Today I'd like to be less fanciful than I usually am here and deliver what I hope you will agree is a short, packed, serious argument against gym guilt. I've touched on this issue here before, largely as a way to train our minds to see our own culture with some historical perspective. But it is a very important subject in its own right, and I'd like to take a moment to give it a decent hearing. I've spelled out some of this before in my book The Happiness Myth, but I like how things turn out when I write them up just for you, dearest Bleaders, so here goes. Please respond with any thoughts, questions, or comments, either here, on facebook, or by email. k thnx.
Against Gym Guilt
Through studying history, I came to believe that gyms are occupying precisely the role they did in Ancient Sparta and in Fascist Germany. Being obsessed with bodies is actually a pretty rare thing in human history and we’re in lousy company.
Let me show you what I mean.
Why do we go to the gym, according to us? We want to look good. We want to feel good. We want to live longer.
Wanting to look good is pretty universal, but meaning “gym buff” when you say “good looking” is a very historically specific choice, almost as weird as the bustle or hoop skirt, and requiring a lot more effort.
Wanting to feel good is universal too, but note that if many sane people don’t want to go to the gym and indeed, do not go to the gym, than any definition of feeling good has to be looked at very closely. Yes there are ways to enhance mental and physical health by going to the gym, but there are other ways in which the gym can stress our mental and physical health (consider guilt about going enough and pulled muscles). If it feels good to lay on the couch and read a book or listen to music, it is hard to argue that the choice of going to the gym is definitely the one that most promotes mental and physical health. Sure, you should take lots of walks, go for a swim or a bike ride, or, say, clean your own house and sweep your own leaves, but no, you don’t have to go to the gym to feel good.
Wanting to live longer is the weirdest of the bunch. Many cultures focus on birth or death and some work themselves up into quite a froth about one or the other. It’s penises, penises, penises, over here, and over here it is giant chambers fitted out for the afterlife. The idea of focusing a huge amount of attention on keeping individuals alive for as long as possible is very weird. Most people in most of history have lived in cultures that enmeshed the individual in a lively web of meaning so that each person’s own lifespan was just not imagined to be all that important.
As I have said before, it doesn’t really matter how long you live. This isn’t theater, there is no way to miss the end. All bits of it are about as good as all the others and it is fabulous that we all got in and that we are here together. There is an eternity on either side of our little lives. Billions of years. It just doesn’t matter how long we are here. Pay attention to now.
But I can prove the silliness of this “gym for longevity” idea from another direction (before I go on to discuss what gyms are really for). The gym for longevity idea gets awfully weak if you consider, for a moment, what really kills us. Americans die in car accidents. Car crashes are among the top three causes of death for Americans forty and younger, and they remain in the top ten across our whole lives. Yet how often do we nag each other to stay out of cars? We try to hedge our bets with safer cars and laws about speeding, phone chatting, and drinking. But the culture does not lay in a monumental guilt campaign about staying out of cars (there is one for drunk driving, but that’s all). Why? Well, no one is interested in it. People have figured out ways to make money from gym guilt, so there is a vested interest. Also there gym guilt is about something else, something hidden that is none the less very real to us.
So what is the real story with gyms and gym bodies? What does the cult of exercise really mean?
Whenever it pops up in history it means the same thing. It always means: We are strong even though the peons do all the real work for us. We have special arenas marked as leisure where we get muscled at play.
Friends, we take the escalator to the Stairmaster. Why? What could a culture be doing when it pours its resources into making two such extraordinary machines?
If you are an average middle-class person in our culture, you leave the house for work in clean dry clothes and come home at night with clean dry clothes. This marks us as well off. We have an underclass (in our case immigrants, teenagers, and machines) to do our grunt work for us. While the underclass shows the neighbors that I can pay someone to rake my lawn, I grab a special bag of sweat clothes, clearly marked for leisure, and I take the escalator to the Stairmaster.
Friends, we are in the middle of an epic energy crisis. Yet we frantically encourage every able bodied man and woman to drive cars to a gym in the center of town where they are to hop on a machine whose name is the very image of effort going nowhere, the treadmill, and work hard for an hour. Then we make the treadmill electric, so we are actually draining power to do this. (All while the gas we need for the car gets us in wars, pollutes, and costs money.)
When we see this behavior in Ancient Sparta (where the population of Helot slaves outnumbered the Spartans) and in Fascist Germany, and we see the art of those two cultures focusing on the beauty of the toned but clean and uncallused body, we know what we are looking at. It’s more than shallow, it is military, it is deluded, it is oppressive, and a bit grotesque.
So if you love going to the gym, go to the gym. If however it doesn’t feel like your kind of place, you don’t have to go there, and you certainly don’t have to feel bad about not going there.
If you’d like to know more about this, read some of the back posts on my blog here, Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Lion and the Honeycomb, and check out my book The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn’t Working Today.
Well, give this some thought and maybe let me know what you think. Enjoy this glorious spring day. Good work staying alive since last week, let's keep it going.
ps took the above picture last night
pps Hi Chris Shea who I've never actually met! Lets face facts, I wrote this post because you were so gracious as to pick up my Gyms and Poets post for the Boston Globe online Ideas section, "Brainiac" and I guess I wanted to show you I can get going faster, nobody'd ever asked her. she's just been sitting here having a think. wink.