Brussels and the Basic Fit Backpack

Beauty and Inequality

All five PhD researchers are now doing their fieldwork. On this blog, they share their research impressions in short vignettes. Sanne Pieters follows the Basic Fit Backpack in Brussels.

All five PhD researchers are now doing their fieldwork. On this blog, they share their research impressions in short vignettes. Sanne Pieters follows the Basic Fit Backpack in Brussels.

If George E. Marcus (1995) encourages us to follow the thing, I would like to follow a gray and orange backpack here in Brussels. To be more specific, I would follow the Basic Fit backpack that one can only obtain by joining one of the 20 Brussels-based Basic Fits. Broad in shape and sturdy-looking, its whale gray design with the characteristic bright orange zippers houses the belongings of many Brusselians. Every time I take the metro or simply cross the street to go to the supermarket, I see someone wearing a Basic Fit backpack. Sometimes I see an outworn one laying on the street. One time, I saw one in the park in which some birds had made their nest. In Brussels, this backpack is truly everywhere.

For those who do not know the chain, Basic Fit is a European budget gym that operates over 900 clubs in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Germany. It is a so-called “value-for-money” (VfM) chain that offers relatively cheap subscriptions starting from €24,99 per month. According to the Basic Fit-website, there are nowhere as many Basic Fits as in Brussels. Taking the cultural studies approach, the backpack as a cultural object is linked to meaning (Du Gay et al., 1997). In Du Gay and colleagues’ circuit of culture, the production side of the backpack is quite clear: the budget gym produced it, probably in the cheapest way possible, and offered it to new clients. While the backpack isn’t handed out freely, as individuals commit to, at least, a monthly subscription, numerous Brusselians now willingly promote the gym without charge.

But to me, the more interesting aspect of the backpack lies in studying the identity aspect of the circuit of culture. The omnipresence of the backpack tells us at least one thing: a lot of people have a gym subscription in Brussels. Unsurprisingly perhaps because within the increasing importance of the beauty regime, fitness, wellness and taking care of the body have become a duty for all (Kuipers, 2022; Sassatelli, 2010). Practices that relate to the efforts people put in working on their body are encapsulated in the sociological concept of bodywork. This includes the work on one’s own body, for instance by going to the gym or taking ice baths every other day, as well as the work people do on other people’s body’s, for instance the work of plastic surgeons, nail stylists, hairdressers and physical therapists. The concept of bodywork can also include the embodied aspects of emotional labor: hotel receptionists are expected to be client-friendly and service-oriented which research shows easily translates into “body rules” that privilege a slim body dressed in a certain way (Warhurst & Nickson, 2009). Finally, bodywork also includes the ways in which work changes and shapes the body: many of my friends who have worked as bartenders or sound engineers have lasting hearing problems and of course, work stress can become ingrained into the body too.

At least in Europe, there has been a surge in places where people can perform bodywork as well as a rise in importance that people attach to working on their body (Sassatelli, 2010). I once tried a Basic Fit in Brussels, on one of the walls in the cardio area was written in bold white lettering: NO SWEAT, NO BEAUTY, NO SQUATS, NO BOOTY. Because of the rhythm and perfect rhyming scheme, I still often say these words to myself when I’m working out. It has become a mantra of some sorts. No sweat, no beauty, no squats, no booty. But there is something else that makes the slogan so intriguing. By putting together sweat and beauty it communicates a correlation from physical effort to beauty. It suggests that one needs to put in the work to obtain and to maybe even deserve beauty. It has been observed that fit bodies are powerful symbols of status and character in Western culture (Sassatelli, 2010). Fit bodies convey discipline and power, showing the world that the body is malleable with the right amount of control. Bodywork allows people the possibility to negotiate and (re-)produce embodied beauty ideals (Sassatelli, 2010). And this does not only lead to benefits that are limited to the gym. Rather, because fit bodies enjoy so many positive connotations, think of “health”, “vitality”, “discipline”, “responsibility”, people are able to convert their embodied capital into other types of capital (Pedersen & Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, 2016). More straightforward: there is evidence that suggests that being beautiful leads to better chances at both the relational market and labor market (Hamermesh, 2011) and research suggest similar mechanisms for bodily beauty or at least embodied normativity (Pedersen & Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, 2016; Vandebroeck, 2016). In other words: it pays to be fit and beautiful. 

