lifestyle

BOOK EXTRACT: 'I lived among the most privileged women in the world. And it was tough.'

What happens when you go to live among the rich people? Dr Wednesday Martin is a social researcher with a background in anthropology. She moved to Manhattan’s most prestigious ZIP code, the Upper East Side, had a baby and wrote a book. Primates of Park Avenue is an anthropological memoir of Manhattan motherhood, and this is just a tiny part of it. 

My OB wisely counseled that childbirth and recovery were “nine months up and nine months down,” like most of my peers, I did not feel I had nine months. I was in a hurry, impatient to be the old, taut me, apprehensive and preoccupied beyond reason that it would never happen.

Mothers all across the country feel a version of this fear; women’s magazines such as Fit Pregnancy and New Mommy Workout and stringent postpregnancy exercise DVDs and online classes attest to our collective terror. But here on the Upper East Side, the anxieties and pressures are greater. Whereas women in Nebraska and Michigan might hop on the treadmill in the basement when they can, and skip Dunkin’ Donuts, and take their time with the last 10 pounds, perhaps resigning themselves to all or a portion of it remaining, my tribe of mommies was another matter. Just as we had to excel at being beautifully pregnant, so, too, we had to be the most gorgeous mothers of infants, babies, toddlers, and young children that it was possible to be.

primates of park avenue
Image: supplied.

As this was the Upper East Side, the first order of business, once I had decided to exercise, was to shop. Lululemon was the brand of choice; it had eclipsed Athleta and was an intrinsic and ubiquitous part of the Upper East Side mommy uniform by the time I was ready to rumble. Skintight yet thicker than regular spandex, shockingly comfortable, with whimsical details (fun prints abounded) and smart concessions to women’s actual lives, needs, and desires (pockets in places that didn’t create bulk, for one), lululemon was an inescapable part of life in my neighborhood. It telegraphed, “I have time to exercise, and here’s the payoff.” Part of lululemon’s appeal, I realized the first time I tried on their pants and a fitted jacket, was that these items weren’t merely unforgivingly tight and formfitting. And they weren’t merely clothing—they also functioned as a kind of girdle or exoskeleton, smoothing out bumps, holding everything up and in while they appeared to bare all. For the first year or two after lululemon hit the streets, women wore their lulu pants with longer lulu tops or jackets to cover the derriere and loin areas. Or tied long-sleeved lulu shirts around their waists. And then came a moment when women collectively declared, “I have a crotch. And a bottom. Deal with it.” Habituation was swift. What had at first looked outrageously exhibitionistic—exposing the ventral and dorsal sides of a female Homo sapiens between her waist and pubis—quickly became no big deal. What choice did men have but to become desensitized by the barrage of lululemon-clad nether regions, the nearly constant, inescapable exposure?

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And so I came to own lots and lots of lululemon. I bought fitted lulu jackets and fitted lulu pants. I bought fitted cap-sleeved tops with plunging necklines and vibrant-hued, fitted tanks. I bought snug lululemon bras specially designed to fit under the tops and tanks. There were even special lululemon thongs and underwear designed of microfibers to be “invisible”—with edges that faded into nothing, so you wouldn’t have VPL. There was a fitter at lululemon, who put you up on a box in front of a threeway mirror like a regular tailor does, and talked to you seriously about which shoes you would be wearing and how long the pants should be and how large the hem should be, as if they were real trousers and you were a businessman at Brooks Brothers. Well, it was a business, I would soon learn, this “working” out, and a  serious one at that.

primates of park avenue
Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of ‘Primates of Park Avenue’. Image via Getty.

Thoroughly outfitted, I looked into fitness options, and quickly learned that there had been a sea change not only in exercise togs but also in exercise practices since the births of my two children. As I cluelessly did Pilates and yoga and sprinted in the park when I could, all around me, members of the tribe I studied had been splintering into subtribes, each pledging its allegiance to one of two tremendously popular cults: a ballet-barre class called Physique 57, or a spin class called SoulCycle. How ridiculous, I thought when my friend Amy sent me a Youtube video of women at SoulCycle sitting on their stationary bikes, their lower halves whipping round and round at lightning speed while their upper halves did various yoga poses. I imagined how perplexed archeologists of the future would be by such an artifact (“They move, yet they make no progress”). Give me a break, I sighed internally when another friend described her Physique 57 ballet-barre class as we sat at a café, earnestly intoning that it had changed her body in a mere six 57-minute sessions. She sounded like an infomercial. Then she lifted her shirt to show me her abs, and I nearly spat out my green tea. She was cut. After less than six hours. I was suddenly game.

