Sweatin’ Out the Shame
Lucas Hilderbrand / University of California, Irvine

Regis Philbin Workout

Regis Philbin’s My Personal Workout

For several years now, I’ve wanted to write about workout videos. Aerobics tapes were central my thinking about videotape more generally because of the way the cultural degradation of the workout video has become ever-more intertwined with the physical degradation of the VHS format. For “research,” I have been known to pick up dusty celebrity releases at thrift stores (my most preposterous specimen is Regis Philbin’s My Personal Workout) in order to build my archive. But reflecting on such tapes in light of the recent emphasis in queer theory on discourses of shame1 and the even more recent attempts at fostering institutionalized queer mentoring by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Queer Caucus, I’ve shifted my orientation somewhat to try to grapple with the complexity not just of the workout tape as a cultural and material text but also about my own conflicted personal relations to the form—and to one of its most popular personalities: Richard Simmons.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda strains to make eye-contact with her audience during a work-out routine

With Jane Fonda’s breakthrough Workout, aerobics videos were the second major kind of content to build the home video sell-through market and with which VHS became identified. Like pornography, the first kind of content credited with growing home video, aerobics tapes were a low cultural form, one that was too excessively carnal. In this respect, aerobics videos function like a synecdoche for the format more generally: they were ubiquitous, yet they have generally not been taken seriously for their actual interventions.2 In part, what interests me about workout videos is the dialectic between aspiration and degradation: that is, the dynamic tension between the drive toward self-improvement—and the form itself was commercially hugely successful—and the ways these tapes have always been kind of embarrassing.

Jane Fonda

With crunches, it’s physically impossible to perform the motion and watch the instructor at the same time

But there’s something even more revelatory than this content-platform mirroring. I suggest that, more than pornography or perhaps any other kind of home video releases, workout videos distinguished the format and its unique spectatorial relations from cinema or broadcast television. The viewer, while doing a workout, performs a physically mimetic type of spectatorship; the problem is that, when actually doing a workout, many of the motions make it impossible to see the screen at the same time. So the mirroring is often one that is frustrated, whether in moments of confusion (what’s that move?) or in moments of failure (fatigue, inability to perform specific contortions, missing the beat, tripping, or falling out of step). It’s the moments of breakdown when one’s relationship to the text and the screen make the text most self-evident. More specific to video spectatorship, the workout tape operates on the premise of repetition: if you practice, the routine becomes easier as you learn to anticipate the moves and your body builds endurance. One of the central appeals of home video was likewise this idea of repetition: that you could record or buy a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a workout routine, and that you would be able to watch it repeatedly on your own schedule in your own home. This was what made video different from cinema or even broadcast TV.3

The logic of self-improvement through repetition, however, operates in the inverse to the technological degradation of the tape from repeated playback. After writing a book on the aesthetics of home video, one that claims degeneration is inherent in its form, I was delighted to discover “Body Fuzion,” a Saturday Night Live digital short that self-reflexively illustrated the analog defects of dated and worn videotape in service of a parody of 1980s workout videos. These defects operate not just as markers of degradation but also as signs of nostalgia. The cast of women in their 30s (Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler) suggests a generation-specific women’s cultural memory of these tapes as formative texts. For me, it’s impossible to watch the SNL video without also imagining these actresses as their younger selves watching and doing workout tapes in their own living rooms in the 1980s. “Body Fuzion” suggests a double-edge affect of shame and affection, a conflicted retrospective relation; if they associate these tapes with their mothers, probably the people who brought these videos home, there’s likely a mixture of adolescent embarrassment of how uncool they are and earnest attachment. But the short also suggests a knowing sense of the ways the grossly sexualized positions and camera framing opened these texts—and the women’s bodies on screen—to the erotic gratification of men; indeed, although the workout craze was framed as being about self-improvement, it was critiqued as making women’s bodies over in service of their sexual desirability for men.4 “Body Fuzion” affectionately mocks the pelvic close-ups, leotards, color palette, and even the dual routines (low impact and high impact) that pervade workout videos, but it does so with such precision that the makers had to have known the object of the parody intimately. The same goes for the subtle but insightful use of analog video glitches in what is hailed as a “digital short.”

Sweating to the Oldies

Original Sweatin’ to the Oldies VHS release (1988)

My own personal relation to workout videos was more public than domestic. Whenever given a choice during high school gym class between, say, a unit on aerobics and one on weight lifting, that I invariably chose aerobics. Now, you might think that there was a certain shame to my choice, but here’s the thing: aerobics was one of the few physical activities things I was good at, whereas failing spectacularly at bench-pressing in front of a room full of testosterone-fueled boys would have been far more humiliating. The gym teachers would wheel an A/V cart into the wrestling room and put on a tape; between the airless stink of masculinity and the cushiony wrestling mat floor, there was something great about that space. The tape the girls and I usually chose was Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Sometimes we’d mix things up by doing Sweatin’ to the Oldies 2.

Richard Simmons

Richard Simmons’ camp excess.

