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Illustration by Brittany England

Content note: This piece contains description of drug use, sexual coercion, and body-shaming.

Meeting the first personal trainer felt like a fluke. He seemed too good-looking to be interested in me. But he was, for a little while.

The following seven trainers, however, were a challenge, an attempt to re-create the validation I’d gotten from the first, to prove that I was actually enough — hot enough, interesting enough, funny enough, enough of anything — to be with men who were hot.

In my mind, their hotness granted them a new level of purpose and permission in the world. In my head, these men didn’t walk, they strode.

None of that was true, of course. It wasn’t a rational pursuit — the validation I was seeking clearly wasn’t going to come from someone else. But at the time, the path to self-assurance wasn’t as obvious. I was spiraling around my own life, 22 and unsure if I was doing literally anything right, and hating my body was a lesson I’d always been learning.

So I accepted that I simply wanted to date hot men, and once I realized that I could, I did. There was little else on my romantic agenda. I didn’t seek laughter, comfort, or experiences — just muscles and nice faces. I thought if I interacted with dating on the shallowest level, things would be easier.

I dated eight personal trainers in 8 months. It was a bizarre tail-chase, an exercise in hedonism, narcissism, and unbridled selfishness.

July: C, the Equinox trainer

On my first date with my first trainer, I sat with C, the Equinox trainer, in the middle of a small but busy public park.

We’d matched on Tinder, and I’d agreed to meet him not because he was a personal trainer but because his messages weren’t creepy, weird, or boring — a relative rarity in the world of online dating. When he talked with his hands, his forearm muscles popped out.

It was getting dark but was still too hot, and we had both just finished work. My hair was a bit frizzy, and sweat made the back of my shirt slightly damp. C seemed entirely unaffected by the heat.

I kept waiting for him to get up and leave, to get bored with me. I was certain he would soon snap out of it, realizing he was on a date with someone far less good-looking than himself. He looked like a model. The minutes turned into an actual hour, and C and I were still sitting and still talking. I was enthralled.

August: The second C

I met with C number two only once. I found him on Bumble, where most of his photos were professional pics of him flexing, lifting, or jumping and his bio read “fitness instructor.”

At this point I had no clearly defined mission; I just found his pictures attractive. He also seemed more familiar than I was with the concept of using someone for their body and then quickly moving on.

I entered his apartment at 10:15, and I was out by 11:05. He asked me to meet him for drinks a few weeks later, but the first encounter was so anonymous and unmemorable that I thought it was best to leave it that way. One hookup with C number two was plenty.

September: J, the creepy personal trainer

J should have been my final foray. He was an older guy who trained private clients in their Financial District apartments and lived a 4-minute walk from my front door. He seemed nice, and if I squinted, he looked exactly like Daniel Craig circa 2010.

I saw him on my block, and after a conversation and a match on Bumble, he invited me over to his apartment. A good-looking man within walking distance seemed too good to be true.

We had wine and sat down on the sofa. He offered me coke. I gave a firm “no.” He pulled out a plastic zip-top bag and, without asking, started to assemble a line on the bare skin of my thigh.

I wanted to leave. He wouldn’t let go of my legs. I asked to leave, and he didn’t let go of my legs. It wasn’t like he was squeezing them; he just wouldn’t take his hands off me.

He started to tell me things he wanted to do, things I’d never done before, that seemed painful. I was afraid he would force me if I didn’t agree –– I obviously can’t be sure of that. Maybe I could have been meaner, but I wasn’t. So I had sex with him. I didn’t want to, but I thought that would be the easiest way to leave the apartment.

When it was over, as I was putting my clothes back on and inching toward the door, he offered me $800 or “at least my rent.”

I was reeling. What did he think had just happened? Was I the one confused about it? I couldn’t understand why he was offering me money. I didn’t enter his apartment thinking anything transactional would occur — I hadn’t really even planned on having sex. It only made me feel worse.

He tried to talk me into taking the money as I tried to leave again. He was high. I made it down the hallway, and then he cornered me into his bedroom. He closed the door. I started panicking. I slipped past him and made my way to the front door, this time reaching for the handle. I said I felt sick and ran home.

