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A mockup of an ad for the Abdominizer. Sarah Lawrence for vox

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The retro piece of exercise equipment my parents couldn’t give up

In the era of Marie Kondo, it’s tempting to throw out objects that don’t “spark joy.” But one useless piece of plastic was a symbol of a life my parents were proud of building.

In the 1990s, when my family and I lived in the United Arab Emirates, a revolution of sorts came to our TV, all the way from Atlanta: CNN, which ushered in Larry King’s suspenders, grainy footage of the Gulf War, and a solemn-looking Wolf Blitzer as a soundtrack to the dinner table. But it also brought a bizarre invention to my 7-year-old life, through an infomercial: the Abdominizer.

I was no stranger to the lure of advertisements. My father worked in market research, so I sometimes got an early look at what was about to hit supermarkets — very exciting products like flavored puddings, not-so-exciting products like nonalcoholic beer.

And I was a sucker for anything advertised on TV, once dragging out all the towels in the house to recreate a fabric softener ad featuring a kid flopping onto a pile of fluffy towels. One of my most memorable tantrums as a child was in an ice cream shop — because the three scoops on my cone weren’t in the same order as in the display. (I maintain that this was a valid complaint.)

But the Abdominizer (sometimes styled “Abdomenizer”) ad was markedly different. For one, it was long and seemingly realistic, and instead of a gimmick or cutesy family scene, it was demonstrating something I’d never seen before, a way of exercising that seemed far from conventional. Of all the odd things we’d started seeing on CNN — from blonde bouffants to battlefield updates — this was the strangest.

The Abdominizer was a newfangled piece of exercise equipment, an electric blue contraption shaped like a rib cage that promised rock hard abs. The models in the infomercial used it effortlessly, “abdominizing” their way to a flat stomach by doing sit-ups with the contraption for support. It looked like a genius proposition. And then it came to stores and my father decided to get one in an attempt to reduce his belly fat.

It was the same Abdominizer, straight out of the television screen and now in our home. For the first few weeks, we admired the box. We showed it off to guests. We all tried out the Abdominizer for a few minutes. There were fleeting moments of gratification when the infomercial aired on TV and we’d drag it out to compare.

But its appeal faded almost instantly. My sister and I tried using it as a sled, an unsatisfying experience in a carpeted apartment. The Abdominizer was eventually shoved under a bed and moved with us from country to country. A few years later, my parents decided to move back to their native Pakistan, so off we went, to my grandmother’s home in Lahore, while our boxes and furniture went into storage. We then moved to the city of Karachi, and over the years, we’ve lived in a succession of apartments across the city, moving to limit commutes and expenses. The Abdominizer traveled with us everywhere, but it remained near-forgotten, unused and unloved.

As a teenager, when I started half-hearted attempts at diets and exercise, I’d remember the Abdominizer and drag it out from wherever it had been stored away, wipe off the dust, and use it for about five minutes before realizing it was actually unwieldy and awkward. The Abdominizer would be shoved back under a bed or in a closet along with the rest of the possessions my parents hoarded: a box with greeting cards from the year my sister and I were born, a bean bag chair that no one had used in years.

I don’t recall my parents ever using the Abdominizer in earnest, since they never really bought into the exercise fads of the 1980s and 1990s — stationary bikes, zero calorie drinks, Spandex — and the Abdominizer only ended up hurting my father’s back more than helping him do crunches.

My parents weren’t born consumerists; they grew up in austerity. It was years of living in the United Arab Emirates, a hub of consumerism, that instilled in them a love for malls and advertisements, and the kinds of things that might have looked alluring in an infomercial. They became glassy-eyed at department stores, bowled over by the merits of food processors and hand-held vacuum cleaners and Hallmark greeting cards.

They couldn’t afford to buy big-ticket items (although they could talk about them for ages). Instead, they bought smaller things: things like glass bowls, and decor pieces; things they would display with pride and painstakingly keep dust-free, but never replace in favor of other, trendier objects. My father, however, was and still is prone to making impulse, novelty purchases — which explains how the Abdominizer came to our home.

Decades later, most of their purchases have endured. My mother’s favorite mirrored tea cozy hasn’t disintegrated; the scale can’t measure body fat or make a smiley face but reliably tells one’s weight; and the fried-egg-shaped magnet still holds up on the fridge.