Richard Simmons has always been, in a word, shameless. To borrow a term from José Muñoz, I have always disidentified with him, his spastic behavior, his flamboyance, even his relentlessly accepting attitude.5 Thinking back, he may have been the most consistently visible queer public figure of my youth, even if he was never exactly “out” or precisely the kind of positive role model I sought, despite his indefatigable mission to help so many people with body issues help themselves. The most honest word for my feelings would have to be ambivalence: he seemed to disavow his sexuality, yet he seemed to be his own person; I found him slightly abject, but I also actually enjoyed his tapes. It’s only now, decades later, that I feel less conflicted admiration for him. Part of what strikes me as so revolutionary in retrospect is that Simmons has never been identified with the kinds of idealized hard-bodied fitness junkies who make other people feel bad about themselves; instead, his Sweatin’ to the Oldies featured bodies that were, according to dominant cultural standards, imperfect: plus-sized, middle-aged, and very probably lower classed. The bodies on screen were mirrors for his demographic rather than unattainable ideals, and the goal was to help people take the first step toward self-improvement. He worked his butt off to make people’s lives better. I wasn’t necessarily his target demographic, yet what better queer mentor might there be?


Welcome to Richard Simmons’ Slimmons

At the recent SCMS conference, after a workshop on queer mentoring, I coincidentally learned that Simmons still teaches classes at his own workout studio in Beverly Hills, called Slimmons.6 So I went, of course. When Simmons entered the studio, he hugged and kissed every single participant to make us feel welcome. He wore a bedazzled tank top with concentric hearts and tights under his striped shorts. The clientele was a mix of friendly regulars—mostly older women—and tourists, including a few more young women and men than I had expected. His instructional media were vinyl LPs, which he carried loose in a tote bag and let drop on the floor, and he cranked the stereo so that the speakers bristled with the crackle of old vinyl. But he wasn’t just anachronistic; he used LPs to occasionally push the routine ever harder by playing the records at a faster RPM. In person, he had more edge and wit than expected: he turned down the volume on the stereo to shout bitchy insults like a drill sergeant, and he barked double-entendres such as, “What has your butt been doing all day?” But Simmons engaged his audience with such availability that ultimately critical distance just seemed cynical. How ironic could I be when I was drenched in sweat? Or when the legendary fitness and self-improvement guru was, if less the force of nature I imagined, seemingly genuine and lacking any pretense? Richard Simmons touches lives. I wish I could say the same.

Hilderbrand and Simmons

Twins: Me and Richard Simmons

Midway through the class, Simmons incisively interrogated how I, an interloper, knew all of his moves. His theory was that I was trying to steal his identity. I playfully denied. But upon further reflection, maybe he was seeing a deeper kind of mimesis than I initially wanted to admit. And I’m okay with that.

Image Credits:

1. Regis Philbin’s My Personal Workout
2. Jane Fonda
3. Jane Fonda
4. Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies
5. Richard Simmons
6. Photo by author
7. Photo by author

Please feel free to comment.

  1. For an excellent recent essay on productive shame and gay fandom, see Chad Bennett, “Flaming the Fans: Shame and the Aesthetics of Queer Fandom in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine,” Cinema Journal 49, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 17-39. []
  2. An emerging generation of scholars who grew up with home video, however, are shifting the discourses about video. In addition to myself, I would include Joshua Greenberg, Caetlin Benson-Allott, Max Dawson, Daniel Herbert, and others among younger scholars who take home video seriously. []
  3. On workout videos see also Vanessa Russell, “Make Me a Celebrity: Celebrity Exercise Videos and the Origins of Makeover Television,” in Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled, ed. Dana Heller (New York: IB Tauris, 2007): 67-78. The introduction of record, fast-forward, rewind, slow-motion, and pause controls were also significantly new modes of spectatorship ushered in with VCRs. []
  4. For one feminist critique, see Susan Douglas’s chapter “Narcissism as Liberation” in Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995). Even before the workout tape craze, the emerging body culture’s orientation toward male satisfaction was parodied in the homo resolution of Olivia Newton-John’s video for “Physical”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWz9VN40nCA []
  5. See José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). For an essay on Simmons’ campiness, see Rhonda Garelick, “Outrageous Dieting: The Camp Performance of Richard Simmons,” Postmodern Culture 6, no.1 (1995). Text available online at: http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.995/pop-cult.995 []
  6. Thanks to Lindsay Giggey for this tip. []


  • Amazing piece Lucas, a great extension of your work in Inherent Vice. You mentioned discourses of shame but only obliquely touched on it in regards to the Body Fuzion skit, did you have further thoughts?

    I’m also wondering what a digital workout might consist of? It’s interesting that the majority of ‘workout’ clips on YouTube seem to be ripped dudes telling others how to pack on muscles.

  • It’s strange reflecting on 1980s workout tapes and personalities. I am intrigued by this larger collection of 80’s cultural objects- this idea of excess and carnality associated with the workout tape and domestic space. I am also interested in this idea you expressed in terms of embarrassment, or more so, this duality expressed between achieving a healthy body, and undergoing the process of humiliation or transformation in obtaining the ideal physique. The physical space of the home serves as another element of embarrassment, discomfort and awkward mobility (the actual movement in rearranging a room for a television work out, and the self-conscious realization in performing awkward movements within a space that holds an entirely different function within the daily routine of the home and its inhabitants.

