Blame it On the Media: The child’s desire to acquire

It is 7:30 on a Thursday night and two-year-old JT Helfrich is being dressed for bed by his mother Ginger, as her husband Joe helps their daughter Molly, 4, brush her teeth. The highlight of JT’s nighttime ritual is picking out his pajamas, a majority of which feature the popular animation character Lightning McQueen, the candy apple red race car from the Walt Disney-Pixar movie series, “Cars.” Tonight JT was insistent he put on the oversized “Cars” themed boxer briefs gifted prematurely by his Grandma, but he has yet to be potty-trained.

“I need Ka-chow!” JT says. “I need him! I NEED him! Ka-chow!” He insisted on wearing the briefs with the image of Lightning McQueen, whom he refers to as “Ka-chow,” to bed.

“JT, you simply want to wear Grandma’s present but you don’t need these until you’re a bit older and can use the potty,” Ginger says.

The concept of “wants vs. needs” can be an abstract one for a two-year-old to grasp, but JT’s whining and tears subside as he directs his attention to an episode of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” The boxers fiasco was forgotten, but JT’s infatuation with “Ka-Chow” remains strong as he is tucked into his crib with an oversized stuffed version of Olaf, the snowman character from the latest Disney animation sensation, “Frozen.”

“He loves to wear and use things that have the characters associated with what he has watched on them,” Ginger explains from the kitchen of their home in Northwest, Washington, DC.

A 2011 report conducted by the Sesame Workshop on digital media habits revealed that children ages eight to 18 are exposed to media for 10 hours 45 minutes a day. Statistics on media consumption will likely illustrate exponential increase, as populations young and old turn to media-based technology as their primary source for entertainment and information. Whether we like it or not, the media we absorb (movies, TV shows, advertisements online, video games, phone use/ mobile apps) influence our interests. As the media inundates the life of the consumer, the American consumer culture evolves to take advantage of those interests. Psychologists say high media consumption could correlate to issues in child development as it could skew that child’s understanding of differentiating wants versus needs and can lead to behavior health issues in adolescents when that so-called “need” is not met.

The interests of children as young as JT and Molly Helfrich are being influenced by what they absorb and observe from the media, their peers and within their family unit. Products inspired by cinematic media such as the “Cars” franchise are marketed by the American advertising industry, known as “Madison Avenue,” to satiate the “wants” marketers influenced their target child market to identify as a “need.”

“We try to discourage as much media as possible, but we are realists about it,” Ginger says.

While media influence extends beyond children and adolescents, the younger demographics are unique. JT and Molly’s generations are among the first to grow up with digital technology and media as a preexisting, prominent feature in their lives. In contrast to the Helfrich’s plan to limit their children’s media consumption, many American families choose to use the television or other media source as a kind of babysitter.

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s “Social Learning Theory” explains the phenomenon of “modeling” through his “Bobo Doll Experiment.” The theory helps explain the influence of media on a child because they learn so quickly through observation. Put simply: when a child sees something in media form, they will most likely copy it. This leaves their child vulnerable to hours of unsupervised screen time, which can be detrimental to their behavioral development as they observe, learn and proceed to model what they see.

Dr. Nicholas Aradi, a psychologist based in South Florida, shared his perspectives on how the media could affect a child’s understanding of wants and needs, by drawing from experiences as a grade-school psychologist and as a private counselor.

“As we get older and we are more exposed to the world, we are getting more bombarded by the outside world and especially today with a heavy dose of media, computer, Internet, et cetera,” Dr. Aradi said.

He mentioned how positive things can come from media exposure including media literacy, which has become a requirement for professional success in our increasingly technological society. Dr. Aradi’s perspective is also supported by critical theorist Douglas Kellner’s cultural studies approach to understanding the effects of the media on society. Through this approach, Kellner identifies how media influences our values by shaping our feelings about society and ourselves.

“The gaining of critical media literacy is an important resource for individuals and citizens in learning how to cope with a seductive cultural environment,” Kellner said in his article on this media effects theory. “[Cultural studies] enables individuals to resist media manipulation and to increase their freedom and individuality.”

Kellner’s ideas help reshape the stigmas associated with media, as he calls upon society to understand its potential negative effects of the media. He insists we have the power to glean what we wish from media with a critical eye. The way the Helfrich family sees it, JT and Molly are too young to understand that what they are developing interests in are commercial in nature, but they don’t deny they are being influenced.

