Issue 8 / Bodies

August 03, 2019
A photo of a woman using the Mirror in her home.

A promotional image of the Mirror.

Remote Work

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

The future of high-end fitness may look like a mirror.

When entrepreneur and former dancer Brynn Putnam renovated her New York City exercise studio Refine Method back in 2016, the innovation that inspired the most effusive praise wasn’t the posh amenities or sophisticated tracking devices that often differentiate players in the elite and increasingly crowded boutique fitness space. It was the decidedly low-tech mirrors that Putnam had installed. Clients were thrilled with the “instant feedback” their reflections provided. 

Putnam also happened to be pregnant at the time. Once her baby arrived, she became preoccupied with a problem long familiar to busy parents suddenly beholden to a newborn’s schedule: she struggled to find time to exercise, even at her own studio. She could only exercise at home.

Such were the initial sparks of inspiration for the Mirror, Putnam’s new at-home digital fitness product. Marketed as “nearly invisible,” it’s a far cry from the Thighmaster and the NordicTrack and the other clunky contraptions hawked on late-night infomercials and long synonymous with at-home exercise. The $1,495 (plus $39 per month subscription) carbon-steel Mirror looks like a full-length looking glass. But once switched on, connected to Wi-Fi, activated through its iPhone app, and synced with Spotify and an included heart-rate monitor, it transports the owner and her image to streaming and prerecorded group classes customized by fitness level, biometrics, and even playlist preference. While the current configuration only allows trainers to see the avatars and heart rates of class participants, a front-facing camera means the Mirror can function like a full-body Skype — a feature that will eventually allow the company to launch more interactive one-on-one training. 

High-end fitness, from tracking apps to technical apparel, has exploded in recent years. It has boomed throughout the Great Recession and beyond, as Americans increasingly seek solace in the spaces where they sweat. The brands that have generated the most buzz over the past decade — SoulCycle, Barry’s Bootcamp, Orangetheory, to name a few — vary in aesthetic and ethos but are all built around a collective, in-person experience. Albeit an exclusive one: the price for a single class approaches $40 in some cities. A large part of what people are paying for is togetherness: the privilege to pulse or pedal or make pronouncements about self-care and spiritual enlightenment side-by-side with other initiates to the grapefruit-scented, syncopated world of luxe wellness. 

MIRROR — the company that makes the Mirror — was born of this boom, but arguably signals a new direction in fitness tech. Along with the pioneering Peloton, the internet-connected exercise bike, MIRROR streamlines the boutique exercise experience to the point of individualizing it. What are the stakes of such a shift? If the gym is the new church, what happens when the church enters our homes? And when the altar at which we worship is our own image?

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Some critics have denounced MIRROR as yet another enabler of digitally mediated narcissism: “The Most Narcissistic Exercise Equipment Ever,” declared the New York Times. (That’s debatable: at Barry’s Bootcamp, the aggressively hashtagged #FaceYourself campaign invited exercisers to post workout selfies. Email reminders sported the winking subject line, “Don’t Forget to F Yourself.”) 

But the Mirror need not symbolize a troubling slide toward self-absorption. More optimistically, it might expand access to a fitness culture that has long excluded those who feel out of place in, or find it hard to make time for, the gym. Like Jack Lalanne, who brought exercise to millions of homemakers on television in the 1950s, and Jane Fonda, who did so on an even larger scale with VHS thirty years later, MIRROR could harness the media technology of its own era to enable more people to exercise.

Kailee Combs, vice president of fitness at MIRROR, certainly sees it that way. When we spoke, Combs described how the company’s clientele spans fifty states and users aged nine to eighty. It includes “women who have never boxed and want a safe space try it and guys who want to do yoga” but might feel uncomfortable in overwhelmingly female yoga classes. Or, as Gerren Liles, one of MIRROR’s eight, New York City-based trainers put it, the Mirror allows you to “work out like you want, in your house, with no stigmas, and no one else seeing what you see except maybe the dog.” Liles connected me with Dori Gray, a self-described MIRROR devotee since “the beginning” (with an Instagram feed to prove it), who likes the device precisely for this reason. She works out in only a sports bra at home, a style that allows her a better look at her form, but one that many women eschew in more public workout spaces for precisely this reason.

