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What Midwest Women Should Know: About Pilates, Jesus and Standing Their Ground Until the Cows Come Home

By Rebekah Iliff

The ladies at Genesis Health Club’s 8 a.m. pilates conditioning class were entirely unexpected. Along with my older brother and his wife, I had smugly agreed to attend with my 69-year-old-mother, who is still in better shape than most college co-eds prancing around in barely-there shorts. And to the best of my childhood memory, she had always been the exception.

But somewhere between 2011 and 2019, when I was romping around California and New York believing the manufactured lie that real progress generally happens on the coasts, the Midwest baby boomer housewife took a sharp turn in the direction of a God-fearing, yogi-come-tennis pro. The result: a room teeming with 60- and 70-something women working out to old classics and country gospel, sporting fluorescent-colored Lululemon skorts and leopard print Athleta biker shorts.

To imagine either of my Midwest-bred grandmothers wearing such outfits was laughable, and my mind began to wander in the direction of how this would directly impact my future. All of these Heartland grandmas — most of whom now preferred hipper titles like Gigi, Honey and G-Unit — would live to be at least 104, supposedly leaving no social security earnings for my generation or the next.

This morning, without worry, they were poised to pump, squat and flex despite their titanium hips and cancer-free cells. Due to the previous evening’s wine activities, all I wanted to do was roll over on my exercise mat and take a nap. Having grown up in Kansas, I should have known better than to assume anything a Midwest woman set out to do — whether raising kids or attending an exercise class — wouldn’t require some grit. When my mother earnestly asked me if I wanted to “join me and the girls for pilates or power pump” my answer should have been “no thank you to either. I’m on vacation.” But here I was.

Before I could think of a believable excuse as to why I needed to hit the gym’s juice bar or stab myself in the eye with forks, instead of subjecting myself to a class led by American Gladiator-esque instructor (also in her 60s), I spotted Jan, one of my mom’s best friends — with whom she shared a wedding dress in 1972. My guess was it probably still fit them both.

We made eye contact, and her face lit up with a familiar grin. As the wife of a retired dentist, her perfect white choppers were envy-inducing, but at this moment I was more preoccupied with her biceps and shapely legs, neither of which I recalled having ever seen before. Mostly, I remembered her in jeans and polo shirts, possibly the occasional church dress and heels. She had birthed and raised five handsome, athletic boys; two had spent their 20s as professional basketball players. So, I suppose seeing her full form shouldn’t have been confusing, but for me, it was entirely out of context. Had she hit 60 and exchanged her Bible for barbells? Or was this the Midwest woman’s new normal, and I’d entirely missed the memo?

Jan sashayed toward us, and I could see my brother (one of two males in the room) contemplating his current position and likely trying to figure out how — given the proximity of the mats — he would make it through the entire class without being flashed by one of our mother’s tennis skirt-wearing friends or doing a stretch that landed his head inches away from my backside.

He gave me a “PLEASE HELP ME” look, but in my opinion, this was payback for any atrocious thing he had ever done. I shifted my focus back to greeting the corps de pilates. Jan and I exchanged hugs, and I spotted two more familiar faces.

The first belonged to Martha, the wife of a doctor who, after 30-plus years, still lived down the street from my childhood home. Because our families were “social circle adjacent,” I had never actually been inside her house until my late-20s, when she hosted a wedding shower for one of my best friends, Katie.

Then, Martha was everything you’d expect from a Midwest woman: tailored, welcoming within reason, and kindly not intrusively curious about my own relationship status. Now, with Katie tragically gone, seeing Martha in her biker shorts wearing no make-up and ready to seize the day one free weight at time, was suddenly comforting. I knew Katie would have found the evolution of our mothers’ generation ridiculously comical and inspiring all in one belly laugh. Changing without ever leaving the same place: this was a true feat. Particularly because all we ever dreamed of was leaving the Midwest, and now it seemed perhaps they had the leg up. Literally and figuratively.

After exchanging pleasantries with Martha, I turned my attention to Patti, the mother of another childhood friend, Erica. Both tall, wispy and soft-spoken, they had been staples at the Topeka Country Club: proficient at golf, tennis and socially acceptable conversation. I remembered Patti mostly from summer swim meets, gliding around in strappy sandals and shift dresses while she sweetly cheered for Erica during breast-stroke races. Her gentle demeanor, along with her dainty habit of walking on the balls of her feet, landed her the nickname “Tip-Toe Patti.” Erica probably meant this as a snarky, teenage slight, but as I recalled, her mother embraced it, unrattled and gracious, as a compliment. Turning lemons into lemonade in the name of Jesus was another magic trick I learned in childhood, and a staple of the Midwest woman. This mindset was also the precursor to avoiding a lifetime of playing the victim.