“If a two, three, or four-year-old is out in the world, they’re seeing stuff—they’re seeing dazzling, interesting, stimulating stuff and I think they’re being affected by it,” Dr. Aradi said. “There is that downside of getting bombarded with advertising—creating needs for them that they otherwise would not have been exposed to.”

As humans, we have basic physiological needs for air, water, food and shelter that we cannot survive without. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his “Hierarchy of Needs,” which illustrates the human’s innate prioritization of their needs. Only after someone’s physiological needs are met, can that person concern themselves with an array of less critical needs to achieve the highest sense of “self” Maslow refers to as “self-actualization.” In modern society, children develop an understanding of what they need versus what they want through social learning from their family units.

“As we get older, I think we learn to desire and want things,” Dr. Aradi said. “A lot of that learning initially happens within the family in terms of what we are seeing, what is being modeled, what our parents tell us are things that are important and necessary.”

How a child goes about asking, waiting for or expecting to be gratified by a material thing is situational and dependent on the how they were raised. While Joe and Ginger may not witness the effects of media consumption now or ever within their children as they mature, they know these negative effects exist.

In a dissertation titled “I Want It Now: Do New Media Affect Ability to Delay Gratification?” author Thomas L. Meade analyzes how media use can cause deleterious effects on how we grow and develop.

“The youngest generation of today is growing up with unlimited access. This is the only world they know,” Meade writes. “The development of the Internet follows a trend of human behavior. We, as humans, strive for instantaneous gratification.”

JT wants everything to do with Lightning McQueen and Molly is enthralled by “Frozen,” just as their mother yearned for a Cabbage Patch Kid as a child. However, the instantaneous nature of technological media today has altered a child’s ability to comprehend the concept of delayed gratification.

“We will try to help them realize that it is not a bad thing if you want something, but you have to work to earn it,” Ginger says. “It is better to not be pacified at their ages, as frustrating as it is.”

Media can be seen as problematic in child development as media consumption conditions users to expect instant gratification of their “needs.” For instance, Ginger mentions her children do not understand the concept of waiting for a commercial break, because all of their shows are recorded. When a child is constantly placated by a parent with whatever they ask for, or by the click of a computer mouse, it could affect their ability to cope when their expectations for a reward or material good are not met.

Increased use and absorption of media could take advantage of a child’s vulnerability to associate a “want” as a “need,” therefore urging them to desire more and consume more. In an article titled “The development of a child into a consumer” authors Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor identify the stages of development a child goes through to become an educated, capable consumer. A huge gap exists from the cradle to the “developed consumer” age of 12, where a child is vulnerable to misunderstanding advertisements and marketing tactics overtaking children immersed in this media blitz.

“There is so much more out there, so much more that you are supposed to have, or should have, to be pretty, happy, popular,” Dr. Aradi said. “It becomes a sort of insatiable drive to get this stuff, and people know that no matter what they have, they want more and are less satisfied because there is so much more to have.”

The Helfriches admit it will not be easy to encourage healthy, goal-oriented consumer practices for their children and teach them to differentiate between wants and needs. Dr. Aradi noted that the individual’s ability to distinguish between wants and needs is varied. One might think that the older you get, the more you grasp the concept, however he has worked with young adolescents who are able to identify their needs as irrational, while older 18-year-olds exhibit lower levels of cognitive and emotional maturity.

“[Some individuals] can convince themselves and say ‘I need this, I’m going to be very, very unhappy without it,’” Dr. Aradi said. “To some extremes, teenage kids in particular who can be impulsive at times, can do very drastic things like threaten suicide or commit suicide if they don’t get what they want.”

Today we see an increase in marketers and advertisers siphoning off of media creations such as movies and television shows by targeting a given consumer audience to purchase their slew of related products. Children who are categorized as “underdeveloped consumers” are being conditioned by the advertisements to think they “need to buy this accessory” to play a character seen in a movie, when they could just use their imagination for free.

“I think Madison Avenue has gotten very good to let us know, or subconsciously or consciously communicate to us, that we need to have these things,” Dr. Aradi said. “They really are not necessities as much as desires, wants as opposed to needs.”

