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.