Saturday, November 13, 2010

On making exercise more aesthetic

So I read the essay to which Amber linked a few days ago encouraging men to care more about their looks. I thought about writing something -- either here or at that thread -- in response,but Phoebe's response covered most of what I'd have said. That is: yes, heart of original essay writer in right place. At the same time, yes, the greater emphasis on women's looking good comes at a cost. At its most tragic, the female obsession with weight leads to hospitalization and even death from eating disorders. But even setting aside those extraordinary cases, as Phoebe indicates, there's a whole lot of garden variety neurosis among women who look perfectly fine that doesn't really do anyone any good. So, those points made, I left the whole alone in favor of rambling instead about the evils of the Ron/Hermione pairing.

But to another related issue, which I was mulling mid-long-walk-around the neighborhood this weekend: it's a shame that so much of the discourse around exercise in this country focuses around shaming and sin, rather than aesthetics. Mary Eberstadt's "Is Food the New Sex?" focused on our grimly Puritan approach to calorie intake. But the same neo-Puritan aesthetic permits "redemption" from the sin of eating: there's at least one gym named Redeem Yourself Fitness in the world, as well as handy-dandy chartstelling us precisely how many minutes of different forms of exercise will permit us to recover eating "sin" foods. Relevant numbers of Hail Marys and Our Fathers are not included.

The dominant aesthetic of gyms I've visited seems in line with this. I occasionally observe women circa age forty-five at mine, marching around with iron bars across the backs of their shoulders and/or occasionally with heavy metal chains around their necks, while a (no doubt expensive) personal trainer barks orders at them. Their faces have these looks of grim determination: they can do this, they will lose the weight! The whole aesthetic reeks uncomfortably of Jean Valjean's prison scenes in films of Les Miserables. (Stealing a loaf of bread, eating too much bread; perhaps all the same thing?) I find myself longing for crows' feet in a probably misplaced attempt at farewell to arms, to renounce nubility out of solidarity.

It need not be, of course. Physical movement can be beautiful. Just think of all of those lovely Greek nudes of gorgeous men partaking in sport! Murrayian elitist though it makes me, I can stomach yoga largely because I can look at least somewhat graceful while doing it. There's a connection, however weak, to thousands of years of Indian tradition. There's elegant bending and stretching. There is a noticeable lack of grunting, chains, and/or iron bars.

While I'm sure this is fanciful, it would be wonderful if Michelle Obama's much-discussed exercise campaign tried to infuse a little bit of much-needed Hellenism into our painfully Hebraistic national discourse on exercise. Though I'm sure I disagree with about 96% of her policy views, I'm happy to give her points for Jackie O.-esque glamor. So she might be an aesthete deep down. Unfortunately, her website doesn't leave me optimistic. The typeface and graphics are more blandly corporate PowerPoint than anything else, and the content is mostly nanny-state-esque finger wagging.

Not surprisingly, the private sector has been better at imbuing other sectors of the health movement with much-needed Hellenism. As Virginia Postrel has said about the successes of the locavore food movement: "The local-food movement's ideological parochialism would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law. But as persuasion, it tends to focus on the positive: the delights of local peaches and fresh cider, not the imagined evils of Chilean blueberries and prepeeled baby carrots. In this regard, it resembles the English Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. William Morris, who is remembered today more for his wallpaper and book designs than for his social theories, didn't manage to overturn the industrial revolution. But he and his allies left a legacy of beautiful things. Pleasure is persuasive." Indeed: would that the exercise sector of the movement -- whether gently encouraging men and women alike to find new forms of delight -- would focus on same.


  1. Framing exercise as something you engage in to atone for sin or for righteous health reasons is the only thing that allows one to elude allegations of vanity. It's not respectable for men (or for women, really) to simply say they exercise to look pretty.

  2. I'm not sure that the local-foods movement focuses on the positive. I'm thinking specifically of two reviews (NYT and New Yorker, I think) of a new Italian food hall in NY, Eataly. Both go out of their way to mention that this is not a purveyor of exclusively local foods. As though even a store whose stated purpose is to provide Italian goods to New Yorkers should be faulted for straying from kale. But also, I'm thinking more generally of the ahems that food-movement types give to eating foods - but especially certain ones, like tomatoes and strawberries - out of season. Granted, the local-foods movement hasn't gone off-course in the sinister ways some other ostensibly pro-agriculture movements may have done, but I'm not sure how much of the movement is about eating foods at their taste peak and how much is about judging those with plastic grocery bags (had to get that in) filled with the wrong season's produce.

  3. @Phoebe: I agree that the local food movement doesn't always focus on the positive. But I do think that they've been most successful when they've tried to (e.g. John Mackey's Whole Foods has been successful because the stores are generally more aesthetically appealing than traditional health food stores), and that the exercise segment of the health movement would do well to emulate their example.