How we became obsessed with policing our bodies
by Marie Baleo
Along with a balanced diet, physical exercise is one of the secrets to a long and healthy life. But strenuous, compulsive exercise can be just as detrimental to health as chugging ice cream in front of the TV set. In fact, more and more people are using exercise as a way to feel like they are in control over their bodies and lives, instead of just a means of staying in shape.
Where does one draw the line between healthy exercise and pathological obsession with fitness? Telltale signs that an individual might be addicted to exercise include interference with their social relationships, ignoring physical signs of strain, striving for perfection and setting unrealistic goals, and slowly abandoning previous hobbies and activities in favor of exercising. In other words, compulsive exercisers put exercise before anything else, jeopardizing their mental health and relationships in the process.
As early as 1982, a study found that 10% of runners were obligatory exercisers, who felt “obligated or compelled to continue exercising despite the risk of adverse physiologic or psychological” effects. Today, this pathology is so common that compulsive exercise is set to make its grand entrance into the addiction section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, in its upcoming edition.
How did this pathology become so prevalent? What are the characteristics of this modern ailment? In recent years, the acceptable discourse on fitness has moved from “exercise moderately” to an encouragement of extreme forms of body policing. Pathological control of the body through exercise, which often borders on self-destructive impulse, is paraded as an example of discipline and mental strength. Read about how fitness has become a modern religion, and stepping off the elliptical an act of blasphemy.
The new religion
The pursuit of health through arcane diets and intense, pleasureless exercise is a new religion, and its name is healthism, an ideology built on wild theories about what “normal”, “moral”, and “healthy” mean.
Every religion rests on the cultivation of a dichotomy between encouraged, accepted behaviors and shamed, intolerable ones. In short, dig into a religion and you will find a list of prescriptions and sins. For the cult of fitness, being lazy and overweight, ugly, not deserving of love or sexual attraction, or simply unaware of the acronym “BMI”, is the original sin.
As Shari L. Dworkin and Faye L. Wachs phrased it in Body Panic, to be fat has become the ultimate “cultural transgression”, a symbol of moral laziness in a culture and a society where action is encouraged just for the sake of action and regardless of its motivations and outcomes. The individual who does not attempt to control their body, their physical appearance, their weight, their fat-to-muscle ratio, the person who does not shape their own body like an object, is guilty of a shameful sin. As Dworkin and Wachs point out, “a lack of health begins to be associated with individual moral laxity”.
Now the sinner has sinned: replete with cellulite, baggy clothes, a thin layer of food encrusted at the corners of their slightly open mouth, they are Netflixing and chilling on a weeknight, or ordering burgers instead of cooking tofu-kale-paleo food-ersatzes in their millennial kitchen. They should be ashamed of themselves, as Pinterest boards and Buzzfeed Get Fit Challenges will shortly remind them. But it is never too late to repent. Admit your sin: you and I both know you have not run after anything except the bus in almost a decade. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. How may you achieve redemption? I’m glad you asked.
Behold, the rise of the one-man gulag. Redemption for the lazy and the pudgy lies in hard work, pain, time, relentless effort, and lots of money poured into expensive gym memberships, gym clothes, and useless paraphernalia (how will I hold the IPhone 6 with which I track and publicize my run if my hands are flapping wildly in the air?).
The harder the work and the more painful the exercise, the better the former sinner should feel about themselves. Just like any religion, the fitness cult has its rituals, most of which emphasize pain. Show of hands if you have ever heard a sweaty runner on the verge of collapse utter the words “no pain, no gain”.
The road to redemption includes either starving yourself or adopting a regimen based on excluding pleasure from the experience of eating. It also involves getting up at ungodly hours to run maniacally around your block (articles titled “5 habits of millionaire top model geniuses who live to be 100” always include the early morning run), performing mind-numbingly repetitive gestures while a well-groomed, fit person yells profanities at you (“the personal trainer”), and, generally, the entire idea of “crossfit”.
Our love for physical pain and effort as a way to reclaim a futile sense of control explains the popularity of the military aesthetic in the fitness community, and the adoption of its lingo. Think, for example, of the “Tough Mudder”, a 12-mile obstacle course designed to face contenders with their fears: fire, water, heights, 10,000-volt electric fences, in a military-style ordeal designed to test their psychological and physical strength.
But if fitness is the new religion, who are its saints and idols? The answer is everywhere: staring at you from the billboards and the TV sets and the “fitspo” hashtags and the Youtube videos. The idols are imposed on us everywhere, in line with existing practices of objectification of the human body.
What is the faith based on? Why do people subscribe to this new religion? Because it is, in the words of Dworkin and Wachs, “prescribed as near science”, just like the cult of youth and beauty described by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. Wolf brilliantly points out the way modern beauty ads disguise their attempts at selling generally useless anti-aging products as science, capitalizing on our faith in the latter to sell us the former.
The obsession with fitness and body policing through exercise has grown more common and surprisingly acceptable in the past three decades. In 1994, already, the Independent wrote:
“Doctors have become the priests of this new cult of endless aspiration. They screen, check and warn the healthy, upbraid the sick and lecture us all on the multiple errors of our ways. Everything can be, as Skrabanek puts it, ