“There is comfort and joy in being part of a collective, in finding your tribe and making new friends”
I was 25 when I took out my first gym membership. Two things led me to filling out that direct debit form in the chlorine-scented reception of my local leisure centre: I’d gained a stone and a half, and separately had begun suffering from anxiety – palpitations, light-headedness, intrusive thoughts, the works. I’d read that exercise could help your mind as well as your body, so I bought a pair of trainers and walked the 15 minutes to the sports centre.
The gym floor was intimidating. As a teenager I’d gone a handful of times with my friend, but we stuck to the treadmill and step machine, keeping a wide berth from the scary-looking torture devices and the grunting beefcakes who occupied them. Later, for a brief spell I joined my mum and aunt swimming at the local baths, keeping up with their gentle breaststroke on Wednesday nights, but then I moved 250 miles away.
I’ve always hated exercise. In secondary school, I even signed up for voluntary community service during PE lessons. While everyone else panted around the AstroTurf, I cleaned windows, hoovered and washed up for an elderly woman named Dorothy before sitting down with her for a cup of tea and a Galaxy cake bar. Basically, I have to exercise under duress. I decided that group classes were the only way I’d commit to an hour of exertion, because to leave would be too embarrassing.
The first class I did on a cold Saturday that spring was total body conditioning, which sounded intense but, the receptionist insisted, was a beginners-level aerobics class. Walking into the mirrored studio, I found around 20 women of all ages stood around chatting. I took a place at the back. An hour later I left with a spring in my step. I was invigorated; blood was pounding around my body, and my mood soared.
I went the next week, and began booking more classes – box fit, abs, functional circuits – dragging myself out of bed before dawn, washing three gym kits a week. I began to see the same faces – all women, most of them older than me. Then I began looking for those faces, and feeling a little jolt of relief when I saw someone I knew on the gym floor. There’s solidarity to working out collectively, in the groans and the giggles as you flop exhausted on to your mat. We knew almost nothing about each other – we didn’t talk about work, or our relationship status, or weekend plans. We were just there to sweat.
Friendships were formed, and now I see these women’s faces all the time in the little pocket of south-east London where I live. My boxing partner works in the card shop on the high street. Others I’ll bump into crouching over daffodils at the flower shop, or on the train platform. Sitting in the living room of one gym friend over a glass of wine, I noticed a glimmer of gold on the shelf.
“Is that a BAFTA?!” I asked incredulously. It was. I knew almost nothing about her job, because our careers weren’t a cornerstone of our friendship.
I don’t go to the gym any more – my mental health got better and I lost the weight. But those female classes – of which men could of course join, yet rarely did – are what got me through quite a difficult time in my life.
Two years ago, I began writing my novel The Familiars, which is a fictional retelling of the Pendle witch trials of 1612. The strongest theme in the story is female friendship – it follows a young noblewoman, Fleetwood, who is desperate for a baby, and her midwife Alice, who is accused of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. Female friendship is one of the strongest themes of my life, so it made sense to me to set up a writing group with two women I knew who were also writing books. We all knew each other professionally, working as journalists, and wrote fiction in our spare time.
That first meeting, at a wine bar a stone’s throw from my office, was as invigorating as that total body conditioning class. In the past two years we’ve shared ideas, read each other’s work and offered advice. We’ve worked through difficult plot points together, and celebrated with endless bottles of fizz when one, then two, then all three of us got book deals. Now there are five of us in the group, and I’m not being sentimental when I say my writing is what it is because of them.
From NCT classes to book clubs, there lies a unique power in female groups. Studies have shown that women participate more actively and feel less anxious when they are able to work in small groups or ‘microenvironments’ that are mostly female. And with statistics revealing that over nine million people in the UK are always or often lonely, joining a group, whether it’s aqua fit, a coffee morning or a local committee, can go a long way towards combating that. Nobody likes to feel like the new girl, but you’re only the new girl once.
Finding a shared passion with strangers can be immensely refreshing – there’s no history, no in-jokes, and you don’t have to fall into your usual trope of characteristics: the funny friend, the caring daughter. There is comfort and joy in being part of a collective, in finding your tribe and making new friends. In practising your right hook with the lady from the card shop.
In Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy, the lonely young character Marcus says: “Two people isn’t enough. You need backup. If there are only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.”
If writing a novel has taught me anything, it’s that three – or five – heads are better than one. So many things in life are a team effort, and creative processes don’t have to happen in isolation. If you can’t find a group, make one. It might just be the best thing you ever did.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls is out now (Zaffre, £12.99)