We live in a culture that tends to define the self in accordance to the status of its body and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. The corporal self-identity of contemporary times frequently goes under the name of ‘fitness’. It is a measure of aptitude for life in consumer culture and a service economy.
by David Vella
Collage by the IotL Magazine
We seem to be living in a culture that is obsessed with physical appearance. Central to this contemporary cult of the body is fitness. ‘Fitness’, as this article will define it, entails a self-identity centered on the aspiration toward the attainment of the ‘high-status body’. This body-type holds prestige because of its association with health, youth, sexuality, success, confidence, and vitality. In our times, the pursuit to acquire this ideal is often used as a form of therapy, as a remedial treatment for one’s deepest insecurities.
This essay explores at length the fitness identity from a phenomenological and sociological angle in order to appraise its effectiveness as therapy. In doing so, it will expose its serious limitations, that signal toward its inability to cure us of our personal sufferings. In many cases, it can even aggravate those same sufferings it was supposed to cure as well as create new forms of anxiety of its own.
Late Modernity: Self-identity as a Personal Responsibility
Our late modern epoch is often defined by the collapse of all social beliefs and ‘grand narratives’. We live in times beset by the absence of an overarching story that can structure and explain who we are and our place in the universe. Marxism, religions, beliefs in progress and universal reason, and so on no longer provide for us a global or comprehensive cultural narrative which gives context, meaning, and purpose to all of life.
This absence at the heart of late modernity requires us, each to their own, to construct a personal narrative that would order and interpret our experiences. As various social and cultural thinkers such as Peter Berger, Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman, Chris Shilling, and others attest, it is now completely up to us to devise our own hermeneutics of life.
Meaning has become privatized leaving us alone with the task of establishing and maintaining values and goals as guides. ‘Self’, as Philip A. Mellor and Chris Shilling insist in ‘Modernity, Self-Identity and the Sequestration of Death’, ‘becomes a project to be worked on, something open to new designs’. The story I tell myself to define myself and the beliefs that ground such a story are now my responsibility. Self-identity has become to a large extent a DIY job.
The type of self-identity I compose in turn decides the manner I perceive my deepest insecurities. How I see myself determines the perspective I take on my most intimate vulnerabilities. Conversely, or perhaps at the same time, my self-identity can also be the result of such vulnerabilities: my symptomatic reaction to them. Certain personal misfortunes can force me to reinterpret myself in a certain way in order to cope with their severe impact on my life.
The nature of such misfortunes can vary from an early life trauma or tragedy to childhood bullying, a relationship break-up, a serious sickness, a betrayal, as well as an intensely embarrassing incident. Common to all these episodes is how violently they can uproot my reality, undermining all the beliefs that keep it together. The principles that premise my self-understanding are therefore crucial as to how successful I am at handling such unexpected episodes. In such harrowing circumstances, my self-identity can cripple me or it can help me overcome the adversity I am facing.
Various social theorists insist that self-identity in this day and age is often centered on the body. One only has to make a cursory review of nowadays’ newspaper reports, television documentaries, advertisements, magazine articles, and internet sites to realize the significance of the role of the body in our society. This is also undoubtedly evident in the explosion of fitness-gyms and health-clubs since the 1980s as well as the proliferation of information on how to avoid obesity and certain types of sickness such as coronary heart disease and some forms of cancer.
We live in a culture that tends to define the self in accordance to the status of its body and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. Selfhood is assigned, above all, with the principal commitment to take care as well as improve its body. The main purpose of the inner self is seen to be its work for the outer self. In this regard, as Barry Glassner shows in ‘Fitness and the Postmodern Self’, the outside and the inside are virtually reduced to the same value.
The corporal self-identity of contemporary times frequently goes under the name of ‘fitness’. ‘Fitness’ as used in this article refers to a lifestyle that ceaselessly and unconditionally aspires toward the attainment of what is sometimes known as the ‘body-beautiful’ or the ‘high-status body’. This body-type usually entails a lean, muscularly toned, and tight physique.
Fashion magazines and health and fitness publications in the West are full of images embodying this ideal just as personnel in the fitness, health, sport, and diet industries promote it and reinforce it in various ways. The prestige that the high-status body holds is due to its association with the ideals of youth, (sexual) pleasure, success, vitality, self-esteem, and discipline. Whoever possesses this type of physique is believed to possess such qualities as well as inspire them in others.