The Mirror also has the potential to make high-end fitness more financially accessible. It might seem strange, given the sticker price and monthly subscription fee, but in the rarefied economy of elite fitness, the Mirror is relatively affordable. Consider that about the same amount of money gets you forty-five SoulCycle sessions in New York City (if you remember to log on in time to secure a spot): that’s less than one class per week, for a year, compared with unlimited classes for as long as you keep your Mirror subscription current. Combs points out that financing is also available and that more than one person in a household can use the Mirror, further driving down the cost. 

Yet in a moment when working out is often understood as far more than a means to individual physical or aesthetic ends, MIRROR can feel out of step with the kumbaya language of “team,” “tribe,” and general transcendence through togetherness currently ubiquitous in high-end fitness. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Mirror is how powerfully it challenges this core tenet of luxe wellness: the collective experience. SoulCycle classes sell out because people buy into the inimitable energy of biking, in sync, on a beat. Y7 founder Sarah Levey Larson described “creating a sense of camaraderie” as the competitive advantage of her growing chain of hip-hop yoga studios; Inc. compared the vibe of the packed, dark rooms to a nightclub. People are scrimping on gas to buy classes at Orangetheory and meeting their “swolemates” at Crossfit. They — we — are spending large sums of money, and time, not just to work out, but to work out together.

The gym may just be the new town square — or at least the new country club — in an age when most IRL interactions are disappearing by the day. An ailing retail sector is invested in this interpretation, staking its hopes on gyms as anchor tenants in dying malls where department stores once stood, and holding fitness classes in clothing stores in an attempt to generate foot traffic. The operating assumption is that, in an online world, fitness is the last bastion where embodied engagement is imperative. This is a conviction so deeply held that I’ve seen workout classes in the unlikeliest places, like a prison-inspired bootcamp run by former inmates held amid designer ballgowns and handbags in Saks Fifth Avenue. 

MIRROR is making a different bet. Boutique fitness created the market for Putnam’s product. But its success is staked on overturning that sector’s fundamental assumption: that sweating in person with a group of like-minded devotees who might become friends, in a space that is not your home, under the watchful gaze of an instructor who could come to know your name or at least compliment your leggings, is what makes high-end exercise worth its high-end price. 

A Reflection of Its Time

With $41 million in venture capital, an app, and a small army of celebrity Instagram influencers, MIRROR is a twenty-first-century company headquartered in offices at least superficially self-conscious about its history. Each room is named for a fitness icon, from Jack Lalanne to Jane Fonda to Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose name graces the main conference room. But that very history is ambivalent about the role of the mirror in exercise. 

As early as 1899, the Los Angeles Times recommended that women using “home gymnasiums” obtain “a long mirror in which the gymnast can watch her own motions.” Yet resistance to the mirror has an equally storied past. Jazzercise, the fifty-year old dance-fitness phenomenon, was founded in part on the rejection of the reflection. Founder Judi Sheppard Missett, a trained dancer, realized that the women who attended her classes in 1960s Chicago were intimidated by the mirrors that reminded them, in real time, of their missteps. When she relocated to a basement without mirrors, the mood of the class changed — and grew into what would become one of the most successful franchise businesses of the 1980s. 

“If there are mirrors, you tend to compare yourself to the instructor or other people in the class instead of being in the moment and enjoying yourself,” Missett’s daughter Shanna, who runs Jazzercise today, explained in a 2012 interview. Contemporary research in exercise psychology confirms this point, indicating that new exercisers regularly quit more quickly when required to workout in front of a mirror than those who are freed from their reflection. 

But in the age of the ubiquitous selfie — essentially a mirror we all carry in our pockets, all the time — has the significance of working out before one’s reflection changed?

Tara Well, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, describes the Mirror as “sort of like a dynamic exercise selfie” — perfect, perhaps, for our self-absorbed age. Yet selfies, as some feminists have pointed out, can also be an affirming form of self-fashioning in a culture that often imposes oppressive imagery on women. 

