Inside the Awful Hell of Urban Sweat Lodges

by Guy Walker

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by Guy Walker

There’s no longer any need to exercise. The days of calloused gallantry are behind us; beauty, fitness, health—mere trifles to be acquired, like items on a grocery list that are quickly scribbled out. Modern city-dwelling man doesn’t need to step outside into the putrid stink of the real world to get the body he wants. He doesn’t even need to hold a downward dog in stretch pants as he simultaneously feeds himself large spoonfuls of granola. He can transform himself into a sinewed Herculean masterpiece merely by wrapping himself in a bed sheet of tinfoil and watching television. They call it “sweating”—the banal inactive act of doing absolutely nothing and still getting fit.

Probably the most prominent sweating establishment is Shape House—with four locations in the greater Los Angeles area, it is poised to spread across the country as the new way to get your body the way it was always meant to look. The business model is sensible enough: you pay $50 to lay on a massage table and cook your innards with what they call FAR infrared, which, as they define it, is a “radiant form of natural energy” that results in not just any normal sweat, but in an “intense, detoxifying, health-boosting sweat that helps you look and feel healthier, happier, and brighter.” A bit verbose, perhaps, and promising maybe more than seems reasonable; but in a way, you can’t blame them. We live in a culture of microwave dinners and pornography on demand—we want nothing more than for our most congenital desires to be met instantly, as well as all-inclusively. There was ephedra, the dietary supplement popular in the 90’s, which promised a fat-burning energy boost for body builders. There was 8 Minute Abs; or the electric ab belt. Today, there’s Soylent, the colorless powdered water that advertises itself as the “Food That Frees You,” rousing many to go on a Soylent-only diet. So it was only a matter of time until the phenomenon of instant microwavable fitness came to the front of New Age popularity.

This is the most opportune place and time to begin a trend like sweating. Los Angeles is a desert of silicone-festered boutiques, the streets crowded with swollen-lipped hominids that are begging desperately to be famous. In the 1970’s, people overran an ice cream parlor on Hollywood Boulevard because Marlon Brando frequented it, sometimes seen licking off globs from an ice cream cone in the privacy of his limousine. Countless people fly from the other side of the world to visit the Walk of Fame so they can take a picture with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator or step on the sticky gum-covered gold star of their favorite actor. Shape House knows the libidinal cajolery that celebrities have on us plebeians: they begin their informational video with pasted together clips of the Kardashians wrapped in the metal suits, or LL Cool J promoting it on Ellen. They know we can’t resist the idea—maybe I too will lay where Kim’s ass poured sweat.

I went to Shape House myself, of course, to see what it was like to burn 1200 calories by not lifting a finger. The grounds resembled a barren utopia: a few isolated cacti stood in an otherwise empty yard of rocks. The front door was bright orange against an otherwise gray and nondescript structure—the obvious scintillating portal to the perfect summer bod. There was no one at the front desk when I entered, but a folded notecard informed me they were “tucking in other clients” and would be right with me. The front lobby and waiting room were also orange—lit dimly with Ikea shade baskets wrapped around every lightbulb; semi-pornographic posters lined one wall—black-and-white photographs of anonymous sweat-dazzled bodies, each poster inscribed with “weight,” “fitness,” “life,” and other vaguely forward-looking profanities, the post-sex dew drops on their skin just titillating enough to convince you to get out your credit card. Eventually, a woman with a greased-up bun and gleaming white teeth greeted me. She smiled enthusiastically as she handed me a waiver to sign, forcing me to surrender to the possibility of a heart attack or stroke. The Shape House provides you an intense, health-boosting sweat that could also kill you—“please, follow me,” the nurse said.

I changed into the provided gray workout clothes, and finally got into bed, zipping the contraption up past my neck. There’s something intrinsically horrid and lonely about being rolled up in a sleeping bag of heated tin foil, your testicles suffocated and ablaze, your head propped up just enough to watch the latest episode of Fuller House. You paid $50 to just lay there and cook in your own pool of steamed alcoholic residue, clothed in pajamas that so many before you have soiled, trying not to think about your decades of squalor and waste that are now perspiring out of you. Yes, I did pay for this sordid humiliation, but I really didn’t—I laid there because I had to; it was the only reasonable thing left to do.

Shape House fancies itself as a quiet sanctuary in today’s arena of political and social chaos—a place to let go of all of your problems. The founder of Shape House, Sophie Chiche, said she wanted to create a space for people to “rejuvenate … have some me-time, and somehow recharge.” Its moody lighting and musky perfumes allow you to forget about the looming death spiral happening directly outside. We get the cathartic rejuvenation of sweating away the all-consuming problem of Reality.

After an hour of laying in a bag of my own filth, it was all over. The nurse hovered over me once more, smiled, then pulled off my headphones, and asked, “How was your sweat?!” A cloud of farts and steam billowed from my unzipped bag, and I was then directed to the Relax Room, where I was given an orange slice and a cup of tea. This was it. Sitting in a dark room with my knees pulled up to my chin, cupping a mug of chamomile tea with both hands, recovering from my sweat. I made it—the untraversed peak of evolution. The great white man emerges from his cocoon like a newly evolved species of butterfly. Where do we go from here, except deeper into limp insouciance of modern man?

These “urban sweat houses,” as Shape House calls itself, are an inevitable phenomenon of our culture’s celebration of laziness. We don’t want to do anything ever again, unless we can Instagram it. This is what Shape House was always meant for—to make us feel like we are part of a community of spiritual elitism—like a plastic shaman blessing you with incense, we’ll drink every kind of kool-aid we can get our hands on.

It’s obvious what Shape House wants in the end: a skyline of towering orange skyscrapers, each one inhabiting millions of FAR infrared bunkbeds. Everyone in the world will be zipped up like Chipotle burritos, streaming HBO for eternity, getting fitter than they’ve ever been in their life. Outside will be a barren wasteland of rocks and ashen fortresses; flying cars will whiz in and out between the buildings; and you’ll barely lean your head forward, taking another sip of the alkaline water as you turn up the volume, drowning out reality forever.


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