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
Read Part 1 here.
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.
The Uncertainty Principle of the High-Status Body
The stringent demands of the high-status body are not the only reason why the fitness project is a long-term commitment. A second, less obvious, underlying reason is the very definition of the high-status body itself. This ideal, as portrayed by the mass media and the experts, is inherently vague. And this vagueness is intentional. For Zygmunt Bauman, this is what differentiates ‘fitness’ from the concept of health.
Health, for Bauman, was the proper and desirable state sought after by the early twentieth-century societies of producers in the west. Health signified the physical standard I had to maintain in order to satisfy the responsibilities of my assigned role in society, namely in the workplace and the family. This meant doing my best to avoid illnesses and physical disabilities and keeping myself in a condition that would allow me to do my job effectively and efficaciously while helping out at home.
Being healthy was about ‘“sticking to the norm”’. It signalled ‘a state which can be more or less exactly described and precisely measured’. In fact it was ‘clearly defined and circumscribed by modern medicine “in empirically testable and quantifiable terms”’.
‘Fitness’, on the other hand, belongs to a society of consumers. What motivates it is not duty as is often the case with health, but desire. I desire to have the perfect physique and therefore I will purchase any product, implement any regimen that I believe will get me closer and faster to that objective. The high-status body, however, does not refer to a state that can ‘be pinned down and circumscribed with any precision’.
‘Fitness’ belongs to a society of consumers. What motivates it is not duty as is often the case with health, but desire.
The satisfaction and pleasure promised by this ideal and, in increasing measure, by my progress, cannot be grasped objectively, described, and communicated. I can only ‘understand’ these sensations by going through them by myself.
‘Fitness’, Bauman points out, ‘is about subjective experience in the sense of “lived” experience, “felt” experience’. In this sense I ‘will never know for sure whether my sensations are as deep and exciting, and indeed “pleasurable”, as those of the next person. The pursuit of fitness is a chase after a quarry which one cannot describe until it is reached; however, one has no means to decide that the quarry has indeed been reached, but every reason to suspect that it has not. The pursuit of fitness promises a lot of victorious skirmishes, but never the final triumph’.
There are in fact very limited resources that I can use in order to communicate my development on this journey. For the most part, I resort to photos on the social media: selfies of myself posing at the gym—full-body or focusing on an ‘improved’ part of my body such as the abs, the biceps, or my leaner thighs—photos tracking my calorie count and weightloss over a certain period of time, and my dietary intake. Fitness talk among enthusiasts indeed often focuses on numbers, where numbers signal the new levels of accomplishment attained.
The high-status body as a body is also hard to define specifically. This is mostly because diet and exercise discourses are always raising the bar and becoming increasingly severe on what qualities it should possess.
As Margaret Duncan and Lori Klos confirm, for instance, the insistence is now that women especially ‘must be thin and toned, slender and sculpted’. These ever stricter demands ensure that fit people are never fit enough. This in turn helps the market create new demands for updated and new products and regimens that would help me reach the new standards in an ever more efficient, quicker, and painless manner … or so they claim. To keep up in the race I am continuously compelled to upgrade myself for a faster progress toward a goal that is ever withdrawing away from my grasp.
The abstraction inherent to the fit body is also seen in the insistence that it has to be ‘flexible, absorptive and adjustable’. This triad evokes a body that is always ready for new ‘unfamiliar’ experiences and activities, always ready to assimilate them into its life.
To be fit is to be ever open to daring adventures; ‘to live through’, as Bauman points out, ‘sensations not yet tried and impossible to specify in advance’. My body’s inexhaustible disposition to welcome all types of exciting experiences, its readiness to be stimulated by them, in turn increases its attractiveness and desirability.
To be fit is to be ever open to daring adventures. That body which has been through a diversity of ‘singular’ experiences is here believed to have a higher value than others.
That body which has been through a diversity of ‘singular’ experiences is here believed to have a higher value than others. This ‘knowledge’ grants it a finely tuned susceptibility to pleasurable sensation, a sophisticated palette for so many different nuances of feeling that more ‘conventional’ people do not possess. In an erotic context, for example, that body which has been through a host of different sexual adventures is often valued far more than the less experienced one in the conviction that this makes it more sensual in general, that it has the savoir-faire in the bedroom, that its sensuality and experience can somehow rub off on its other.
