Your cult, my community

A decade spent building an idea about who we aren't

Welcome to I’m Late To This, a newsletter about things I haven’t stopped thinking about. 

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And now to answer the question my uncle asked this weekend: Who are you going to attack this week…?

When the decade began, the self-help industry was centered around three words: eat, pray, love. 

Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestseller was released in 2010 as a Hollywood blockbuster starring Julia Roberts. After selling million of copies of the book in the late-aughts, more than 8 million more copies were sold alongside the movie’s release. 

The book’s title sent a message that aptly bridged the three truths we’d all experienced during those momentous four years — eat during the excesses of the mid-00s housing boom, pray through the financial crisis, love the hope offered by Obama’s election. 

But these lived acts of an American tragedy didn’t do much to paper over what we all knew about the world as the second decade of the millennium began: the world was going to end and I was going to meet that end alone. Millennials were just beginning their star turn as fascinations of the media landscape and their divorced Boomer parents still dominated the cultural ethos: if you hadn’t lost everything during the financial crisis there was still time to get yours. 

But if this decade is one we all began hopelessly alone with our baggage, it is one we end in a series of self-selected isolations, surrounded by a community and gazing out with contempt on all those who just don’t get it.

The internet has allowed us self-sort on demand and form extremely strong beliefs about areas that had previously been more benign hobbies. Just read a few reddit threads and now you’ll know if you’re really into lifting weights, or collecting pins, or baking bread.

Or not. Because what the internet really helps us discover is not so much who we are, but who we aren’t

So it isn’t so much the appeal of cult-like communities that is unique to Right Now but the speed with which we understand the groups with which we’re not aligned, how far apart we really are. And this is the knowledge that sends us careening towards places that offer a self-assured likemindedness. The lightspeed rejection we now get from communities that we’d previously not known we weren’t welcome heightens the sense that we need to be all-in or all-out. 

And in the 2010s, few industries jumped as hard at exploiting this need as the wellness business. Instead of slimy mortgage loan officers selling us out alone into exurban developments with adjustable-rate mortgages we couldn’t afford to keep paying, this decade saw our wallets sweat, starved, juiced, and fasted dry in groups of a dozen or two, $30 or $40 at a time.  

Companies like ClassPass and Groupon, studios like Flywheel, SoulCycle, Orangetheory, Barry’s Bootcamp, and dozens of derivatives have all reshaped the exercise industry. CrossFit grew from a niche interest into the professionalized fitness community it is today. 

The Peloton IPO was the cherry-on-top for a decade that saw fitness move from the depressing big box gyms of suburban strip malls into intimate studios (or, in the case of Peloton: your home) that serve as the sweat-based foundation to help unlock the full potential of a whole-life wellness routine. Paying $10 or $40 or $80 a month for a gym you sometimes used was replaced by $30 or $40 classes you left without any doubt.

They yell at you in these classes. You’re told to sweat more, push harder, dig deeper. It’s the language of college strength and conditioning coaches applied without restraint to the kids that pulled Cs in high school gym class. It’s no wonder that spin classes have sometimes left attendees dealing with the side effects of rhabdomyolysis, which the New York Times describes as a condition that, “occurs when overworked muscles begin to die and leak their contents into the bloodstream, straining the kidneys and causing severe pain.” These classes are serious shit. 

But you’re not paying $34 a session just to get the legs moving. This money is for busting your ass, pushing your peers, and walking out into the world knowing you crushed that ride. Some studios even have leaderboards in the room. If you’re not moving up, you’re moving out.

And exercise regimens are of course accompanied by new diets and new ways to talk about what it means to really take care of yourself. Biohacking is how we now describe people who take lots of vitamins. Juicing, fasting, paleo, and keto are diets now firmly in the domain of people who only used to care a little bit about what they ate. For CrossFitters these wellness routines involve tracking your macros; for the spin class types, nothing says “great recovery” like not eating at all.

The alternative water space has also exploded: we can now drink raw water, charcoal water, collagen water, mineral water, alkaline water, ionized water, and CBD-infused sparkling water. Brain health is now addressed by supplementation, not reading and taking long walks. Bettering yourself through fitness is no longer accomplished by grinding out solitary miles in the woods. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is out, the Absolutely Savaged That Ride Today is in. 

And as the internet increasingly brings us together to enjoy a collective isolation, the number of those saying they identify as religiously unaffiliated continues to rise. The fitness and wellness industry fills an obvious void: SoulCycle’s are now houses of worship. 

Last week, the CEO of SoulCycle resigned. Melanie Whelan told employees in an email that she was, ”grateful for the opportunity to have led the SoulCycle team and brand over the past nearly eight years during a transformational time for this amazing community.” But the last several months for this community have been tumultuous after their clash with the defining self-interested community of the decade: Trump supporters

The clash between these two communities surprises no one who pays attention.

Because a world full of your cults surrounding my community surfaces associations that are less about who people want to be and more about who they don’t. 

The tension between SoulCycle enthusiasts and Trump supporters isn’t their policy preferences: it’s that neither group would ever want to be mistaken as a member of the other. 

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