This article explores fitness as a self-identity from a phenomenological and sociological angle above all in order to appraise how effective it is at managing insecurities. In doing so, it will seek to expose the underlying limitations of fitness, indicating ultimately its inability to act in any way as a constructive therapy to harrowing situations. Instead, in many cases, it can even exacerbate those same sufferings it was supposed to cure as well as create new forms of anxiety of its own.
A Definition for Fitness and the Reasons for its Popularity
According to Cheryl L. Cole and Brian Turner, the late-twentieth and twenty-first-century obsession with fitness and health is intimately related to several current health crises. The growing threat of ‘killer diseases’ such as AIDS have contributed significantly to the increase of anxieties surrounding the body. On the other hand, developments in medicine and technology in general have contributed to the portrayal of sickness, ageing, and death as avoidable and contingent.
Furthermore, as Turner makes very clear, the transition from industrial capitalism toward a ‘postindustrial culture’ founded on a global economy, service industries, advertising, and consumerism, has brought about an unprecedented hyper-commercialization of the body. One of the most successful markets in our times is indeed that which concerns resources, activities, and commodities which it claims would help us acquire the high-status body. Diets, various self-help books, gym exercise courses, health and fitness magazines and cosmetic products, and some spiritual disciplines, among others, are all promoted to this effect.
One of the most successful markets in our times is indeed that which concerns resources, activities, and commodities which it claims would help us acquire the high-status body.
At the same time, this market along with the mass media that endorses it, ignores and denies the ageing or diseased body, and in doing so, stigmatizes them. In our late modern western society, there are accordingly three principal factors behind the prioritization given to health and fitness. Fear of certain diseases, advancements in medical technology, and the socio-cultural and consumerist focus on the high-status body all confer the highest value to these physical states.
‘“Being fit”,’ Jennifer Smith Maguire claims in ‘Fit for Consumption: Sociology and the Business of Fitness’, ‘is about possessing the appropriate capacities and resources to undertake the project of the self in a competent fashion, minimizing health risks, and maximizing market value. Fitness is a measure of aptitude for life in consumer culture and a service economy’.
For Glassner, ‘“[f]itness refers to the general state of a person’s psycho-physical well-being—mind as well as body’. In the world of fitness, the goal of the self’s project and the state of wellbeing are usually believed to be reached by achieving the high-status body. To reach this ideal, one has to undertake various activities designed to sculpt the body in its image, from dieting to yoga, from dancing to exercising in health and fitness-gyms.
The body is indeed seen as a site that can be worked on and worked out, a site open for construction and reconstruction, a site with so many potentials that can be fulfilled. Physical information contents that differ from the model condition such as flab, waist or thigh measurements that are above the accepted standard, the absence of a thigh-gap, aches, pains, wrinkles, etc, are interpreted as occasions for further productive action. The closer I am to my ideal, the higher my estimation.
Acquiring the high-status body is believed to bring favourable attention from others, which can in turn help me land the career of my dreams and/or find the love of my life. With the market value of my selfhood increased, I am certain that a multitude of new life opportunities would open up for me.
Acquiring the high-status body is believed to bring favourable attention from others, which can in turn help me land the career of my dreams and/or find the love of my life.
Acquiring the high-status body is believed to bring favourable attention from others, which can in turn help me land the career of my dreams and/or find the love of my life.
Fitness is therefore more than just healthy eating, a routine exercise like jogging, a profession (as a fitness trainer or a sports player for instance), or a diet and/or physical regimen, although many associate ‘a fit life’ or ‘a fit person’ with such activities. In this context, fitness is not a pastime. It denotes an enterprise that governs my life: a lifestyle that emerges from the fulltime commitment to a very particular perspective. It embodies a way of being.
Unlike the customary maintenance of the healthy body, fitness sees the purpose of the self as the caring and enhancement of the outer self. Selfhood is conceived as the will to have a great body. This will is crucial because the work on my body is in turn seen to express who I am. The extent of my corporal improvements reflects the extent of how much I am able to reveal my true self. My work is therefore a means for my individuality to shine forth. The more I work, the better I look, the more authentic I can be, the more I can show everyone who I really am.