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Reviewing the company’s website, I learned about their state of-the-art studios, mirrored affairs in upscale locales tricked out with special props—ballet barres of different heights, balls for squeezing and toning, rubber strips for stretching and ab work, mats and pillows, carpeting that cushioned during floor work. I read the Physique 57 “story”: it was founded by two former Lotte Berk disciples after that wildly popular, ballet-style workout guru threw in the towel at her Hamptons studio. I watched the video testimonials by those who worshipped at the Physique 57 temple—women who ran the gamut from absolutely torn to zaftig/fit. Many became tearful describing their transformation. The promise was that I would see changes in my body within eight sessions, each of which was less than an hour, thus saving me 180 seconds every time I went.

Attired in lululemon, I arrived at a studio not far from home one spring morning. The space was airy and clean, with high ceilings and white walls and wood floors in some rooms, blue carpeting in others. The pretty young woman at the front desk who checked me in noted it was my first class, and gave me a release to sign. Then she chirped, “Do you have your socks?” Huh? She meant grippy socks, I learned, black or gray anklets with a small 57 embroidered at the back, the bottom sprinkled with light blue rubberized dots intended to prevent me from slipping on the carpet.

I bought a pair immediately and, pulling them on, thought of the cult members who had committed suicide in the 1990s while wearing identical Nike sneakers. “You’ll probably want a bottle of water,” the receptionist observed helpfully, handing it over and telling me she’d put the charge on my bill. As at a private club, I had a chit.

I was relieved to see my friend Monica, an überfit, hard-driving hedge-fund manager and mother of three, stretching by a mirror. “I didn’t know you did Physique!” she enthused as we kissed each other hello. “Give me that.” She dropped my water bottle at a three-foot-wide “spot” at the ballet barre in front of the mirrored wall. Then she grabbed two five-pound weights for me, setting them next to hers on the carpeted floor. “You’ve got to stake out your real estate before everybody gets here,” she explained. Great; I had a guide. The room filled up all around us as we chatted, the women packed in tightly, all strangely serious and silent, stretching and staring into the mirror in front of them. Without exception, they wore black lululemon pants, either full or capri length, and racerback lulu tanks and black Physique 57 grippy socks. Most looked incredibly fit, with lean triceps and flat stomachs and tight bottoms that seemed to defy gravity. There were no men in the class, with the exception of a tall, dark vision, muscled and sleek, wearing a headset. “Good morning, ladies,” he purred. “Let’s get those heart rates up!” His voice blared through the strategically placed speakers in the corners of the room, and we snapped to attention.

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A Beyoncé track pounded forth, and we were exorted to step high, step high, lift opposite knee to opposite arm, twist, twist. Thus began a workout so rigorous, so difficult, so comprehensive, and so painful that at several points I feared I might vomit. We worked every imaginable muscle in our arms with our weights while simultaneously doing squats and lunges and dips with our legs. We did push-up after push-up. “When you get to that point of fatigue, I want you to overcome,” the instructor intoned, as if this were our own civil rights movement. That was just the ten-minute warm-up. We now returned our weights to their wire baskets on the shelves in the corner of the room. I was taken aback at the aggression with which the women, most in their thirties and forties, flung them, and the speed with which they then raced over to their spots at the barre. Somehow everyone knew which identical bottle of water and small white towel was hers. How? “Over here,” Monica whispered, and I took the spot next to her.

To my bewilderment, the instructor requested that we “take a small upright V position at the barre and begin with a simple pulse.” I copied my friend, thinking I understood—we were doing mini pliés, ballet-style. No problem; I had done these my entire ballet-practicing girlhood. But after a hundred of them, I thought my legs would fall off. And we were just beginning. We lifted one leg off the floor, and then the other, in a precise sequence that worked every single leg muscle to the point of utter exhaustion and indescribable, burning pain. I looked around at the other women, trying to catch the eye of someone else, as one does in such dire but ultimately funny circumstances, when others typically raise an eyebrow or smile to communicate, “You’re not alone!”