Kellner said the media has the power to shape us. Therefore a child like JT, whose desires stem from media content could be met with a purchase of products related to what he saw in that movie, advertised on TV, in stores, or owned by his friends. The Helfriches reflect on this concept of media influence with their own childhood experiences, contrasting their upbringing in a working class family with what they are able to offer their children today.

“That same desire is there [in our kids],” Ginger said. “We both came from working class families where the money wasn’t there to provide those things. The understanding of trying to earn money was present.”

Joe and Ginger have already implemented a system to structure their children’s understanding of wants, needs and the concept of delayed gratification. For now, the Helfriches maintain the peace when their children request for material products by mentioning time-oriented phrases that communicate waiting for their request or reward.

“[We hope to convey that] it is not a sense of entitlement that you get things,” Ginger says. “Molly and JT are too young to understand that right now, but we tie in this idea of ‘Wait for grandma to come’ or ‘Ask Santa Claus’ for something you really want.”

So why should we worry about the future of America’s first generations of children growing up surrounded by media? Extensive media use could correlate with behavior issues later on, or even give rise to mental health issues with self-esteem and even depression.

I think [media use] makes people less deep, less concerned about what really matters,” Dr. Aradi said. “Which in my opinion is: relationships, ethics, the environment—things that don’t have to do with acquiring material things, acquiring money.”

This greater desire to a acquire could prove detrimental to our future generations. The Helfriches go against the grain of most  young media-consuming families, as they understand and insist there is a balance between what you give a child instantaneously and what you have them wait for—like JT’s coming-of-age to use his “Ka-Chow” boxers.

“There is so much more media, more modes of media, more products out there today,” Dr. Aradi said. “There is greater greed, greater desire to accumulate, there’s greater emphasis on materialism and I think it leaves many people—kids in particular—feeling less satisfied.”

Written during the spring 2015 semester for Professor Margot Susca’s “Communication, Youth and the Digital Culture” course at American University.


Two Weeks with the Flame-Fighters

Written and photographed by Bailey Edelstein

A series of images detailing Station 3 of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department in downtown Rockville, Maryland.

(Hover cursor over photos to view captions and click on the image to enlarge.)

“Guy” Gruber: a Jack of All Trades

by Bailey Edelstein

Jack Gruber walks through the lobby wearing jeans, a button down and a tie as he cuts through shadows cast from the early afternoon light pouring through the windows of the USA Today headquarters in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Gruber never wears a tie; but he just returned from photographing the Slovenian ambassador to the United States. Last February, instead of a tie, his garb consisted of multiple winter layers while covering his eighth Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. A few years prior in Iraq, he wore a bulletproof vest while photographing Operation Iraqi Freedom as an embedded photojournalist—definitely no tie here. In the elevator, he adjusts the unfamiliar knot around his neck and the doors open to a sea of cubicles that is the USA Today newsroom, which has served as Gruber’s home base since 2000.

USA Today lobby in Tysons Corner, VA. Photo by Bailey Edelstein
USA Today lobby in Tysons Corner, VA.
Photo by Bailey Edelstein

“There are people I’ve stumbled across and made pictures of that, somehow, helped them and their lives,” says Gruber, 48, who smiles at a colleague, gesturing as they walk past to the uncommon accessory around his neck. “Whether it was in Marshall, Missouri or Banda Aceh, Indonesia, I can honestly say that the pictures that have appeared in the paper, have been seen by people and have helped those families or individuals I photographed. I think that’s the most important thing a photojournalist does: inform and honestly show what’s out there, and what’s going on in the world and our lives.”

Gruber’s first job interview was at the Daily Advocate in Greenville, Ohio when he was sixteen. He was tossed a roll of film and told to develop it. Without prior knowledge of anything photo, he managed to process the film by following instructions on the darkroom walls. Since that first reel of film, Gruber began his career in visual communication whether he knew it or not. His frame of mind and approach to photography are what opened the doors to USA Today and developed the respect he receives from the photojournalism community.

“The great photojournalists, the ones I admire the most, are the ones who are themselves. They are genuine people. You feel their genuine understanding,” says Gruber as he takes a thoughtful sip of his Diet Coke. “Their job is to tell your story and they want to do it in a way that is honest and meaningful to you. Doing it in a way that is not going to hurt or demean you.”