As Glassner points out, the physique is here ‘a cardinal sign of the self’. The more it converges with the high-status body, the more successful, content, confident, healthy, disciplined … I believe to be and the more I believe other people regard me as such. It is the body that makes me me.
Through constructive action, my progressively enhanced appearance creates and builds in me those qualities that are highly esteemed by society. In this sense, the outer self and the inner self are not just virtually reduced to the same value. They become indistinguishable from one another. They merge. The inner self works to create the outer self in order to create itself.
Fitness as a Taking Control
In ‘Paradoxes of the Flesh: Emotion and Contradiction in Fitness/Beauty Magazine Discourse’, Margaret Carlisle Duncan and Lori A. Klos show how health and fitness magazines tend to downplay the difficulty involved in getting fit.
The attraction of some of these discourses lies in their assurance that anyone can lose weight and get fit with relative ease, so long as they follow their instructions. These same prescriptions, however, vary in method and information from article to article and from magazine to magazine, often contradicting one another. They also offer products as quick-fix solutions that never quite deliver on their promises. Losing weight, they claim, is a matter of taking initiative, taking control over your body. You are in charge; you are completely responsible for any physical changes you wish to make. Therefore, by implication, you are the only one to blame for not looking like the models displayed on our magazine pages. You can be fit (only) if you want to.
Losing weight, they claim, is a matter of taking initiative, taking control over your body. You are in charge; you are completely responsible for any physical changes you wish to make.
An indirect accusation often underlies health and fitness magazines should I, the reader, not comply with their preached standards and lifestyle. Their message also aggravates my disappointment and guilt whenever I take a wrong step or fail to achieve a desired result. This pressures me to be harder on myself, encouraging a self-blaming for whatever difficulties I encounter, rather than considering, for instance, the excessive strictness, inefficiency, and/or ineffectuality of the particular regimen I am following as well as the exorbitant demands of my goal.
Total self-control is in fact the prominent attribute in the many discourses of fitness. Control demands that I continuously monitor how I look. My self-surveillance extends beyond a restriction of dietary intake to an envious and obsessive observation of those others who have attained (or are close to attaining) the high-status body in my eyes. These individuals, who can be anyone—from the models and actors on the mass media to people I meet at the gym and at work—serve as markers for my own achievement: means of motivating me further toward my goal.
My constant measuring of myself with these images and people thus compel me to fashion and refashion my appearance. My critical consciousness is further reinforced by the sight of my reflections in the mirrored walls of the gym and dance-studio as I practice and workout.
Self-control in fitness exercises a workout rationality that weighs whatever I do in the light of my aspiration to reach the high-status body. It operates by calculating whether any decision I make—trivial or significant—would help me get closer in any way to my ideal state. Short-term moods and emotions are to be sacrificed for the sake of longer-term goals.
Self-control in fitness exercises a workout rationality that weighs whatever I do in the light of my aspiration to reach the high-status body. Short-term moods and emotions are to be sacrificed for the sake of longer-term goals.
The more rational I am, the more I am capable of pushing away demoralizing feelings such as sadness, apathy, physical discomfort, fatigue, pain, and stress for the greater and more lasting future feelings of confidence, esteem, satisfaction, pleasure, success. Any present negative feeling, sometimes even positive feelings such as excitement, happiness, peacefulness, etc, are to be disregarded for the sake of my diet and exercise regime. Strict consistency and order must be the rule of the day.
What this means is that the fitness mindset is solely concerned by way of my body with me, and what my self can accomplish with that body. In other words, it is focused on ambition. The pursuit of the high-status body is the pursuit of success. What matters in this journey is how empowered I feel, how much I and only I am in charge in any situation. Fitness entails a strictly individualistic worldview by seeing everything in my life as a means to my climb up the ladder to achievement. In having such a narrow focus, this perspective can close itself off from the social world and its events, ignoring anything that contradicts and undermines the ego’s sovereignty.
Cozened up in my little self-centered rational bubble might thus increase my unawareness, inattentiveness, and/or unpreparedness for that contingent and totally unexpected event from outside—an event whose violence and destruction demolishes my life as I know it. The fitness vision I have chosen can aggravate the difficulty of coping with my vulnerability when a tragic episode suddenly uproots my world, shattering all the faith I had in myself. Its addictive focus can exacerbate my sheer helplessness and confusion before the horror of inexplicable loss and its consequent breakdown of all familiarity and purpose in my life.