    I am reminded of numerous fitness infomercials and “As seen on TV” home fitness plans- I am curious about this repetition of form, especially when considering the branding and consumer recognition and mark of “quality” and visuality associated with a product that insists on an element of pre-visual (already visual before the actual viewing of the product by the viewer).

    There is again, the connection you bring out with YouTube and fitness performance. Examining the turbo kick sensation of YouTube. In a series of online, “home” videos, local gyms (24hr fitness and the likes) and gym-goers perform the “As seen on TV” phenomenon of Turbo Kick, replicating something like a dance-off and Cheerleading competition (“Do you think you can Turbo?”). It is amazing looking at “real” bodies within this context- all shapes and sizes (including a number of women participants and instructors in their later terms of pregnancy), and the nature of the performance in blurring the lines between instructor and participant. I am curious about how you analyze the form of home within this context, and also the larger collection of “home-made” fitness videos in mapping out the shameful or shameless body.

    Thank you for your article.

  • Hey professor, I’ve been reading your written work since the first time I had your class Queer Nightlife from PopMatters to the OCWeekly, to Flowtv and I must say this was just as thought provoking and enjoyable as the rest. I never thought about the belittled position people take up with workout tapes explicitly showing off buff men and women with their “perfect bodies.” And just for your last point, you might not touch a massive amount of lives, but you touch lives none the less.

    Thank you for sharing your queer thinking.

  • Great article! You mention the sexual female body as an element of workout videos and how men can sexualize the bodies of fitness experts. Is there any study on the viewing practices of men in reference to workout videos?

  • Thanks for the generous and thoughtful comments. You’ve raise questions that push me beyond my previous thinking about workout videos, so I don’t have fully-formed responses, but I do have a few gestures toward ideas. In terms of a “digital” workout, a few concepts come to mind: First, the promise of digital reproduction is “perfect” cloning of data, and that seems to be happening with the pressure we’ve seen since the 90s for men, in particular, to replicate the perfect gym body with sculpted chests and abs. Secondarily, this idea of muscle “definition” might have a corollary in the aggressive (though more recent) marketing of “high definition” digital technologies. Third, simultaneous with the roll-out of high definition, we’ve seen the proliferation of low-res and amateur images via YouTube, cell phones, etc; rather than hi-def reflecting “realism,” low-resolution home video and webcams have become the aesthetic of realism, and the comments suggest that in some way the production values reinforce alternately the “actuality” of performance and what “real bodies” (that is, “imperfect”) bodies look like.
    Of course, when doing videos in the home, there is the issue of the space as well as mimesis. In my current apartment, for instance, there isn’t quite enough space, so either I have to move furniture or just not do all the steps. I’m also self-concious that my neighbors will hear the video or, more irritatingly, me jumping overhead. (Full disclosure: On the occasions I do workouts at home, I usually do Hip Hop Abs.)
    I’m not aware of any reception studies of men watching women in workout tapes, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they exist; that remark came from a couple of female friends’ responses to drafts of the tapes. Their comments are echoed in “Body Fuzion,” which includes shots that are specifically about women’s bodies framed in objectifying close-ups or bumping together. As for shame in “Body Fuzion,” the clip suggests not just that women are on display but that the workout is somehow too easy and ridiculous–that, in a way, the very forms of exercise are dated compared to pilates or yoga or whatever the fitness trends are now. I’m probably conflating shame, embarrassment, ridicule, and parody here, but I think they are all in play is complex and conflated ways in the clip.
    Finally, since this comment is getting a bit overlong, thanks, Nacho, for your comment. I’ve appreciated having you in my classes because you genuinely seem to value learning, and your engagement has been reflected in the ways I’ve seen you grow as a student over the past year. You’re the kind of student that makes teaching rewarding.

  • Love this piece, Lucas. It also made me think of Sweet Moves, a sex-positive workout DVD that came out a few years ago. I inherited it from a former roommate and it’s part of my regimen.

    An unfortunate aspect of the DVD is that the instructors (three women, one gay man) tend to assume their audience’s partners are male, thus ignoring the sexual practices of people who aren’t straight women or gay men. However, it does trade in a distinctly late 70s-early 80s lo-fi porn aesthetic that can at times be read as queer. The lurid cheapness easily fits in with the shame and pleasure the audience may be experiencing. The sexually explicit routines further evoke feelings of both embarrassment and delight, particularly when “doing it” in the front room when my partner is also present. I remember playing the DVD for a group of friends and there was a lot of nervous laughter and whooping. However, I bet some folks remembered to do their Kegel exercises after watching.

    All this is to say that I think the connections you made between workout videos, Richard Simmons, and Body Fuzion is spot-on and can be seen manifesting itself in a variety of ways.

  • Great work (out).


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