Fires, catastrophes, world events or Olympics, you name it—“Guy” Gruber is there. But he’s the fly on the wall that goes unseen, blending into any landscape. He is careful not to obstruct the natural flow of the environment he is observing through his lens. With the slightest pressure applied from his index finger to the camera shutter, it snaps closed, letting in a fraction of a second of the light, action and emotion that surrounds his subject. The pivotal moment is captured and likely published in the morning paper in color, on the front page, above the fold.

“Say you’re going to an election night and you introduce yourself to the PR folks, or whoever is running it,” says Gruber who currently shoots with a Nikon digital camera. “They see the picture in the paper the next day and they’re like ‘Whoa that’s a nice picture. Who was that guy that was here? Where was he? How did he get that?’” illustrating the alter ego his colleagues refer to as “Guy.”

The nickname “Guy Gruber” was devised at his first internship in Muskegon, Michigan at the Muskegon Chronicle. It stuck and spread among the tight-knit photojournalist community and today, it’s also his Twitter username. If Gruber’s college roommate and longtime friend, Grover Sanschagrin saw him today, he says his camera would be at his side, he’d have a smile on his face, and would always have the right thing to say at the right time to put you at ease. “That’s Jack,” says Sanschagrin, who is also a photographer and the founder of PhotoShelter, a hub for professional photographers to share their work with the world.

“He likes to joke that he is ‘the man behind the man behind the man,’ but to me he’s just ‘the man,’” Sanschagrin says, lending a further description to the elusive “Guy Gruber” character.

A model for photojournalism ethics, Gruber does not need a checklist to be sure he’s doing the right thing—it’s in his nature. He knows to approach sensitive assignments like photographing a 13-month-old with spinal muscular atrophy.

“You have to look at every subject that you photograph as yourself and ask, ‘Would I want to be treated this way?’” Gruber says.

For a model of human compassion in visual storytelling, Gruber looks to photographer Todd Heisler, a photojournalist based at the New York Times. Heisler is known for his Pulitzer Prize winning series, “A Final Salute,” which shares the story of a fallen marine’s grieving wife and the heart wrenching days leading up to his funeral. Similar to Heisler, Gruber’s approach to sensitive assignments and his “no tie kind of guy,” genuine personality, are what foster his aptitude for visual storytelling no matter the subject or situation.

“If you met this guy [Heisler] and he came to your house to take your picture, you would instantly become friends with him—he’s just the nicest guy. It’s a great thing, being a nice person. You find that people open up to you that way,” Gruber says. “You feel their genuine understanding. Their job is to tell your story and they want to do it in a way that is honest and meaningful to you.”

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Whether he’s on assignment or building a shed for his home in Falls Church, Virginia where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their children Maddie, 6, and Wade, 3, Gruber never does anything halfway. His shed won’t be just four walls and roof, it will be state-of-the-art.

“I don’t build just a shed. It’s not going to be done practical, it’s going to be done perfect. Beautiful, like a work of art,” Gruber says of the shed he built, that should have been 8×10 feet, but is now 9×20 feet with cedar shake and two entrances.

Gruber’s “go-getter” attitude stems from his college years of 1984 to 1989. Sanschagrin recalls that while other students were nursing hangovers, they would be working their weekends at newspapers. They never stopped shooting pictures, determined to learn and grow through their application of the craft. Nowadays, the way Gruber builds his sheds is similar to the way he approaches the photos he makes—as if each were the opportunity for a Pulitzer.

“Everywhere I go, every assignment I get, I see as ‘the big story,’” says Gruber. “I don’t see anything different between photographing the ambassador of Slovenia this morning to photographing the President of the United States—it’s all the same.”

Gruber would similarly photograph his small hometown of Pitsburg, Ohio, where the nearest department store was 45 minutes away and the high school graduating class had 47 students. He grew up in a family of four consisting of himself, his older sister, mother and his father who worked at General Motors. College wasn’t on the minds of many in Pitsburg, but Gruber knew he wanted to expand his horizons farther than the farming community he loved. During his first year at Ohio State University, he thought he would go into medicine but found himself working weekends at a newspaper. He transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology where he met other aspiring photojournalists and they determined their move was Ohio University in Athens, to study visual communication.

“We jumped in a car and drove down to Athens, Ohio and talked to the legendary Chuck Scott and the guys there in the field who created photojournalism as we know it,” says Gruber. “They looked at us and said, “You’re in, you’re in, and you’re in!””