Instances of this loss can include the death of a loved one, a betrayal, a serious diagnosis, an almost fatal car accident, a break-up, and even the indelible effects of the memories of such events, which I keep trying to forget. What is common to all these scenarios is their nonsensical dismantling of the ego’s authority with all the routines it relies on. In the face of such traumas, the will that fitness inspires is fatally incapable of understanding, appropriating, accomplishing anything. Such moments confront me with the brute reality that I am not the only agent in my life. They reveal that I do not only have a body—but I am also a body.
Deep suffering entails a suffering of my self as a limit. I suffer this suffering because it is the incessant realization that I—the I that could do anything, be anything, achieve anything—am powerless to be that I. Here, the I as empowerment, as a force full of potential and possibility faces itself as an interminable disempowerment, impotence, impossibility.
Steven Shaviro in Passion and Excess describes these moments of loss as the incapacity ‘to escape from my compromised identity, any more than I can retain it and assert it’. In my inability to be able, to be, my self turns into a prison. Trapped by my self, because of my self, I become my own claustrophobia, my own hostage. The freedom to be me suddenly shifts to my enslavement to my self. Emmanuel Levinas expresses this torture as ‘the against oneself that is in the self’. ‘In its skin [the self] is stuck in its skin, not having its skin to itself, a vulnerability’.
The culture of fitness, however, operates as if vulnerability does not exist. Indeed, it is founded on its absolute denial.
The culture of fitness, however, operates as if vulnerability does not exist. Indeed, it is founded on its absolute denial. Intrinsic to its vision, is a galvanizing faith in my self as author of my body and (therefore) my life. It insists that I can control my world completely. The strategy it enforces to achieve this belief is particularly convincing.
Its magnetic appeal comes from the fact that its discourses tend to break down the difficulties I need to overcome to reach the end goal into a series of day-to-day mini-tasks, small concerns, and digestible goals. The dissected difficulties proposed are clear in their nature as well as manageable through easy-to-follow methods that are always at hand. In this journey, I know what I am working for, where I am heading, and I see indubitable evidence of my progress on my body. This way I am convinced that the road to happiness lies within reach.
Fitness’s success therefore depends on this point-black substitution of my deepest problems for its own problems, which are broken down for me by its experts and made easier to acknowledge, understand, and resolve, and therefore made infinitely more attractive to face than my own personal problems. Fitness encourages this with its persistent claim that these are the difficulties I have to worry about—that is, whatever obstacle stands in my way of becoming the perfect body—rather than my own emotional and psychological difficulties. In this way, I am convinced to exchange my problems for the ones fitness advertises. Commitment to them is much easier than the attempt to resolve very personal issues I often cannot clearly identify or would rather not think about.
Nevertheless, fitness discourses ensure that their end goal is a long-term project. It is an occupation involving all manner of regimes and diets that can drag on for years and years, a lifetime.
Nevertheless, fitness discourses ensure that their end goal is a long-term project. Acquiring the high-status body is no easy feat. It is an occupation involving all manner of regimes and diets that can drag on for years and years, a lifetime. Moreover, the exciting and addictive prospect of ever making progress can also guarantee my fulltime concentration on this venture. And this obsessive focus is fortuitous because it keeps me busy enough from thinking properly about myself, my issues, my behaviour toward others.
The ingenuity of such a lifestyle is in fact its ability to delude me into believing that I as a person am ever developing, that I am getting ever closer to true self-realization because I am challenging and conquering so many difficulties, perhaps in so little time—when in reality, my true difficulties are still very present though suppressed away, unconfronted. Feelgood sensations and physical improvements brought about by my diet and training are taken as a sign of my psychological, emotional, and spiritual progress, my growing maturation. In this way, the external is confused with the internal.
Read Part 2 here.
David Vella is a part-time lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Malta and an IB educator at St Edward’s College, where he teaches Philosophy and Literature. He has lectured on critical and cultural theory and modern and contemporary British and American drama and fiction. His current research interests include phenomenology, phenomenological hermeneutics, virtue ethics, sociology of late modernity, and contemporary dystopian fiction. He has published on Michel Houellebecq and the Novels of the Contemporary Extreme.