Today, donning a tank top with matching skorts and a fresh mani-pedi, Patti was ready to point her tip-toes back and forth, up and down — all for health, wellness and showcasing the progressive Midwestern American housewife.

The instructor pumped up the volume on her fitness headset and began breathing heavily through it — a clear sign to frequent class-goers that social hour was over. She sounded eerily similar to Darth Vader, which in retrospect was a perfect foreshadowing of the next 60 minutes: antagonizing.

I quickly returned to my mat, situated behind Patti and Martha, beside my brother, and far enough away from my mother to avoid any unsolicited corrections. Unfairly, she had been an early pilates adopter in the 1980s when it first appeared in the Midwest, and I had just recently become a fan. While I continued to overthink the whole situation, the class abruptly began with a series of intense, heart-pumping leg movements as Carrie Underwood whaled “Jesus take the wheel” over the speakers. I couldn’t have agreed more. In fact, where was Jesus when I needed him the most?

Within 20 minutes, inverse correlation took effect: my ability to complete a full exercise set dove incisively and my respect for this room full of Midwest women nearing retirement rose exponentially. In front of me, Patti and Martha hoisted their hips in the air like they were in a zero-gravity state; behind me, off to the right, Jan and my mother squatted repeatedly, perfectly in sync to each other and to the beat of “Jesus freak.” My legs convulsed, a sharp pain shot through my left hip, and I wanted to wail. I looked askance at my brother and sister-in-law who were equally as flummoxed — ignoring my mother’s taunting disguised as encouragement to “sink a little lower, honey.” Followed by “that’s it, you got it, KIND OF!”

Just when I had figured out a strategy for getting through the next 40 minutes without throwing up, or kicking my brother in the gut for suggesting Genesis Health Club morning classes to my mother in the first place, I noticed Debbie: another familiar face who had sneaked in late and taken the last empty spot in the row ahead of me. Debbie was a regular at ballet classes during my high school years, and she rivaled my mother in terms of fitness factor — the exception being she had insanely chiseled arms and thigh muscles that put any track-and-field star to shame. Without seeing her face, I recognized her wavy black hair and tan, planked body; astoundingly, in nearly three decades, little had changed. What the hell were these women drinking? I knew for certain it wasn’t biodynamic, collagen-infused, bone broth; because for the Midwest woman, this would be far too fussy if not beyond the pale.

Debbie side-planked in my direction while I heaved from the last squat, confirming her identity and my greatest fear of the past 20-plus years since I’d left home: I had severely underestimated the role these women had played in my ability to hold myself upright in the world writ large. Through unfathomable tragedies — divorce, economic loss, cancer, deaths of children — and pressure from shifting cultural forces to let go of morals and replace them with relative principles, the Midwest woman I had thought of as unrelatable was unshakable and strong.

When class was finally over, and Darth Vader breathed her last raspy breath, I turned around to look at my mother. She had barely broken a sweat. That figures, I thought. I scanned from Jan to Patti to Martha to Debbie. No sweat there either. They appeared to have arrived unscathed, and something about their energy levels signaled that perhaps pilates conditioning was just a warm up for the day. Instead of wanting to be anything but them, I found myself trying to figure out what I could do in order to end up exactly in their place.

My mother waved her arms in a “come here” gesture, and her three exhausted guests circled up obediently. “So, what did you think?” She took a gulp of water.

“Honestly mom, that wasn’t pilates,” I said. “That was more like boot camp.”

She brushed me off with a retort only a Midwest woman would give: “You thought this was hard, wait until tomorrow’s class. You’ll love it!”

My sister-in-law let out a nervous laugh, my brother offered a supportive nod, and I knew that it would likely be days before I could walk without a limp.

“Maybe I should stick with yoga?” I said. Then, I pulled her in for a side hug, her small but solid frame caving in toward me.

While the rest of the world seems to be grappling with all the “unknowns,” here is what I know: What French women know about l’art de vivre, and east coast women know about successful careers, and west coast women know about finding themselves, and Southern women know about the power of charm —Midwest women know about standing their ground in the face of adversity. Simple in theory? Absolutely. Easily executed? Hardly. It requires inordinate resolve, discipline, faith and a big kind of love.

— Rebekah Iliff

Rebekah Iliff is a business and humor writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Satirist, Little Old Lady Comedy, HuffPost Comedy, Slackjaw Humor and the Weekly Humorist. Her first book, Champagne for One, will be available worldwide in February 2022.

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