Gruber went on to win the 1989 Hearst Photojournalism Competition, a contest that selects three of the top student photojournalists and sends them on a shoot-off in San Francisco. One of the finalists was a good friend of his and Gruber recalls feeling devastated because he didn’t like to see the others loose. The competition didn’t open up as many doors as he hoped, but Gruber found an internship in Kentucky that led to a more promising opportunity at a small paper in Flint, Michigan called the Flint Journal.

“So they told me ‘We know who you are, we know your work. This is a good news town and you’ll enjoy it,’” Gruber says. “I thought ‘Yeah whatever, I’ll be there a year,’ but I ended up staying for five. For a photojournalist, the town was gold.”

After he had his run in Flint, Gruber headed to the higher-profile Detroit News in 1994 as a staff photographer covering news and feature stories, the Detroit Lions’ football season and also helped cover the Detroit Red Wings beat during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was at the Detroit News where he met Daniel Mears, who is still a staff photographer at the paper today. They trekked across the country together, embracing the work they made at the cost of what Mears described as an “in over our heads” mentality.

“Jack is so good at photography, I don’t think he even needs a camera anymore,” said Mears. Gruber is a master of the craft and too humble to admit it.

A few years later, Gruber took a pay cut and relocated, only to strike another photographic gold mine at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. In just seven months, the portfolio of work he made in Memphis attracted the attention of the editors at USA Today. The start of Gruber’s career there began somewhat like a camera placed on the “continuous shutter” setting.

“I came back [to the office] and was doing some orientation, then they gave me my gear and said, ‘Oh by the way, you have some underwater gear so go over [to this country club in McLean, Virginia] and shoot some of these new Olympic swimsuits that athletes will be wearing,”” says Gruber of his first assignment. “I was all set up with my cameras beside the pool and I grabbed one camera and went underwater—but it was one of the brand new $14,000 digital cameras—it wasn’t the one for the underwater housing unit. I came up and was like ‘What am I going to do?’ So I jumped into the water, shot three frames and said, ‘We’re done! See ya later, I’m outta here!’”

The photo was printed on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. Gruber says he doesn’t believe in getting a “lucky” shot, that timing and patience is everything. He put the broken camera aside and didn’t tell anyone what happened. Then, they sent him on a plane to Sydney to cover the summer Olympics. The following month, he was sent to the West Bank to cover the Intifada.

“I learned real fast how fun it could be and then how dangerous it could be,” Gruber says. “I got in over my head early on and it was great training for basically what I’ve done since 2000.”

USA TODAY photo by Jack Gruber
USA TODAY photo by Jack Gruber

The trip to the West Bank was the beginning of years of war coverage for Gruber, who says he’s been to Afghanistan around 16 to 18 times, but lost count. This time, he was “Guy” the fly on the wall of a Humvee in Iraq, serving as one of the first embedded reporters as he trekked along with the U.S. Army’s Task Force 3-69 across the Kuwait border.

“I vividly remember Capt. Dan Hibner jumping from the armored troop carrier we were riding down to the ground, into the darkness and into battle, yelling at me, ‘Are you with me or not?’” says Gruber. “I think this was the question he and I both were wondering. How far was this embedded photographer willing to go?”

The bullets went flying past him, as explosions flared up in the distance. Gruber knew he had a job to do for the soldiers and for himself. He was introduced to the realities of war and death on these assignments. One of his most vivid memories was when a vehicle with journalist Michael Kelly and Sergeant Wilbert Davis was caught in an ambush. Both Kelly and the Sergeant were killed in the accident.

“Jack is a consummate professional, never intrusive, yet with an impressive capability to “tell the story” through his camera lens,” comments Lt. Col. Michael Slack on Gruber’s LinkedIn profile of the experience working with him as an embedded photojournalist. “You can order a soldier to bring a reporter on a mission, but Jack earned the respect of the soldiers to be there—invisibly, if that makes sense. Perhaps that attests to why his photos are so very, very good.”

“Guy Gruber” is still in active duty working for USA Today, but in recent years, funds for extensive travel budgets witnessed significant cuts and Gruber receives fewer international assignments. He is currently developing his non-profit organization called Boyd’s Station, which is based in Kentucky and scheduled to launch next year. Their mission is to provide artists with “a rural and serene environment to “live free and create.” The non-profit’s “Art+Live” program offers free studio spaces for professional visual and literary artists after an extensive portfolio review.