Like all the other corporal qualities presupposed, the ability to be ‘flexible, absorptive, and adjustable’ cannot be delimited, fixed, properly defined. These qualities emphasize rather the body’s infinite potential for expansion. To be fit is to have an intense life where comfort zones are constantly broken, thrilling opportunities grasped: a life lived to the fullest.
What qualifies as ‘intense’, however, is again, hard to ascertain clearly. Late modern culture tends to promote events and activities that take place outside of our humdrum work-oriented lives; opportunities that can be risky, scary, challenging, unusual, exhilarating. Whatever overwhelms me with vivid sensations is seen to be valuable. This also counts for experiences that are spectacular enough to be exhibited. Anything worth trying needs to look appealing enough for others to approve of its appeal. It must therefore be photographed or filmed and posted on the social media to be seen and liked and praised.
To be seen as spectacular contributes further to the capacity of an event to be spectacular. The striking element of any exploit often depends in part on the others’ agreement that it is in fact striking. This can result in a confusion between the two value-assessing criteria of intensity and spectacle.
Anything worth trying needs to look appealing enough for others to approve of its appeal. It must therefore be photographed or filmed and posted on the social media to be seen and liked and praised.
An activity with a very aesthetic appearance can be instantly thought to cause intense sensations. To this extent, I can delude myself into believing that what I am experiencing is unique and exciting simply because it looks impressive to my social media followers. Whatever interanimates the two criteria is here believed to have value. Included in the spectrum of such ‘fit’ experiences are therefore potentially photogenic activities such as eating (an aesthetically pleasing) trendy or exotic dishes, travelling in Asian countries, trying on new fashionable outfits for the season, practicing extreme sports, doing volunteer work in a developing country, meditating or practicing some spiritual exercise such as yoga, hiking in scenic natural regions, preferably nonwestern, and so on.
Being fit means always being ready to try something new and extraordinary so that my worth, as a body that has lived through so many types of feelings, would grow.
A Desire That Never Ends
The one feeling that the culture of fitness tends to exalt above all in the plurality of adventures it encourages, is their capacity to arouse me. Nothing else is considered as significant. The singularity as well as the self-transformative potential of any experience is sidelined.
Any ‘daring’ feat I undertake is endorsed not so much for its intrinsic authenticity as for its level of excitement. This perspective reduces the complexity and ‘reality’ of anything I go through in order to single out only one affective element. Approaching any event in this manner, I would therefore very likely prevent it from changing me in any way, no matter the nature of that event. I would always perceive it as a means for my gratification.
The fitness rationality might also affect the way I see my experiences. Any new experience might also be perceived as merely an opportunity to increase my physical status, as just another catalyst for my value. Any adventure I attempt can be simply used as a tool to further my ambition. Regardless of whatever I live through, I therefore always keep this obsessive logic in mind as well as my self-control and self-surveillance. This utilitarian mindset is indeed marked by its refusal to let go.
Everything I live through must have a function and that function is my commitment to the body-beautiful.
Stimulating this vision is the desire that underlies my restless venture. It is this desire for the ideal appearance that is pushing me onward nonstop toward higher and higher achievements. It does not let me rest in my chase and I hardly have time to enjoy the fruits of my endeavours. I am always on the go—always intent on getting fitter, springing from one exercise, experience, or activity to another. There is no time to stand still or lay idle when I can be hard at work to improve myself.
Everything I live through must have a function and that function is my commitment to the body-beautiful. Stimulating this vision is the desire that underlies my restless venture.
“Fitness”, as Bauman points out, “is about the capacity to break all norms and leave every already achieved standard behind […]. One thing the fitness-seekers know for sure is that they are not fit enough, yet, and that they must keep trying”. If my desire cannot be sated, it is because it is always already a desire for more. An infinite ‘more’ ensures that this desire is always exceeding itself in its desiring. Because it is unable to rest and be satisfied with anything, it is always provoking itself by itself. Volatile and capricious, it requires no foreign agent to drive it forward save its own frenzied drive.