Crossing the block back toward my front door, I made a vow to myself that nothing like that would ever happen to me again. I felt stupid and powerless.

October: L, the MMA fighter

L was an MMA fighter who did a bit of personal training. He messaged me on Instagram one day, asking how my day was. Normally I’d ignore messages like that, but I was in a weird headspace after J, so I started to talk with him.

He was handsome and unashamedly interested in me. By the next day, we’d planned to go on a date. He took me to a fun restaurant with nice waiters and low lighting. He was so handsome and had a sweet smile. We both had hamburgers. He gave direct compliments, which made me blush.

The next day, he kept sending memes through Instagram, but I didn’t find any of them funny — I didn’t even understand quite a few of them. He DM’d that he wanted to take me to get tacos for our next date, and he used so many emojis that I had a hard time interpreting what they meant.

After a few weeks of stilted back-and-forth over DMs, with neither of us trying very hard to make that second date happen, he unfollowed me.

November: C, the other Equinox trainer

I matched with C on Tinder and we did that thing where we texted for weeks before meeting. One night, when I was already out with friends, C invited me to a rooftop bar in Times Square.

I went and we danced. It was very unlike the places I normally went out to, but still fun — but I may have come to this conclusion because most places can be fun when you’re dancing with someone you’re really attracted to.

We spent the night before Thanksgiving together and stayed up until 3:00 a.m. watching “Coco.” He came to my birthday party and kissed me in front of all my friends. He borrowed one of my beanies on a really cold morning and sent me snaps of himself wearing it throughout the next week. I started to think I really liked him.

Then he started dating someone else and announced it via Instagram. I deleted his number the next day.

December: B, the asshole personal trainer

“Wow. Most girls I date never eat like that in front of me,” B said to me on our date. My fork was halfway to my mouth, topped up with a dripping piece of enchilada.

We’d also matched on Tinder, but I hadn’t even known he was a trainer until just before dinner. He’d texted that he’d “just finished with a client,” which had prompted me to ask what he did. Among other things, he was a personal trainer.

“Oh. Well, I’m hungry…” I said. The only other person who had ever commented on my eating habits was my mother. He registered that I was annoyed and tried to course-correct.

“It’s not a bad thing; it’s actually good. Most girls pretend they never eat.”

I ignored the red flag.

Later, in the dim light of my bedroom, he looked me up and down. “You know, you’re surprisingly confident in your body for a girl who is not skinny,” he assessed.

I went entirely still. I’d never received such a biting backhanded comment while I was naked. He tried to course-correct again.

“It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually very cool. Most girls only feel confident if they’re really skinny.”

I wish I could say my fitness journey was unrelated to the men I was dating (“I’m a card-carrying feminist! Who cares what men think about my body?”), but that’s simply not true. They have everything to do with each other. I wanted to date hot men to confirm to myself that I was desirable.

B left within an hour of his “not skinny” comment, and we never spoke again. I went to the gym 29 times in January.

January: A, the sweet personal trainer

By the time A and I went on a date, I was exhausted by my little game of chasing fitness trainers.

A was attentive and thoughtful, wanted to show me all his favorite places in the Bronx, and nicknamed me his muneca. He brought me a bottle of wine, watched “Coco” (it is peak cinema), and met all my roommates.

None of it appealed to me — I couldn’t say why at the time, but with months to reflect, I’ve concluded that I knew from the beginning this wasn’t the way I wanted to meet or connect with people. Not on the basis of looks or profession and preferably not online.

We made plans to go to the Bronx’s Little Italy for our second date, but I canceled a few hours beforehand.

February: I genuinely forgot his name

When I first set out to write down this journey, I was sure there was an eighth personal trainer. But every time I counted them out on my fingers, I could remember only seven names.

Then, 3 months later, I finally remembered that there had been an eighth man, possibly named P, who I’d met on Tinder. I’d downloaded the app that day, feeling a bit manic and lonely. I’d matched with P(?), who lived a mile away.

We met at Starbucks. I went to his apartment. I didn’t think he was going to murder me, but, as with the second C, I was out in under an hour. I deleted the app and my account the next day.