“Being with Jack at his family farm in Kentucky is where you get to see him at his purest self, away from the constant demands of work and the newspaper industry,” says Sanschagrin. “It’s been a goal of his to expose more people to that farm, and to use it to give back to the photography community. It’s nice to see that this goal is coming true.”

Late afternoon in the lobby of USA Today is a sight to capture on camera. The lighting has shifted, so now it’s peeking through the steps of a suspension staircase near the main entrance. News Photo Editor Jud McCrehin walks past Gruber in the lobby corridor saying, “What are you doin’? You got a tie on!” The accessory seems to obstruct the usual “Super Photojournalist” guise of Jack “Guy” Gruber, while highlighting his work ethic.

“The one thing I operate with every day is: ‘Just work hard,’” Gruber says. “There’s important things to this—it’s a responsibility.”

Pure Bliss at the Barre

by Bailey Edelstein

October 2014

After their first 55-minute session at Pure Barre, they’re already addicts. They come back for more each week and sometimes every day to get their fix of the most unusual elixir, which guarantees they’ll leave happier than when they walked in the door. The instructor’s arms were immaculate, sculpted in all the right places. Her posture was flawless and her body was graceful, like a ballerina. She encouraged the class’ goal to get through 55-minutes and come out feeling stronger and toned—and all 18 of them did.

“I was hooked on Pure Barre after my first class. I walked out of there feeling cleansed,” says Kerri Knippenberg, a barre-goer since April 2014 and varsity athlete at American University. “My feeling of rejuvenation lasted all day long! Plus, I wasn’t that sweaty when I left class.”

Women of all shapes, ages and sizes are headed to this fitness mecca called Pure Barre. It’s an exercise studio that facilitates a more healthful means of mental release than a five o’clock Corona. Pure Barre uses unique moves such as the “tuck,” where you make small thrusts with your hips to engage and tone the abs. Other creative terminology includes reference to the “Pure Barre ledge,” which pinpoints the space where your rear meets the back of your thighs. Instead of leaning on a grimy bar counter after work with friends, Pure Barre clients choose to rest their forearms on a ballet barre, a key tool used in this unique full-body workout.

Founded in 2001 by the Chief Concept Officer, Carrie Dorr, Pure Barre’s low-intensity, formulaic routines that yield high results are transforming bodies and enhancing the lives of women across the United States. Pure Barre is far-reaching and in high demand. According to an interview with BusinessWire, Pure Barre’s Chief Executive Officer, Sloan Evans, revealed that February 2014 marked a company-wide celebration of 200 studios open in 38 states.

Pure Barre
Demonstrated above is the “tuck,” a movement central to Pure Barre technique. Photo courtesy of Pure Barre

“It is an extremely exciting time for everyone in the Pure Barre family,” Evans said. “We have an amazing group of franchisees who exude passion for the Pure Barre brand and work tirelessly to provide an exceptional Pure Barre experience to clients in their studios each and every day.”

The franchise recently expanded to the DC-Metropolitan areas in the spring of 2014, when locals began toning their six-packs at the barre, not drinking them there. The co-owners of the Arlington, Alexandria and Bethesda Pure Barre locations are Katie Shearin Chaffee and Mary-Beth Coleman. Chaffee is surely a walking advertisement for her local studios and Pure Barre at large. Her strong, lean figure visually boasts the company’s motto “Lift. Tone. Burn,” urging women to ask what her secret is. In a charming North Carolinian accent you could listen to for hours, Chaffee distinguishes Pure Barre philosophy from a rudimentary Pilates or yoga class.

“I tend to veer away from saying it’s a mix of Pilates, yoga and ballet, because to me it is its own thing, not a hybrid of a lot of things,” says Chaffee, a tall, blond, young woman in her 20s with a ballerina-build. “The whole concept of making small isometric movements is really unique to Pure Barre, as it focuses on smaller muscles to develop larger muscles. Lengthening your body through stretching.”

When you arrive for class at Pure Barre, you check in with the “barre-tender,” remove your sneakers (Pure Barre is a no-shoe zone) and head into the studio. It is a rectangular, grey, carpeted room, with a ballet-barre lining three-quarters of the walls. The studio is strictly used for class purposes; to prevent clutter, personal items are stored in a separate cubby-space at the facility. Pure Barre only uses small lightweight red balls and red stretching bands to conduct their workouts. Upon your first visit, you may doubt that such minimal equipment would prove to be as gratifying as your usual gym routine.

