I can do anything for 30 seconds, you know? Instead I don't go to the gym at all because it's full of college students (it's free b/c I work at the college). If I had more money I'd rejoin Curves. I like the program a lot.


@backstagebethy Go to the free gym! The college students don't care! I do this at the university I intern with and nobody gives me any shit. Maybe develop your side-eye just in case?


@backstagebethy I work at a college and I go the gym on my lunch. I then return to my desk all sweaty and kinda gross because I never have time to shower, but my co-workers haven't complained yet!

And working out with the students isn't so bad, especially when there are adorable boys to gaze upon. Not that I would do that, because that would be totally inappropriate or something...


@backstagebethy Do you have a Planet Fitness in your area? They have a curves style workout station type deal. Most are cheap ($10 a month) and your more serious fitness types tend to avoid it.

Lily Rowan

On the all-ladies, not necessarily in shape tip, I loved Lucille Roberts in NYC when I worked out....


Yep, the Curves CEO is a nasty piece of business indeed, but many of the franchisees do not share his values (if that helps). It's a shame and a disgrace, because the entirely nonjudgemental "you're never too old or out of shape to start exercising" thing is wonderful.


Oh, wither my Curves membership? I belonged to Curves for about 2 minutes right after I had my daughter. The monotony made me want to blow my brains out, and I ended up giving myself a pretty severe knee injury on one of their resistance machines. I was the youngest person in my local Curves by about 25 years, easily.

Most are shuttered now. I assumed they all went the way of Kinkos. Kinda shocked the author found one still open.


That is not real exercise unless you're old or infirm. You can get a better deal by going outside and playing for a while. Go for a run. If you can't run, go for a swim. If you can't swim, go do calisthenics in the park. If you hate the outdoors, do it inside. If you really can't come up with another alternative other than Curves, you're making up excuses.

That said, I really, really wish there were more womens-only gyms. They exist in My Urban Area, except they're out in the suburbs where I can't go without a car. Gnash gnashing of the teeth right now. I'm sick of being stared at like a piece of fuckable meat with a hole by certain types of men every time I go to a gym. (Going to a gym in the gayborhood has helped immensely.)


@charizard I went to Gold's a few times with an old roomie who had a membership, and they had a women's only weight room. Itb really did not have enough equipment for my taste. It was the best place to stretch though.


I joined a Curves for a while, and it was all right for beginner me. It was simple, everyone seemed nice and friendly, we all had similar goals in mind, and, let's face it, a lot of the women there were in the plus-size range, which is definitely the range I fit in. It was comfortable. At first.

After a while, I started to notice that if any woman walked in to work out that was not plus-sized, she would get whispered about and side-eyed by everyone else there. Like, "who is this skinny bitch and what is she doing here" type of shit. I didn't like it. If it was supposed to be a place where women were supportive of each other regardless of their fitness level, size, race, whatever, how come this kind of shit was going on?

Because of this, my attendance dwindled and I eventually stopped going because there's enough lady on lady hate going on in this world, and I felt that I didn't need to support a place that perpetuated more of that. I don't know my experience is indicative of all Curves locations, but I was pretty unimpressed.

And then, of course, I found out about the pro-life crap, which further cemented my decision.


@kitchenwitchin It wasn't just your location. I actually got in pretty good shape doing the workout, but I never ever felt accepted, especially by the employees.


What is typically the cost comparison between curves and other gyms in an area?
I have seen curves and I couldn't believe that people would pay good money to go to such a small gym with such sub-par equipment. It seems to cater to people who don't know what a good gym looks like.


I'm glad you wrote this, because I have passed by many a Curves in my day and have always wondered what was going on in there. No windows to peer into!


My mom has belonged to Curves on & off for several years. One time when I was home from college, I went with her on my free week pass and I was bored out of my mind, but I always encourage my mom to go. She's not the type of person who would do well in an open gym. I think she'd just get intimidated and go home, so I like that Curves has a very simple, very basic structure for her. And she always has good results when she goes. That sucks that the CEO is such a juicebox though.


@TheSkyGirl I did the exact same thing- joined with my mom to encourage her to get some exercise- and rationalized it that the people running the franchise were very sweet and I didn't mind giving them my money (and just tolerated that some of it would go to their corporate overlords.)


I joined Curves for a hot minute when it first hit, probably 8 or 9 years ago. (Oh time, where do you go?) And here was my problem with it: it was not a good workout. I was out of shape and needed a nurturing environment. I was definitely a target demographic (overweight woman). But it didn't really change much for me. I did the circuits and I felt... not much different. Over time, I changed... not very much. It was like a way to institutionalize half-assing a workout. I now workout much more seriously and I see why I couldn't stick with Curves - it wasn't giving me a good workout or the good high that comes with it or the good results of getting stronger and fitter. It was just sending me around in a boring-ass circle for 30 minutes to the tune of some truly terrible music. I would have quit going even if I hadn't learned about the support of violent anti-choice groups.