After the eighth trainer, I was celibate for a few months. I clearly didn’t know how or who to date or what I wanted from a romantic partner.

While I was f*cking my way through the workforce of one of NYC’s many growing industries, I joined a boxing gym and started seeing Norman, after the creepy trainer.

I needed to be stronger and more self-assured. And while I wasn’t totally clear on what my issue was, I think I’d always known that who I was dating wasn’t going to change the way I felt about myself. I wish I’d had the strength (both emotional and physical) to leave that apartment. I wanted to feel in control of my body, which wasn’t something I’d ever really felt.

Norman is about 3 inches shorter than I am. He’s bald and from Morocco. You can still hear his accent when he tells me my legs are too far apart for squats. He broke his back once, during a taekwondo kick gone wrong, and has had two heart surgeries.

Because of this, he accepts very few excuses about not wanting to work out. He’ll just cross his arms, his legs naturally resting in a fighting stance, and stare at you as you fumble through a reason that seems weaker and weaker the more you speak.

When he asked what my personal goals were, I just said, “I want to be really strong,” which was a little bit of a lie. I also wanted to look like an Instagram fitness model. But that’s not something you tell someone — not even a man who could help you — the first time you meet them.

I planned on paying Norman for only three sessions. Now he’s my second biggest monthly expense. It’s rent and then Norman.

In my first 3 months of training with him, he always asked permission before he touched my body. We meet once a week, and he patiently explains how to perform whatever exercise he wants me to do.

He prides himself on making people stronger, physically and emotionally. Norman can list all his clients and explain how much weight they can lift, how fast they can run, how hard they work. I trust him completely.

“My client yesterday, she lifted the heaviest weight she’s ever lifted. Almost 200 pounds,” he once said to me. I was in the middle of a deadlift, shaking and sweating profusely. “When she started, she didn’t think she could even pick up 50 pounds. She just texted me — look at this.”

He flashed me his phone. His client had written, “I’m so sore today! I can barely move. But I can’t wait to try this again next week.” Norman grinned. “See! I’m making you strong too.”

All day long, there are the noises of sweating, grunting men jabbing punching bags or powerlifting at the weight racks in my gym. The air always smells like sweat. Before I started my trainer marathon, I probably wouldn’t have spent 30 minutes in a space like that. Now I’m there for at least an hour and a half, 4 or 5 days a week. I love it.

With Norman and with working out, I’ve developed confidence and a sense of control over my life that I’d never felt before. There’s a specific joy in earning strength and in working toward something that’s just for you.

After 5 months of working out and 8 months of dating people who worked out for a living, I began to understand the appeal of the fitness lifestyle.

I got so, so, so strong — strong enough that when I bumped into J, the creepy trainer, at a neighborhood deli, I didn’t break down, or cry, or shake with rage I had every right to feel. Instead, my first instinct was to go to the gym.

I told Norman, in vague terms, about what happened that night. It’d been almost 9 months since I’d had to slip between J’s body and a wall to get out. Norman offered to beat him up but also gave me heavier weights to squat with. I spent 3 hours at the gym.

Before C, I’d never given much thought to personal trainers. They were people I thought I couldn’t relate to. I wasn’t fit enough to tell someone else to improve their health and well-being, and I wasn’t rich enough to pay someone to do that for me. But after C, I was presented with a world I never thought I had access to.

And somewhere in my time with Norman, the validation I was seeking started coming from my own strengths and accomplishments — not just in the gym but also in other aspects of my life where I was never content with how hard I worked or what I achieved.

Obviously, personal training and getting “swole” wasn’t a panacea for my ills. But being able to deadlift 180 pounds did wonders for my confidence.

What does it mean to hand your body over to someone, trusting that they’re going to help you shape and care for it? Why do people pay such steep prices for the service? After 1 year with Norman, I can only say it’s the best investment I’ve ever made. I entered this world in pursuit of frivolous ego-boosting bed romps, and now I’m still here.

Opheli Garcia Lawler is a writer based in New York City, covering the intersection of culture and politics. She is also completing her final semester of graduate school at NYU.