“Do they have any eight or 12-pound weights?” a newcomer asks, scanning the sets labeled only two or three pounds. “Trust me,” the woman says as she leans in as if to tell a secret, “you’ll probably choose to put down your weights half-way through the arms section.”

Skeptical, she took a seat Indian-style on the floor among the other participants. Some are decked-out in Lululemon’s latest gear and others are wearing Splits59, a clothing line designed specifically for Pure Barre classes. Music pumps through the speakers, filling the studio with upbeat tunes to help motivate clients. Positioned around the room are mothers, college students, and a pregnant woman, ladies who are fit and others who are severely out of shape. The class begins as the instructor cranks up the music and chimes, “The next 55 minutes are all about you!” They begin the warm-up, followed by a section targeting the arms. As they fatigue their muscles with small two-inch movements of the hand weights some thought wouldn’t be heavy enough, the clients’ arms begin to feel like Jell-O as they migrate from triceps to biceps. There are no breaks, so you don’t have the chance to quit even if you wanted to.

“You know you’re doing three thigh exercises and you know you’re going to do two seat exercises [which work your rear],” Chaffee says. “So you can push yourself to that limit each time, looking forward to stretching it all out afterwards.”

Moving on to thighs with one hand on the barre for stability, the class lowers their bodies into a deep ballet-inspired squat while on tiptoes. The body of a woman across the room is shaking uncontrollably. Other bodies begin to convulse too. It’s all part of the exercise and everyone is silently agonizing. “Shaking means changing! Shaking is good!” the instructor says. Encouraged, the whole class melts deeper into the position, embracing this love-hate relationship with the pain.

“The class requires so much focus that it requires you to block life out for an hour. You can’t be thinking about what you’re cooking for dinner tonight, or the email your boss just sent you, or the fight you had with your boyfriend,” says Chaffee. “By the end of the class you’ve had that time to make it all about you.”

It all began in 2001, when Dorr opened her first Pure Barre studio in Birmingham, Michigan. “It was a tiny space in the basement of a building with no sign and a shoestring budget. I had no idea what I was doing,” Dorr said during an interview with the Huffington Post for an article titled, “7 Sizzling Entrepreneurs Under 40.” The business was taking off by 2009, gaining popularity through word of mouth and the physical results shown by Pure Barre’s first patrons. Then, Dorr turned her company into a franchise and began granting locations to women with business acumen who were passionate about Pure Barre technique. It was 2012 when Katie Shearin Chaffee first met Dorr and applied to run her own studio. Soon thereafter, a private investment firm took over the company’s business aspects to help facilitate its rapid expansion. They established their headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina and Dorr continued to innovate the Pure Barre technique.

In 2010, Pure Barre was featured in an issue of Women’s Health magazine, where Dorr describes the technique as “an athletic approach to dance and Pilates.” The company’s DVD series, highlighted in Health magazine’s article, “8 Workout DVDs You Need to Try Now,” are for sale on their corporate website and can take you through complete Pure Barre routines from your living room.

The latest promotions for any given Pure Barre studio can be found on their individual social media accounts. Barre-goers can stay connected to their local studio communities through monthly e-newsletters or through Facebook, where each franchise shares posts for their local clientele. You can also follow their Instagram feeds for daily motivation. A recent post from the Pure Barre Bethesda account reads, “Your legs are not giving out. Your head is giving up. Keep going.” Pure Barre is a no-quitting zone where the instructors push you to stay in the positions that are most difficult, so you see results faster. The photo is captioned: “Focus on holding the movement and pushing yourself past the point of ‘I can’t’—your body will thank you in the end.”

Photo courtesy of Pure Barre Bethesda  A 6AM class at Pure Barre Bethesda demonstrates the abs exercise described at left in the article.
Photo courtesy of Pure Barre Bethesda
A 6AM class at Pure Barre Bethesda demonstrates the abs exercise described at left in the article.