Nothing. Not a smile in the room. Not a word. The women averted their gazes, inhabiting their own split-off, atomized private zones of achievement and torment.

‘Primates of Park Avenue’ Survival Tip #1: Charge or Be Charged. (Post continues after video…)

Video via “Simon

While I had to stop repeatedly, my friend went on and on, not missing a single beat or plié or squat. This was an overachiever’s workout. She was as focused on it, I realized, watching her out of the corner of my eye, as she was on her deals at work or the process of getting her kids into a good school. Like a machine, she was careful, precise, and steady. Meanwhile, everyone around us, dressed in identical uniforms, did all the identical moves in perfectly synchronized, identical harmony. Arms raised. Arms down. Punch. Pull. Then came stranger commands, in a language everyone around me understood.

“Hover! You’re wearing kitten heels,” the teacher barked. Then: “Put on your highest stilettos!” and “Wear a pencil skirt and sit at your desk in a swivel chair”—meaning bend at the knees, pivot, and face the barre at an angle. Next came “waterski,” a command that apparently meant “Get close to the barre, lean back with your entire weight while holding on with your spent, aching arms, and thrust your pelvis up to the ceiling.” We did this over and over, until our legs shook and we forgot that the movement couldn’t be more sexual, or more painful. Now that thigh work and seat work were over—They were? Thank God, because my ass had never burned like this before—it was time for abdominal work. This might have more aptly been called vaginal display. We sat with our backs to the wall, hefted our legs up above our heads, pushed our hands up into the barre above us, and pulled our legs, held in a diamond shape, into the barre again and again. I was glad there were no men in the class as I tried not to stare at the dozens of pudenda straining against lululemon spandex all around me. I figured everyone else must find this as odd as I did, but once again, there were no smiles, no eye contact, no interaction of any sort. We worked every conceivable muscle in our abdomens, slicing to the side, pulling to the sky, bicycling our knees to the opposite elbows, until I wanted to howl with pain.

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Afterward, we lay on our backs on our mats, panting, and thrust our pelvises upward to the strains of Mavin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” I thought I might faint—from the physical agony and the indescribable strangeness of this disconnected group-sex experience. When it was over, I gasped good-bye to my friend and hobbled home. I took a hot bath with Epsom salts, nursed the baby, and fell asleep with him in bed. For three days, I could not walk up and down stairs, or even walk, without considerable pain. But when I recovered, I went straight back to the class. I felt driven and compelled—to master the movements, to chase the perfect body for 57 minutes, to put everything else out of my mind, to block out the world. I was hooked. I would follow.

The Real Housewives of New York is set on the Upper East Side.

For a while I went every other day. Then I bumped it up to every day, at which point I noticed that there were women who asked each other, “Are you staying for the next class?” They were doing this twice a day, some of them. The gruelling pursuit of the perfect body was, it occurred to me, an endurance rite. Every class was a mini-initiation ceremony, a shortened, everyday version of the once-in-a-lifetime Sunrise Dance that Apache girls undertake to mark their transition to womanhood. For four entire days, nonstop, the menstruating girl dances a specific and meticulous choreography. She wears special garments and pigments to mark the sacredness and specificity of this moment in time. In so doing she demonstrates her commitment to her people, her tribe, and her gender. At the end she is exhausted—and initiated. She is utterly changed after the dance, a confirmed member of Apache womanhood. And the women of Physique? They proved, class after punishing class, that they had the strength, time, resources, and energy to commit to their transformations.

This is an edited extract of Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, published by Simon and Schuster Australia, Hardback, $35.00, ebook $11.99. You can purchase the book here.

Wednesday Martin, PhD, has worked as writer and social researcher in New York City for more than two decades. The author of Stepmonster and Primates of Park Avenue, she has appeared on Today, CNN, NPR, NBC News, the BBC Newshour, and Fox News as an expert on step-parenting and parenting issues. She writes for the online edition of Psychology Today and her work has appeared in The New York Times. She was a regular contributor to New York Post’s parenting and lifestyle pages for several years and has written for The Daily Telegraph. Wednesday received her PhD from Yale University and lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons. Learn more about Wednesday Martin here

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