Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The New Ladies of Leisure

I was watching an episode of a new MTV show called Awkward recently. In a scene involving a mother-daughter party, an angst-ridden teenage girl described a group of mothers who fit into the mean-girl-turned-trophy wife category. "These women don't work, they work out," the teenager said. As this line was uttered, the women were admiring the toned and tanned biceps of their hostess. It made me think about how the physical traits of status have evolved over the centuries.

On a visit to the Cairo Museum when I was 12, I saw statues of Prince Rahotep and Princess Nofret, each sitting on a throne. Our tour guide explained that the prince was tanned because as a man he was outside, working (or overseeing the slaves); the princess statue was very pale, because a woman of such status did not labor in the sun. I remember thinking at the time how everybody where I lived was tan...on purpose! In fact, the tanner you were, the cooler you were. What a difference a few millennia can make.

Now, as evidenced by the characters on the MTV show and others, women with defined musculature are the modern picture of status. But it's not because they are perceived to be in better health, or admired for their athletic prowess. Rather, it is because a sculpted physique infers an excess of leisure time. Bodies like these require significant time to achieve...and usually money to pay for gym membeships, personal trainers, and trendy private classes.

Take a look at most of those "Real Housewives" shows; those women are competitive in seeing who can lay claim to the most spin classes in one week (in between comparing shoe closets, fancy cars, and private jets). The Bar Method classes I attend have a reputation for attracting this distinct demographic of women. They work out 5 days per week, morning and afternoon, in a different matching designer outfit each class. There's no denying how fit they are, and that in itself is undeniably admirable. Physiques like theirs require committed effort. If I didn't have a job I'm sure I'd work out a lot more. And there's my point.

When a celebrity like Victoria Beckham or Kate Hudson is photographed six weeks after giving birth and already has her figure back to swimsuit model perfection, most of us have the same reactions. First we ask, "How did she lose the weight already?" Then we concede, "Well if I had a couple million in the bank, three nannies, and no job responsibilities, I could spend six hours a day with my personal trainer, too. And then I'd look like that."

Ergo, a thin, muscular body equals leisure time and wealth. Check out actress Julie Bowen's biceps from Sunday night's Emmy Awards. This is the what women in their 30s and beyond are striving for (visible sternum notwithstanding), which is quite different from even my mother's generation.

But as with any good symbol of status, there can be a backlash that follows. A professional woman and mom of three once made an underhanded comment to me that I have the luxury to work out because I don't have children. In reality, I am forced to work out because if I don't I will be in constant pain from a twisted, crooked spine. How odd that I have to defend my habit of exercise. I didn't know if I should be offended by her comment, or impressed that she thought I was so well-off to be able to lead such a luxurious lifestyle of leisure.

While I can't deny the high that comes with a particularly effective workout, I still occasionally long to live just one week in the baroque period, when the height of beauty was having a plump rump. It was an era where leisure time was spent lounging around eating grapes, and not by logging hours on a treadmill.

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