Physical is a three-season-long saga about a woman’s journey from being a self-sabotaging bulimic person to becoming a successful entrepreneur who could come to terms with herself and live her life on her terms.
Sheila Rubin is not that different from every woman that we see around us. She is a flawed person who does not like being married to Danny, a college professor turned environmental activist. Sheila comes across as a self-centered person in the beginning, whose inner voice constantly insults, humiliates, and practically dictates her life. Her inner voice, her bulimic episodes, and her extreme body issues have been a full-time part of her life since her teenage days. Sheila was a victim of molestation, which nobody in her family tried to help her deal with.
A grown-up Sheila is the mother of Maya, and she ends up spending most of their savings on booking rooms for herself to indulge in food and throw up. No one was aware of these bulimic episodes, including Danny. Sheila is fascinated by aerobics after attending one of Bunny’s classes. It was like love at first sight for her, and she couldn’t wait to explore this new form of exercise she had discovered. The wheels started churning the moment she realized these classes could be monetized. She spent enough time with the instructor, Bunny, and her boyfriend, Tyler, to understand the nuances of aerobics. Sheila, at this stage, is surrounded by people who do not get her urge to become a successful aerobics instructor. Since this is set in the early 1980s, it becomes easy to understand why women were never encouraged to take steps to make themselves feel confident.
Sheila soon understood why she could not find time for her passion. She ends up having to dedicate a lot of time to her husband’s election campaign instead of her training videos, and all that goes in vain. Danny loses the election against Mormon businessman John Breem. This loss finally shows the cracks in Sheila and Danny’s marriage, and there is no end to the frustration she feels because Danny does not support her endeavor. Sheila begins a torrid affair with John Breem because, for the first time, she feels desired by him.
In all the characteristics mentioned about Sheila, the lead of the show, she does come across as a woman who is deeply flawed and makes many questionable decisions. The consequences of the decisions she makes eventually affect her, but Sheila chooses to learn from them instead of moping about her fate. She initially had no friends because her inner critic made sure to keep everyone at bay. Sheila’s transformation is such that Greta, a woman she despised, becomes her best friend and a partner in her business venture.
The affair she had with John was the worst decision Sheila had made, but it gave her a reason to exit a marriage that was not benefiting her. Her stint with rehab as well did not offer her any help because, for the longest time, she was in denial about having an eating disorder. Her affair with John eventually ceases, but the two of them try to be friends and seek solace in each other. Sheila’s pattern of behavior throughout the show has been erratic because, apart from her steady business goals, her personal life goes through a lot of instability.
Sheila reached a point where she could not come to terms with the fact that there might be issues with her as well. The journey she took from being a wife to a single mother was long and strenuous. It took a while to finally come to terms with accepting herself for who she is instead of running away. Unfortunately, the makers of the show explicitly talked about Sheila hallucinating, but not once did they address the mental health issue. She started seeing projections of her rival Kelly Kilmartin, who, just like Sheila’s inner voice, used to shame her for every single move she made. Sheila eventually lost her mind, and it jolted her out of the comfort zone she had built.
Greta and Sheila’s stint with television worked for some time, and so did her collaboration with endorsing a diet cookie company. None of them worked because Sheila could never connect with these entities. Her only goal was to begin a fitness studio and encourage women to take up aerobics as a way to vent after a long day at home or work. Sheila wanted to break the clutter and possibly do something that many women of her age in the city of San Diego had never done before. She is a commoner who wants to be recognized, unlike Kelly Kilmartin, who was an actress who represented everything that Sheila wasn’t.
Greta and Sheila also had a falling out because of differences of opinion over how to take the business forward. As they are friends, the friction was bound to happen, which Sheila initially took in stride. She eventually realized she could not take any of her work forward without Greta around. She profusely apologizes to Greta and requests her to rejoin the company they built from scratch.
This entire subplot allows the audience to see Sheila as a selfless person who is willing to look beyond her ego and pride. Once Greta was back, there was no looking back for Sheila because she was willing to rebrand her company. Sheila changed everything about her studio to make it look inclusive for every kind of woman who wants to feel empowered. As a successful female entrepreneur, she was able to prove a lot of people wrong about herself and Greta.
Even though there were roadblocks that disrupted her plans to make her studio into a franchise, she was able to find a way out only because she had a solid team. Sheila realized that starting the studio was a shared dream between her and Greta, and the latter had a lot of good ideas on how to market their brand. Sheila and Greta, by the end of the series finale, were able to become the ambitious and influential figures who now lived on the money they earned. Sheila tried too hard to forget John Breem, but somehow she felt there was some unfinished business between them. Sheila had not gotten any closure in the case of her previous relationships. This time, she felt content seeing John Breem happy with his family. It made her realize aerobics was the only true love she ever had. Sheila had a messy trajectory, but she was finally able to fulfill her goal.