@FoxBaseAlpha: Working out results are on a J-curve; if you don't get higher up in the curve, your results will be very mild, as you found out. As you work harder, your gains grow exponentially.


The one my mother goes to does an old-lady version of zumba a couple of times a week. My mom looks awesome now!

Nicole Cliffe

Oh, and obligatory shout-out for Crossfit, which also takes about thirty minutes, but will MESS YOU UP. (Use proper form, you don't want the wrong kind of mess.)


I've always been anti-people organizing my workout for me, but I just joined a new gym on account of moving to a new city, and the classes are awesome! Me and my friend plucked up the courage to introduce ourselves to our favourite instructor yesterday and she's totally great and had a shitload of advice for my friend, who is trying to get fit to get into the army. I don't know what I'm trying to say except if you lack the motivation to work out by yourself, I think you'd be better off trying out lots of classes with different instructors til you find a combo that suits you, and a person who will support your personal fitness goals, instead of going round and round for 30 minutes doing a standardized workout that isn't suited to you and what doesn't sound like enough exercise, anyway. End of rant.


@Nicole Cliffe- Crossfit rocks! It's kind of rough when you first start but you definitely feel the results. Plus you can survive just about anything for 30 minutes or less....


I used a Curves in Asia (or, the Middle East)! So yes, other continents. I didn't know about the pro-life connections, mainly I was just on a super intense language program and only had time for a 30 minute workout each day at lunch. It was one of the most fun things I did in the Middle East, because all of the women would take breaks from the circuit to teach us how to belly dance to the music in the middle of the circle. And afterwards we would waste it all by eating shawarma (which is basically a bazillion calories).


@MissMushkila I used to walk past one in Quito, Ecuador.


In NOLA, I'm partial to NOAC or the Reily Center. Avoid Crossfit on Burthe Street; there's a surly, combover-ed redhead who would very much like to tell you all about how he is a Very Important Lawyer now, but he used to be a Marine. I think he lives across the street or something.


@Lemonnier THE REILY CENTER IS THE BEST GYM I'VE EVER BEEN IN. But unless you're affiliated with Tulane, it's CRAZY expensive. I still have dreams about all of those beautiful ellipticals all in a row.


Curves is bullshit. It is total bullshit. Your local YMCA will cost the same amount if not less per month, will offer women's only classes or workouts (or practically women's only - there aren't going to be many dudes in your Bosu core class, trust) and will actually produce physical changes in your body. If you are afraid of being surrounded by gym bunnies and marathon runners, check out the Y. It's just people from your neighborhood trying to get a little healthier and a bunch of adorable kids going to summer camp and learning how to swim.

30 minutes of very light strength training on those stupid machines will produce absolutely no physical difference except to make you marginally better at using those stupid machines. It won't make your joints hurt less (in fact, there's a good chance you'll injure yourself through overuse), it won't make it easier for you to carry groceries, it absolutely will not make you lose weight. There are certainly 30 minute workouts that can make a difference, and not all of them involve a Jillian Michaels-like trainer screaming at you to get your fat ass off the ground or anything. In fact, one of the best things you could possibly do would be to start a simple weightlifting routine doing fundamental exercises. No stupid resistance bands, no stupid bicep curls, no %##&ing pink vinyl 3 pound weights. Learn how to do an honest to god bench press. Start working up towards doing pushups and pullups. Here is the best website ever for ladies who are curious about lifting weights: stumptuous! If you want to gradually start running, try Couch To 5K (get the smartphone apps!!). I've personally done this program twice in my life and it got me from full-on couch potato status to running a 5K in half an hour. It literally does what it says it will.

I know I sound kind of rah-rah angry in this comment, but I've wasted years of my life on this stupid bullshit "exercise" marketed to women in Cosmo and Curves. These people do not want you to get stronger, they want you to have a gym membership forever. If you give up hope after no progress and forget to cancel your membership like millions of Americans, even better! All the things I listed in this comment (the YMCA, Stumptuous, Couch To 5K) have one big thing in common: they aren't trying to sell you stuff. They want you to get healthy, and most of those things cost very little money. It should not cost a lot of money to lose weight. I want the ladies to be healthy and fit and weigh however many pounds they think is best for them and still have money left over to buy stuff Jane tells them to. It takes time to parse through all the bullshit out there and find out what really works but some stuff does. Curves isn't part of it. Curves is bullshit.

so what?

@Diana yes to Couch to 5k! i did the program this past spring and it made me in into a real Running Woman. i love it. except where i live, we get cold temps and lots of snow in the winter, so does anyone have any tips for winter running? i don't want to quit now that it's turning colder...


@Diana I don't totally disagree BUT I will say that my mom would not feel comfortable going to YMCA and doing classes. Curves is good -I think- for older ladies who want to do something but not very much, who aren't looking to reshape their bodies but just want to do something very low impact. I figure something is better than sitting around all day doing nothing.


Hahahahah I used to work at a Curves I freakin hated that place

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