Good riddance to the body beautiful

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The Independent Online
THE Pineapple fitness empire is facing difficulties, if not exactly dancing off into the sunset. While I am sorry for the people who are losing their jobs as a studio and several shops close, I admit to finding the public puncturing of the glamour exercise boom cheering. Perhaps we can can get back to good old keep-fit classes, at a fraction of the price.

Pineapple's problems are one more sign that the Nineties may be bringing back a certain sense of proportion to life, including the demotion of exercise to its rightful place as just one part of everyday existence, enabling people to function better, both mentally and physically, rather than an obsession in its own right. Already the jogging boom has passed its peak, as yuppies become a folk memory.

Is it possible that the rather empty American-imported addiction to the body beautiful - flexed, toned, tortured - has run its course? Personal trainers, that LA essential, never really got started over here. Even Jane Fonda, queen of the fitness boom, seems to be devoting her life to her husband rather than her body these days. I suspect that the dominance of exhausting exercise tapes and frantic teach-yourself-aerobics tapes may become a thing of the past, if only we can become more at ease with ourselves.

My negative impressions of the Pineapple way of life are based firmly on experience. I once employed a nanny who spent every minute of her spare time, with friends, working out at one of its studios. Never again.

Debbie Moore, Pineapple's founder, may have preached and practised the gospel of expending energy in order to breed more energy to infuse into the rest of your life. She may have demonstrated this by founding what still remains a worthwhile, if niche, leisure business. (I am also touched by her revelation that the driving force, all along, was to pay the medical bills for her daughter.)

But that was not how it seemed to affect this little band of twentysomethings. These women clearly danced their energies away to zero on Pineapple's glamorous boards. My nanny, when not exercising, was completely car bound: she drove the car to the post box on the corner to dispatch a letter and, until I protested, refused to get out of the vehicle even when picking the children up from school.

The concept of taking a wholesome walk in the park as exercise, or even playing a game in the garden, was completely foreign. If you are seriously into remodelling your body, you would not be seen dead in a swimming pool. There was an empty tennis court, begging to be played on, at the end of the garden. Good old open air games, needing partners and a sense of co-operation were too humdrum.

I have also come to loathe what I call fitness clothes, as exemplified by Pineapple's retailing division, which sprang from the desire to show off and adorn all that tortured flesh with suitable gear. The style consists of crossover V-necked cardigans borrowed from ballet and low- cut Lycra tops. These are teamed with ghastly short mini-skirts, or ra-ra skirts showing off sun-bed tanned legs, no matter the season. Or you can parade in shiny and pricey skin-tight leggings. The look can be jazzed up with Essex-girl gold jewellery for weekends.

When these clothes are worn as standard daily work gear, in much the same way that the eye-catching Debbie took her Lycra gear on the floor of the Stock Exchange, it all becomes too much. No other sport has imported its clothing so firmly into everyday life. A well-washed pair of jeans, sensible Marks & Spencer lambswool sweaters and plain old T-shirts have always seemed to me far more attractive and suitable British scuff-around-the-house wear. Once you have been exposed to a relentless parade of body-conscious clothes, believe me, even the new messy grunge fashion seems preferable and strangely liberating. These are clothes to hide in.

So what comes next? It would be nice to think that exercise retains an importance, but that it becomes more co-operative, less self-obsessed and more geared to enhancing the quality of everyday life. In my family we have started playing table tennis: it is an undemanding sort of game which both adults and children seem to enjoy thoroughly.

At the leisure centre I belong to I've been noticing that newer but gentler and more discreet forms of exercise are springing up alongside the weight-training and exercise bikes of the gym. Water aerobics is the fad of the moment. It seems well adapted to the average pear-shaped and retiring British woman. It involves painless exercises, to music, under water. All the pimply, unsightly areas of cellulite are hidden: only your head and shoulders poke up for public inspection. A friend says it is best to be at the front of the class, to avoid the sight of underwater giant waves of fat.

More bizarre, clubs around me are starting to offer a strange, pared-down sort of exercise class called step aerobics: you walk up and down a step to music, rather like a hamster going drearily around and around on its wheel. It seems uncannily like a depressing metaphor for life in deep recession. Doesn't it make a brisk walk sound inviting?