The Mirror’s reflectiveness also serves a more pragmatic function, however: it helps you see what you are doing, especially without an instructor or a flawless front row to emulate. “It’s like having the best spot in the class with your favorite instructor any time you want and in the privacy of your own home,” says Well. Dori Gray, the Mirror user, agrees: “I use my core much more when I can actually see that I am not engaging my abs when I need to, and make that correction… It is a constant reminder to have good form.” This purpose of the mirror is as old as organized exercise itself: at the peak of the 1980s fitness boom, the Los Angeles Times offered an almost identical endorsement of mirrors nearly a century after first recommending them in 1899: “[W]atching yourself work out serves as a kind of reinforcement. So does watching yourself improve over time.” Not everything about the Mirror is as novel as its packaging.

Alone Together?

Technology is often trashed for optimizing our interactions to the point of dehumanization. Grindr has elders longing for a lost cruising culture. Data-driven dating sites inspire nostalgia for an era when hookups happened after a chance encounter in a bar or elevator. ClassPass, the booking app that since 2013 has offered discount rates to exercise enthusiasts willing to bounce between studios for the best value, quickly sent devotees of particular studios bemoaning “the loss of community feel” in the New York Times. Might MIRROR inflict something similar? Is it just a matter of time before people drop out of collective fitness culture entirely? Will we one day long for the sweaty, if socially stratified, intimacy of SoulCycle? 

Giving up IRL exercise experiences doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for Mirror users. Kristine Burke McDavid of South Boston, who also owns a Peloton bike, attends Orangetheory in her office park on the days she doesn’t use her Mirror, and “is always up for an outdoor activity.” She rides her bike in the summer and shovels snow in the winter. Mirror user Dori Gray still occasionally goes to in-person yoga or high-intensity interval training classes. 

The Mirror, it seems, is best understood as a supplement to IRL fitness, not as its replacement. There is simply so much demand for fitness in our exercise-saturated moment, when Barbies come with yoga mats and colleagues compare steps on their corporate-issued Fitbits, that MIRROR doesn’t have to displace CorePower and Crossfit to be successful — the market might be big enough for all of them. 

As MIRROR makes a dent in that market, however, its largest beneficiaries may be workers rather than consumers. This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Mirror: it may very well end up improving the economic lot of exercise instructors. The profession is growing faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — but, like adjunct professors, fitness professionals are a notoriously underpaid and unpredictably employed lot whose income is unscalable, since there are only so many hours one can teach (many of which are undesirably “off-peak”). 

Platforms like the Mirror could allow instructors to scale their income by earning money more like recording artists, who profit when their songs are streamed or downloaded, not only from live performances. When I asked MIRROR instructor Alex Silver-Fagan the most surprising thing about the position, she answered, “Having a full-time job, haha! As a trainer this is rare.” This promise raises a new potential problem, however. A relatively small number of recording artists earn the vast majority of the revenue from streams and downloads. If MIRROR brought this same superstar model to the world of fitness, it could very well put a large number of midlist trainers out of business, since everyone would only be working out with a few big instructors.

Yet fitness is arguably already a superstar economy, where a handful of celebrity standouts land the clothing endorsements and media deals, while most others soldier along without basic workplace protections or a living wage. SoulCycle’s IPO filing acknowledged its reliance on the “star quality” of certain instructors, while, on the other side of the spectrum, the glut of yoga teachers can make it impossible for new instructors to recoup the cost of pricey trainings.

In this difficult landscape, MIRROR offers fitness professionals another way to earn a living — and, possibly, a better one. Whether it can fulfill this potential will ultimately come down to the actions of the workers themselves, and the power they wield by virtue of making our workouts possible. Then the Mirror may end up being a tool of transformation not only for the people in front of the mirror, but for those behind it.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an Associate Professor of History at the New School. She is writing a book called Fit Nation: How America Embraced Exercise as the Government Abandoned It.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 8, "Bodies". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.