“Keep your eyes on your own page,” our teachers always said during tests. Sure, they were trying to discourage cheating, but I was always nervous that someone was going to peek at my page and see that I had written down a hilariously incorrect answer. (Yes, I have since learned that the Cold War had nothing to do with low temperatures).
At a time in my life when I was judged for not having enough Juicy Couture in my closet or the right lip balm in my backpack (curse you, $20 Lip Venom), it only makes sense that I became hyperaware of myself and my image. Remember Hardtail pants? They were the Lululemon of my middle school, and you can bet I dug into sales bins for a couple pairs when my mom told me she wouldn’t spend $75 on new leggings when I had perfectly good ones already in my drawer. (But everyone has these, Mom! They’re totally different.)
From smarts to looks, we all worry about what we do and how we do it.
Now that we’re adults, this fear of comparison—and subsequent judgment—hasn’t really lessened. While folks have always compared themselves to their neighbors, we now have endless means of checking in to see exactly how well we’re keeping up with the Joneses. Take one look through anyone’s Instagram feed, and insecure thoughts start to tumble: Am I successful enough? Do people like me? Why have only four people liked my latest picture? How is she on another European vacation when I can’t even afford the flight?
The fitness world is no exception to this rule of self-consciousness. In fact, a fitness class is one of the toughest places to feel confident. We’ve all had the I-have-no-idea-what-the-hell-I’m-doing feeling during a workout, and wished we were invisible. Sometimes we fumble with a new weight-resistance machine, or accidentally end up in the front row of a cardio class. And when that happens, we all worry that somewhere, somehow, someone is watching—and judging—us.
The truth is, I am that person. I totally check people out all the time.
When you’ve mustered up the courage to attempt a handstand, I’m the one sneaking peeks while you tumble down. That moment when you drop to your knees for the last few push-ups? Yep, I noticed. The teacher may tell us to keep our gaze down for the best neck alignment, but I’m twisting and craning to get a better look. The girl behind me isn’t even doing the right move!
But here’s the thing: Comparing myself to other people in the class helps me better assess my approach to fitness in a completely self-minded way. Yes, I do look over to see your form—but only to help me correct my own. And yes, I do check to see who’s grunting like an Olympic weight lifter, but only to see how I can push myself further to get to that point.
For example, I used to think that achieving crow pose was a feat only for the superhuman (i.e., yoga teachers). Balancing my full body weight on my forearms felt like an impossible dream, so I’d just pretend to try, making half-hearted attempts to lift my toes. I’d inevitably fall down, which would lead to the eventuality of giving up. At that moment, I’d look around for solace, for moral support, and most importantly, to answer the question, Is this actually possible for normal people? I’m not trying to pick out other people who are doing worse than I am. I’m just trying to get a read on how impossible this task really is. So if you feel like all eyes are on you as you topple over, know this: The people watching you are probably way more interested in themselves than in you.
At the end of the class, these side glances always result in the same takeaway: Fitness is a spectrum. Group classes are intentionally designed to cater to a vast range of people; this spin class might be your daily workout, but it’s my monthly stretch goal. That squat may be her bread and butter, but it’s his first step toward training for a 5K. What’s tough for me could be effortless for you. In any given class, there are bound to be first-timers, pros, and everything in-between. And in any given class, I assume I fall right in the middle. That’s why I open my eyes: to make me feel proud of my progress, but also to keep a carrot hanging for me to chase.
My nosy behavior has paid off. I used to be a pretty inexperienced runner, someone who simply threw on some shoes and tried to move forward as quickly as possible, for as long as possible. That approach landed me in physical therapy with a sore knee. When I started noticing other joggers, however, I saw their calm, strategic approach to the sport. They wore sensible shoes, not whatever looked best on Instagram. They only occasionally drank water, rather than carrying and chugging from a water bottle every quarter mile, like I did. They stayed upright, rather than leaning forward in hopes that gravity would somehow start moving horizontally and pull them forward. (I know it’s not the soundest logic, but it does make a certain intuitive sense, right)?
Unfortunately, I’m aware that some runners must have caught my curious gaze and interpreted it as disapproval. In an effort to curb any flurries of insecurity, I always tried to give a quick smile or a kind wave to let them know I’m simply looking around to pass the time and learn from them. We’re all in this together.
When I’m watching other people work out, I don’t feel either jealousy or victory… just awe. I’m in complete awe of all the infinitely diverse ways that “health” takes shape. We’re all taking care of ourselves and reaching our personal best—and I know that’s become something of a cliche, but it’s important to remember: Our best really is oh-so-personal and not broadly definable. When I see myself in the mirror, thinking about how I wish my arms were thinner or my stomach was leaner, I am fully admiring every other person in the room with me. I want your strong thighs. I want your grit. I want to be sweating as much as you, because that would mean I’m working just as hard as you are. In my (wandering) eyes, the room is bursting with accomplishment and beauty.
Now, are there people who do intend to be judgmental? Sure. You may remember way back in 2016, when Playboy model Dani Mathers secretly Snapchatted a picture of a 70-year-old woman in an L.A. Fitness locker room. The caption read, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.” What was meant as a private (and cruel) joke became a top news headline; the Internet quickly whirled into action, calling out this inexcusable body-shaming, and L.A. Fitness promptly banned her for life. Mathers now faces charges for her invasion of privacy. The message is clear: That kind of judgment occasionally occurs, but it is entirely unacceptable. The gym is a resource to help you feel good, however you define that.
When I started noticing other joggers, I saw their calm, strategic approach to the sport. They wore sensible shoes, not whatever looked best on Instagram.
Most people looking to you aren’t looking at whatever you consider your flaws. We don’t see your “trouble spots.” This isn’t about judgment, or superiority. Expert, newbie, tall, short, muscular, thin, laser-focused, timid—they’re all completely valid adjectives in the journey of health, and positive attributes in any class. And if comparisons lead us to better ourselves, we should all be open to it.
So the next time you put on your boxing gloves or roll out your mat, remember that you’re embarking on your own personal health journey. While I totally endorse using other class-goers as inspiration, remember that they all have their own standards of success and live within a different set of circumstances. We’re too complex to judge each other at face value, and we should be eternally grateful for that. So go ahead and take a look around—just not during sit-ups. You really don’t want to strain your neck during those.
Christie is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a deep interest in why we are the way we are, and how we can be a little bit better. She’s an LA native, Stanford graduate, relentless vegetarian, and coffee enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @ChristieBrydon
and Instagram @woweezow33.