The same desire for more is at once a desire for the new. As an ardent follower of the world of fitness I find myself continuously seduced by the media, the market, and the experts to purchase this brand’s latest product, try this new and improved diet, travel to that new exotic country, try this sport, practice that spiritual discipline, and so on. What is new is ever irresistible in promoting itself as a guarantee for more effective and quicker results or more arousing and memorable sensations—the adventure of a lifetime!
But, as Bauman warns, “hardly any of [these allurements] delivers on its promise—every one stops short of the fulfilment it pledged to bring.” Even if any of them proved to be working in just the way which was expected, the satisfaction would not last long, since in the world of the consumers possibilities are infinite, and the volume of seductive goals on offer can never be exhausted.
The recipes for the good life and the gadgets that serve them carry a “use by” date, dwarfed, devalued and stripped of their allurements by the competition of “new and improved” offers’. No experience or activity will ever be enough since there will always be others that are newer and ‘better’ in the market. In many cases, pursuing the same experience a second time is already felt to be redundant and wasteful in the light of so many other untested and hence exciting opportunities out there beckoning my attention.
Moreover, in the consumer marketplace, I chase the ever new simply because it is new. The very idea of novelty turns me on with all its glamour of the unknown and where it might take me. I am intrigued with how arousing the new experience is going to be. Perhaps it will grant me a level of success I had never known before.
There is in fact no end to the race of fitness. As Bauman points out
“It is the running itself which is exhilarating, and, however tiring it may be, the track is a more enjoyable place than the finishing line. It is to this situation that the old proverb “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive” applies. “The arrival, the definite end to all choice, seems much more dull and considerably more frightening than the prospect of tomorrow’s choices cancelling the choices of today.”
Should the race come to a finishing-point, I would find myself deprived of the ongoing distraction it provided. With the intoxication of its desire gone, I would find myself staring at a sober absence, and with this absence the painful reality of those insecurities I had been running away from ever since would resurface.
The final fulfilment of fitness leads to disillusionment and disappointment in the realization that in the end nothing really has been resolved. My struggles have been misdirected while the true source of my problems has been suppressed. The moment I silence my desire to be fit is the moment I am crushed by defeat.
It is therefore paramount that the desire to be fit never ceases, that its goal remains beyond my reach. No amount of weight loss, exercise, dieting, buying, adventuring, sports training, etc. must reach true and lasting satisfaction—because satisfaction is the death of desire. And desire has been my drug all along.
Fitness as a Future of Infinite Possibility
The central role that desire plays in fitness calls attention to the future-oriented nature of such a worldview. Fitness constitutes a perspective devoted fanatically to the ‘not yet’ in the sense that it lives exclusively for it.
In looking always ahead, the present instant with its respective state-of-being is ignored and unacknowledged. It is rather strictly used as a means for a future goal. The now is an investment for later gains, which are in turn used to invest in even later gains, ad infinitum. The ‘not yet’ worked for is never allowed to become a now but is made to extend itself in turn to a further ‘not yet’: a future that is never futural enough.
My personal past is likewise devalued and dismissed—treated like any other expired product in the market. This includes my insecurities, which originate in my past and transpire as a suffering of that past in the present, the present suffered as a returning past. Like the rest of my history, such sufferings are depreciated by being regarded as passé.
The only value my history can hold for me consists of those various episodes that can be used as exhibits for others to admire and envy. Whether I narrate such stories to my friends or, as is more common, post them as photos on Facebook, Instagram, and/or any other social app, they are used as spectacle in order to promote my body’s high status. The ‘no longer’ is here also used as an investment for future profit. As a source of knowledge, belief, desire, and emulation, however, it is seen to be on the whole obsolete.
The only value my history can hold for me consists of those various episodes that can be used as exhibits for others to admire and envy. The ‘no longer’ is here also used as an investment for future profit.
Under the guidance of the high-status body, what is to come, on the other hand, promises change, new possibilities of becoming. The ‘not yet’ holds indisputable value precisely on account of its capacity to break from the sad story of my life and recreate me into someone new through discipline and arousing activities and experiences. The future as a future of unlimited opportunity is in itself experienced as an arousal.