The class is sitting now with their backs against the wall, cushioned by red mats for the abs section of class. Hands are above the head in a diamond shape, forearms pressing against the barre with fingertips floating freely above. The act of pressing remarkably stimulates the abdominals in a way never experienced before. The instructor verbally illustrates how the muscles are igniting, as a burning sensation races up and down the obliques. The class begins to lift their legs, which are also in a diamond shape out in front, just two inches off the floor. These small movements are communicating with the abs to sculpt that stubborn area of the lower belly. No description does justice to painting a mental-image of this contortionist act.

“After class clients say, ‘Wow that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done!’” Chaffee says. “You’re using your own weight to shape your body. It’s similar to Pilates and yoga in that way, but its different in that it’s really intense. It’s fast paced, yet low-impact.”

Unlike workout studios with different styles of classes, or multiple levels of cycling and yoga, Pure Barre has only one class-type and no levels. As a religious barre-goer, 20-year-old Ali Danziger shares that the client can customize each class by choosing their own level of intensity.

“Having a neutral, unleveled class system helps you go off what you’re feeling that particular day and gauge how hard you’ll make your body work,” Danziger says. “I always leave feeling more energized and yearning for another round.”

As the class files out of the studio, Danziger routinely puts away her ball, mat and tube. Looking at Danziger’s crystal-blue eyes, framed by the stray brown hairs that escaped from her ponytail mid-workout, you would never notice that she suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy. Her condition causes occasional discomfort, as it restricts the movements in the right side of her body, but Danziger emphasizes it is always her priority to stay fit. Since she started Pure Barre three months ago, she notices significant changes.

“Pure Barre has acted as my therapy, loosening my muscles and helping improve my overall mobility,” Danziger says. “I enjoy exercising and I’m definitely seeing improvement with my body in terms of general toning, and an increase in my flexibility.”

Physical therapist Danielle Clare of D.C. Physiotherapy Associates lends perspective on Danziger’s success story and the general benefits of a low-impact exercise routine like Pure Barre. As a hiker, biker and runner, Clare frequently participates in sprint-triathlons and Tough Mudder competitions. This athletic background enables her to relate to patients, as well as demonstrate and explain their rehabilitation exercises in a more concise way.

“An individual’s main focus in a workout really depends on that person and what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Clare says. “A class like Pure Barre could be more beneficial [than other higher-intensity workouts] because it concentrates on maintaining proper form and posture. The instructors correct an individual’s form and focus on flexibility, toning, and strength.”

Classes are filled with varying age demographics. Older clients leave the barre with the same feelings of gratification as a “barre-goer” in their twenties. They are seeing results while keeping their joints protected, as there is zero impact involved.

“This [use of] proper technique and controlled movements could result in fewer injuries and in turn, be less strenuous and harmful to the body,” Clare says.

Now the class is migrating to the center of the floor for some final core work, which sparks an adrenaline rush similar to nearing a finish line. Clients glance toward the clock to see they only have a few more minutes to make their workout count. “Little down, little up,” the instructor says as she demonstrates the crunch-like exercise to the class, whose abdominal walls are pleading for a rest. They continue to power through, as beads of sweat form upon their upper lips. “10 more seconds! You can do anything for 10 seconds,” the instructor says. Then the music tempo decreases as the class-pace slows down. A few clients smile while releasing an exasperated sigh, and the final two minutes of class are spent on a meditational stretch sequence guided by the soothing voice of the instructor.

For Chaffee, Pure Barre has become more than the addictive, results-guaranteed workout she first discovered as a client in 2009 at a North Carolina studio. Now as the co-owner of multiple Pure Barre studios in this selective franchise, she says it’s the community-building aspect that hooked her from the beginning. With membership growing weekly, classes are reaching full-capacity days in advance as Pure Barre finds its way into the regular workout routines of women everywhere.

“Pure Barre makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than just going to work out. That really sets it apart,” Chaffee says. “For instance, when you just go to the gym, you hop on a treadmill, do your thing and then leave. Everyone can do Pure Barre, and people feel empowered when they come. That keeps people coming back.”

High Notes Along the High Line

New York, NY, 19 September 2014– A saxophonist plays a jazz medley of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the early afternoon shadows cast along High Line park. Located above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line is an architectural phenomenon constructed atop the ruins of an elevated 1930s freight rail line.

The old rail once transported meat, dairy and other products throughout Manhhattan’s industrial district. Now, it is a coveted strip of greenery for New Yorkers, who use this space as an escape from the city’s concrete jungle.

Photo by Bailey Edelstein
Photo by Bailey Edelstein