But these possessions don’t fill me with joy or nostalgia. I get angry every time I have to help my dad move and mark yet another box “GLASS DECORATIONS #5.” I vent to anyone who’ll listen about why they own more bowls than there are flavors of ice cream or the mystery of why my father was holding on to a beach umbrella when we hadn’t been on a picnic in two decades. I complain about their seemingly nonsensical purchases and laugh at how they were probably swayed by ads or persuasive salespeople.

I fear that I’ll turn into my parents: perpetually drawn to impulse buys, a woman consigned to live among boxes, facing a lifetime of lugging suitcases around the world. But even as I mock their choices, I’m sure the way I’m lured to shiny objects — glazed pottery, a hand towel with a stuffed bear face, vintage shirts sold by French girls on Instagram — is just as inane-sounding as anyone who’s bought something off an infomercial, and would seem incomprehensible to anyone viewing my browsing history a decade from now.

While I don’t roam around department stores lusting after wall clocks and food processors, my purchases are dictated by the relentless stream of images that dominate our smartphones and spaces, just like my parents bought into the displays on their televisions and department stores.

I like to believe that I’ve cured myself of most of my excesses, thanks to a conversion to the cult of Marie Kondo. But there is an unceasing barrage of new ideas in every sphere — Ugly sneakers! Barre! SoulCycle! Matcha! Spiralized vegetables! — that seem to change without warning. The internet instills a perpetual sense of FOMO for not signing up for a trend’s five-minute cycle of fame. If you’re not eating X thing or embracing Y wellness trend, do you even exist? Instead of late-night ads compelling me to just pick up that phone and order something “as seen on TV” now, there’s Amazon constantly reminding me of the one thing I clicked on that one time. Everything seems to scream out: “Pick me! Choose me! Love me!

But when my parents’ generation bought into things like the Abdominizer, they weren’t often just trying to get into the latest trend. Those possessions were their achievements: items that showed that they had built a new life and inculcated the taste to recognize these trends, that they had homes to decorate and acquaintances who would appreciate beaded curtains and tea cozies.

People like my parents who lived in the Middle East had seemingly aspirational lives: They were middle-class, they lived abroad and so by default must have had a better quality of life, and they had access to all kinds of products and services that had yet to make their way to their home countries. When they went back home to their families, they packed their suitcases with gifts, objects of consumerism and foreignness. They brought back their barely used Abdominizer, a symbol of a life where they could make purchases inspired by an infomercial.

Perhaps like my parents, I also want to show off how I have great taste in home decor, that I have achieved some sort of success, that my surroundings can resemble one of those beautiful store displays and picture-perfect ads where the towels are fluffy and the bowls are gleaming, that I have a life that seems aspirational: a writer who gets to travel and fill her home with bowls and rugs bought from interesting places. It’s only belatedly that one realizes that, much like the Abdominizer revealed, the real key to great abs or happiness might not be a plastic contraption, that these possessions don’t show the life-sapping rituals of work and the weeks and months between checks.

Marketers realize this too: which is why there’s now a glut of wellness and mindfulness products like fidget spinners and gravity blankets, as Rebecca Jennings pointed out in her piece on the rise of anxiety consumerism.

One of Mintel’s forecasted consumer trends for 2019 for Asia Pacific regions includes brand efforts to fight isolation. “Looking ahead, fighting the severity of isolation among consumers is an ethical goal brands can take up,” the market research company wrote in a press release. “By being a part of the solution for people’s needs, brands can contribute to the betterment of their lives, and thus, gain consumer loyalty. The time is ripe for brands to contribute to the mental wellbeing of today’s consumer.”

A few years ago, though, I finally said goodbye to the Abdominizer, convincing my father that it did not need to make yet another move to a new apartment. But even now — forgive me, Marie Kondo — when I do toss something out I increasingly think about whether I’m going to regret this in a few years when the trend is back in full force.

Everything on the internet these days seems to hark a revival of the 1990s trends I adopted the first time around: tattoo necklaces, scrunchies, Alice hairbands, even Troll dolls. I’m almost sure hair mascara is bound for a revival. The other day I walked past a Pull & Bear store and stopped in my tracks at the display: a T-shirt with an image of a Kodak camera reel, something that wasn’t even a cool T-shirt idea in the 1990s.

I can’t bring myself to Google the Abdominizer for fear that it’ll be on Goop. Did I toss out the secret to great abs? Is there a new version being mocked up somewhere in Brooklyn? I can hardly wait.

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