If the ‘not yet’ is a hopeful vista of so many exciting and transformative possibilities it is also, however, seen to open up just as many possibilities of disease. As Bauman attests in Liquid Modernity, a patient’s diagnosis nowadays no longer addresses itself to the individual but is presented instead as various possibilities of contracting this and that disease in later time.
The patient’s future is thus conceived as marked with a myriad threats. Like healthcare, the world of fitness is constantly informing its followers of the risk factors for catching various diseases and how to minimize such risks. Such advice is circulated especially in gyms, health clubs, and beauty and fitness magazines which insistently encourage their audiences to be fitter and more risk-free by offering quantified prescriptions for exercise and diet protocols.
Therefore, as Bauman points out, ‘Rather than perceived as an exceptional one-off event with a beginning and end, [disease] tends to be seen as a permanent accompaniment of health, its “other side” and always present threat: it calls for never-lapsing vigilance and needs to be fought and repelled day and night. Care for health turns into a permanent war against disease’. And this in turn engenders a new form of anxiety.
The causes of anxiety in fitness are several. Foremost among them is the fear of shame. Constant and precise surveillance of my body is motivated by the fear that my body and behaviour will be an embarrassment for society, that they will reflect degradation, provoking disapproval and contempt. Doing things considered ‘unfit’— ‘slipping’—are usually accompanied by an overwhelming guilt and regret.
Further anxiety can be a symptom of the mood swings often produced by the fitness mindset. As Duncan and Klos confirm, my disciplined endeavours can sometimes trigger a vacillation between two states of intense conviction. On the one hand, I can find myself wrecked with the despair of ever measuring up to the body ideal. Such dark moments are often characterized by lethargy accompanied by self-abandon through a total disregard of my regimen, usually by binging on fatty foods and/or by neglecting exercise.
Since I strongly feel that it is impossible to achieve the high-status body, that I am not making any progress anywhere, then why should I even try? Why bother? On the other hand, I can find myself brimming with exciting confidence that I am making progress, that the holy grail is within reach. One more diet, one more supplement, one more workout program, one more change in my lifestyle—and I will be a step closer or, better still, I will finally get there.
The path of fitness is hence constantly alternating from the highs of arousal to the bottomless lows of distress. This distress is inexorable and unappeasable since it is an inevitable consequence of the mindset I have chosen to make my own. Constitutive of my depression is the realization that I have lost the war forever, that my defeat is terminal, that I am not good enough. This sense of an ultimate failure typically grows more pronounced the older I get.
Fitness thus breeds its own insecurities. And this makes it unsuccessful as therapy, even if I am using it in order to overcome bodily issues such as those related to my weight. Fitness is not an adequate response to my most serious problems.
I cannot resolve my insecurities if I choose a lifestyle that precisely seeks to suppress and forget them.
I cannot resolve my insecurities if I choose a lifestyle that precisely seeks to suppress and forget them. The way to recovery, rather, lies in their acknowledgement through an unconditional exposure to them. Such an exposure or full accepting awareness should be registered on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. In doing so, it would be affirming as well as experiencing without constraints the reality of my suffering and its cause. This would in turn diminish its paralyzing hold over me.
Very gradually, I would then be able to distance or detach myself enough from it to empower me with enough freedom to give it an effective interpretation. Such an interpretation would chart a course of action that would enable me to come to terms with my suffering. Only then—and only then—would I be able to really move on.
If I am to transcend my suffering I must therefore choose a self-identity whose values precisely help me to endorse such sufferings rather than deny them.
If I am to transcend my suffering (as well as the possibility of future sufferings) I must therefore choose a self-identity whose values precisely help me to endorse such sufferings rather than deny them. This way of seeing myself must also help me comprehend my sufferings in a more constructive and practical manner.
In a society where I am expected to create and follow my own projects, beliefs, and identity, the search for such a type of self-story is of paramount importance. The principal concern of our times is the search for the basis of a model self-identity whose values would allow me to work through my insecurities so that I can make my peace with them, learn from them, develop as an individual, and live a more productive and fulfilling life.