Looking at the importance of bodywork in beautifying practices is important because it shows us the less blatant pathways in which beauty as a social regime is present in our everyday practices. Yes, bodywork as a beautifying practice is less clear than, say, aestheticizing plastic surgery but I argue that it is precisely this veiledness that makes it so effective as part of the beauty regime. If social regimes outline the ways in which people are expected to behave, they also clearly demarcate what behavior is deemed inappropriate and even immoral. If fit bodies carry the status beliefs of discipline and control, what do non-fit bodies convey? This is a rhetorical question but I will answer it anyway. Status beliefs on bodies align with markers of social inequalities. Vandebroeck’s (2016) study on body perceptions in Belgium highlights how status beliefs around bodies are heavily influenced by perceptions on class. All survey takers perceived fat bodies as least favorable and associated this body type with lower classes, even if they themselves were members of these lower classes. And while men are increasingly affected by the beauty regime too, women are still held to much stricter beauty standards (Kuipers, 2015; Vandebroeck, 2016). The complexity of all these relations is very visible in the stereotype of the “welfare queen”, prominent mostly in the USA. This stereotypical imagery shows how easy it is to remove structural inequalities from the discourse that surrounds the classed, gendered and racialized body. Something that still happens frequently in the discourses around obesity, fatness and bodies (Vandebroeck, 2016). 

Indeed, if we look closely, the Basic Fit backpack tells us more than just that a lot of people go to the gym. It also tells us that a lot of people who have a gym subscription in Brussels tend to go for the cheapest gym option there is. I have often wondered if the backpack is a class symbol. Despite Belgium being one of the most egalitarian countries worldwide (Gender Equality Index, 2022), Brussels knows steep social inequalities (Kesteloot & Loopmans, 2009). While Brussels is home to a lot of big institutions that attract a vast amount of global elites, it also houses the poorest neighborhoods of Belgium. It seems an easy observation, the free backpack that people get in return for joining the cheapest gym in Belgium must be worn then only by people who cannot afford to go elsewhere.

But as often in Brussels, I find myself doubting something that would seem more obvious in Amsterdam, the city I left for Brussels. In Amsterdam, I am so sure, much less people would wear the backpack they received in return for a subscription at the cheapest gym on the market. It would be understood as a class symbol, something that indicated lower class-status, and that would be understood as something bad, something inappropriate. Here, I have seen people in suits and students leaving the university wearing the backpack. I see the backpack in my neighborhood, which is located in what the Brusselians call le croissant pauvre/de arme sikkel, the poorer part of Brussels, but I also see it when walking around Louise/Louiza, a chic shopping area in the Southern and richer part of Brussels. This is not to say that the backpack is used by as many upper (middle-) class people as lower (middle-) class people, which I doubt. But it does serve as an example of why Brussels is such an interesting place to study social regimes.

One of the big differences between Brussels and Amsterdam is its heterogeneity, or superdiversity (Vertovec, 2007). Brussels ranks as one of the most diverse cities worldwide, with over 170 nationalities represented among its residents and a significant 62% of the population having a migrational background (World Migration Rapport, 2015). But outside of nationality, race, ethnicity and language, there is also something else to Brussels that makes it feel as if it is home to a very diverse population. It seems as if, despite its spatial segregation, people mix more than in other European cities, at least on a street-level basis. While urban sociologist confirm that recent migration has changed the socio-economic demographics of Brussels neighborhoods (Deboosere et al., 2009), others point out that street-level based contact does not mean that real social mixing is taking place (Zamora & van Crieckingen, 2015). This fits within the broader critique often aimed at superdiversity as a concept: the presence of diversity does doesn’t negate the presence of a dominant group to which many minority groups must relate (Alba & Duyvendak, 2019; Foner et al., 2019).  

Perhaps the norms of social regimes are less set and less clearly demarcated in extremely heterogeneous settings. This is not to say that the beauty regime holds less power: on the contrary, if more people relate to different beauty ideas, it can be expected that people struggle over many different narratives that legitimize different beauty standards. So, while the Basic Fit-backpack does not clearly indicate class position, it can point us to many other things that signify social positions that are less obvious and less defined. This does not imply that the backpack cannot point us towards urban inequalities. It just means that we need to look harder to find out where the hegemonic power in Brussels is. What are the dominant groups to which others aspire? With social hierarchies becoming more and more complex and dependent on many different things (Currid-Halkett, 2018; Warde et al., 2007), Brussels seems like a good place to start. Brussels, with all its complexities, layers and nuances, challenges us to look more carefully, to go beyond the immediately visible and examine the intricate inequalities that people experience and (re-)produce in their everyday practices.

On the Reddit page r/Brussels, someone wonders: “Is Basic-fit a gym or just a backpack brand that also happens to run a gym?” Below the post, some redditors point out the ugliness of the backpack, mocking its color scheme, its clunky fit. However, most redditors are quick to come to its defense, praising the spaciousness and convenience of the bag. A “follow the thing” ethnography entails following a cultural object to help study processes in the capitalist world system (Marcus, 1995). For now, I cannot tell where the backpack will take me but I am curious to find out.

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