It was the winter of 1994/1995. I was eighteen and living on my own with my boyfriend in Logan, Utah, after having dropped out of NYU. Need I say it was a dark time? Add to that, that one day, after I had been sprawled shamelessly in our bathtub, my boyfriend mentioned something about my having gained weight. Days later his father came to visit and, in direct opposition to everything my parents had modeled for me, looked straight at me and said that I looked bigger since his last visit. My parents, who would try to ignore an oncoming tornado if speaking up might hurt someone’s feelings, had spent the better part of my prepubescent years pretending I wasn’t fat, and trying to obscure that fact from me as well.
The unfathomable notion that someone would just come out and say the truth blew my mind and spurred me to action. As I was broke and living in a tiny town that probably didn’t have one stationary bicycle, let alone a whole gym, I went to Walmart and, after careful scrutiny, bought my first exercise video: Elle MacPherson’s Your Personal Best on VHS.
After a few viewings of this beautifully produced scenic tour of Hawaii that masquerades as an exercise video, I was left wanting something more — more substance, more sweat, fewer panning shots of lush greenery and idyllic ocean waves. One day, at Blockbuster Video, I found the exercise video section. It was just a few shelves, and I eagerly fingered the worn VHS boxes to try and find the exercise video that was right for me. I found god on my first try. There, at my local Blockbuster, they had the Firm, Volumes I, II and III (embedding is disabled on YouTube for this video). I was hooked.
First produced in 1986, these videos combine weights and aerobics and, more importantly, women in leotards and legwarmers. The early editions also came with a documentary that the founders of the company made called, Twenty Questions About Fitness.
This informative video taught me more than I’d ever known about reshaping my body, including that “The Jaw is the strongest muscle in the body. That’s why biting an attacker is a serious threat.” I fell in love with these proper Southern women in leotards and became a devout member of the exercise video cult that they created. Because I saw, “results in less than ten workouts,” as they had promised, my devotion grew.
Since the beginning of my collection in 1994, I have amassed upwards of fifty exercise videos. Some of them are even on DVD these days. Over the last fifteen years, I have ebbed and flowed out of über-fitness. Despite gym memberships and fancy diets and purchasing a fanny pack for running, it has always been these videos that have brought me closest to my fitness goals. They taught me the names of my muscles and how to use them (the muscles, not the names). My sister and I can even quote peppy catch phrases from many of the videos (“Now, isn’t this better than dieting?” coos Susan Harris as she jogs in place endlessly and effortlessly in Volume I).
All this to say, that on a recent family trip to South Carolina, the original home of The Firm, I could not help but map the proximity of the new Firm studio to the other stops on my itinerary. As luck would have it, The Firm was on the way from the relatives we were visiting in South Carolina to those we planned to visit in North Carolina. I tried not to get my hopes up. Probably, there wouldn’t be a class at the right time. Probably, they would not let a visitor drop in on classes. I would just send a quick email and have my hopes dashed before I got too excited. Best to avoid getting too worked up. I sent the email. I got a reply. Not only would they let me come workout with them, but my first class would be free! It was like wishing for a pony and getting a pony and ice cream. There is a god (of exercise videos).
Given, many things have changed about the Firm since I first started sweating with the debutants nearly twenty years ago. The videos are now produced by fancy producers in a fancy studio, and many of my most beloved cast members have gone on to other projects. That said, it’s still THE FIRM!!!
On the drive there, my palms were sweating (see, burning calories already!). I arrived early and talked to the nicest, most shapely southern women working the front desk. I even got to meet the studio owner, Emily Welsh, who stars in some of the videos I own as well. I spent an hour and a half working out with weights and step. I sweat my guts out and hooted and hollered enthusiastically, like a Pentecostal on Christmas (or on crack). The gods of exercise were surely surging through my veins as I rock-stepped and bicep-curled right along with the regular exercisers (who, by the way, were not nearly as enthusiastic and clearly pegged me for the religious whack-job that I am).
Afterwards, I got to talk to the instructors and thanked them profusely. I felt like a Make-A-Wish kid, except, I get to go on living, exercising and humming along to the catchy tunes of the Firm as I reshape my glutes, “like those of a race horse.” Praise the lord and pass the twenty pound dumbbells!