Buffness and beauty are arbitrary fashions

Exercising at the gymA nice essay in the New York Times on the cult of physical fitness, past and present, occasioned by the death of Jack LaLanne. (emphasis added)

That sense of failure you feel when you haven’t exercised in days? That conviction that if you could pull off better push-ups, you’d be a better person through and through? These, too, are his [LaLanne’s] doing, at least in part. What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul. …

There’s a bullying strain to the modern fitness ethos, a blurred line between cheerleading and hectoring. And it’s hard not to wonder whether that kind of intimidation — in addition to the social and economic realities of diet and exercise — helps explain the paradox that for all the newfangled aerobic machines and reduced-rate January gym memberships, Americans aren’t noticeably haler and healthier.

When exercise comes wrapped in value judgments, does it wind up entangled in an anxiety that threatens the very resolve to get fit? As Mr. LaLanne was siring new methods for shaping up, he was fathering something else, too: a potent, and in some cases immobilizing, strain of contemporary guilt.

Attitudes towards the body – how it should look, how it should feel, how much of it should be revealed – change over time. But because they change relatively slowly, it’s easy to assume current standards of buffness or beauty are written in stone. If we realized how arbitrary these things are – that they stem from advertising and the desire to fit in with the crowd, among other things – would we be better off? Liberated? Free to choose rather than guilt-tripped? Is it even possible? For adolescents, escaping peer pressure may not be possible. But for adults, it definitely should be.

Related posts:
Healthy lifestyles serve political interests
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
The tyranny of health then and now
The tyranny of health
The problem is you
My personal odyssey through the health culture
Obesity: Moving beyond willpower vs. the food-industrial complex

Resources:

Image: Brucelashleydpm’s Blog

Frank Bruni, The Ripped and the Righteous, The New York Times, January 29, 2011

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