She can fix you

Fitness guru Tracy Anderson’s take on celebrity culture, why there are no quick weight loss tricks, and being a boss

Even the windows at Tracy Anderson’s gym sweat. In the winter air, condensation drips down the panes of the Tribeca studio, where inside, the temperature is set to a sweltering 86 degrees with 69 percent humidity.

“The heat and the humidity are like that for a reason, because we’re really too comfortable in this world,” Anderson explains. “We actually have the option to never sweat if we don’t want to. We can be that comfortable, and that’s a problem.”

It may seem strange for someone to pay $900 a month (the cost of membership at the studio) for the privilege of being uncomfortable. But devotees of Anderson’s method happily cough up the money each month and are thankful they get the opportunity to do so; the wait list to join the studio is several years long.

Certainly, it was packed at 9 a.m. on a Saturday when I shuffled Downtown for a class on a snowy December morning. This class was one of the studio’s most popular, swarmed with trim Bandier-clad women. Some of them were already sweaty, and I realized — with horror — that this early-morning class was their second of the day.

I’ve taken a fair number of fitness classes in the city and am very familiar with the awkward, all-encompassing silence among women before class begins, as if uttering a word to anyone would make them sprout an extra five pounds. 

“The media positioned me as a celebrity trainer,
which was highly offensive to me.”

Tracy Anderson’s studio is not like that. Here, everyone is remarkably chatty and excited, perhaps amped up on the music or the heat or the adrenaline. Rather than the competitive, rather hostile attitude of students in other studios, Tracy Anderson’s students are partners, united in their mission to be fit and thin. We aren’t working out against each other, we’re working out with each other.

It’s an empowering feeling, and as we prepare to enter the stifling classroom, I have an odd thought: If women ever need a place to plot taking over the world from men, Anderson’s studio might be the ideal place to do it.

***

Right now, there are six Tracy Anderson studios, with locations in the Hamptons, London, L.A. and New York. She is opening another one, with her business partner Gwyneth Paltrow, in a former movie theater on 59th Street in winter 2017. But Anderson’s influence extends far beyond sculpting the thighs of wealthy women and celebrities at her gyms. She has also written a book and is writing another two now, has filmed over 170 DVDs, and for those who can’t pony up to take her classes, she has a streaming channel on her website (the cost is $808 a year).

“I was dropped off in New York City with $20 in my pocket,” she says. “I think that’s why I can really empathize with everyone at every price point and why I would never just have some luxury gym and train celebrities.”

On social media, devotees of her method tag posts of themselves #TAmily. Searching the hashtag on Instagram, I find tens of thousands of photos and videos of women in scanty exercise clothes performing Anderson’s workouts. Even in the virtual space, the sense of camaraderie between them is clear; women often post supportive comments for each other like “Such a tough move. You are making it look easy,” and “Yeah!!! Strong girl!!!”

Anderson is not the only boutique fitness instructor with a passionate following on social media. But in a crowded industry, she is arguably the most successful and best-known. This is in large part due to her celebrity connections but also because for many fans, she offers them the chance to join a community of like-minded women struggling with their weight and their bodies in a society that is generally unkind and unforgiving. The fact that Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who strolls into the studio while I’m chatting to Tracy) are all members of this club as well is just icing on the gluten-free cake.   

When I meet Anderson, in the lobby of her Tribeca studio, it’s not hard to see her appeal. Though she says it’s been a tough day (later confirmed when I spot an Instagram picture on her account tagged #longestdayever), she is still warm, friendly and forthright. Naturally charming, she sprinkles compliments in her speech that are designed to make you feel great, and also make you want to do better. “You seem smart,” she says at one point. “I’m sure you’ll write a good article.”

Though Anderson disputes the impact of any trainer’s own weight loss story (“Anybody can create a fat-to-thin story for themselves; it’s not inspiring”), she nevertheless has one. Originally from Indiana, Anderson came to New York for the first time when she was 18 to attend dance school. As the legend goes, she gained 35 pounds during her time here, despite exercising excessively.

Anderson originally became interested in fitness research when her first husband, who played in the NBA, was recovering from a back injury in Puerto Rico. His doctor was researching ways to strengthen the small accessory muscles in the body that support the larger muscles, and Anderson started coming up with exercises that could accomplish that goal. In Indiana, she spent five years working on a research project with hundreds of women to develop her method, which she now claims can help anyone — with any body type — become their “most-balanced selves.”

Anderson has shot over 170 DVDs.

Anderson encountered some trouble in her early years: many customers and business partners accused her of owing them big sums of money. 

Anderson says she has since paid everyone back, and that the experience — as well as other situations she has had as a businesswoman — taught her a lot about trusting herself and not allowing other people to make decisions on her behalf.   

“If you’re going to own a business, you have to actually know everything. You have a right to know everything. But I’ve had a lot of times throughout my career where I had to fight to see information about my own company.”

Despite the bumps in the road, Anderson soon found success, thanks in large part to the celebrities — Paltrow and Madonna in particular — who became fans. Anderson even became famous herself, known as a celebrity trainer, which she didn’t exactly appreciate.

“The media positioned me as a celebrity trainer, which was highly offensive to me because I had spent all of these years advocating for any woman from any genetic background to have the right to become her balanced self, and now I’m just going to dedicate my career to celebrities?”

Today, she says she personally rarely trains celebrities, and she sees celebrity culture as toxic to women who aspire to look like certain stars, rather than the best version of themselves. “I didn’t want to become part of what makes women say, ‘I don’t want to be myself; I want to be like that person or that person.’ I think that’s part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Anderson, whether fairly or unfairly, has herself often been accused of promoting a single “teeny tiny” body type that favors lean muscles and discourages women from bulking up by lifting heavy weights.

She’s not the first person to idealize that body type, and she probably won’t be the last, but it does run counter to the body-positive movement that has grown in popularity over the past years, with prominent women like Lena Dunham (who has trained with Anderson) and Mindy Kaling questioning the obsession our culture has with thinness and with one ideal body type. Sure, the majority of women in America might be slightly overweight, but if they’re healthy and happy, shouldn’t that be enough?

A rendering of her new studio on 59th Street.

When I ask Anderson what’s really so wrong with accepting the body we’re born with, even if it’s not ideal, she looks at me like I’ve just suggested Gwyneth Paltrow eat a Big Mac.

“Why in the world would you do that?” she exclaims, “That’s like taking the SAT once and saying, ‘I’m never taking it again. I’m not going to try and improve; my brain is what it is.’ Or taking an IQ test and being like, ‘This is what I am. If I’m stupid, I’m stupid.’ It’s ridiculous.”

As an example, Anderson points to herself. “I have the worst metabolism. My father is obese; every day I don’t work out, I gain a pound. So I’m working out pretty much every day. Do I work out the same every day? Do I work out for four hours a day? No, I don’t.”

There’s another thing Anderson can’t stand: “quick fixes” like diet pills, juice cleanses and lap band surgery (which she calls “sick”). At Tracy Anderson’s studio, you will work hard and you will sweat; I barely make it through my first class, and leave with a lobster-red face. 

But far from being discouraged, I find myself itching to go back, to try again, to try harder, to get better. Because I like the feeling I have after her class, like I’ve worked hard and I’ve endured a lot, and because it’s nice to feel like you’re in a community of women who all want to make each other stronger.

And also, I’ll admit, it’s because Anderson promises that for anyone who really follows her method, “there’s not one butt I can’t improve significantly.” A bold claim? Sure. But an irresistible one? Absolutely.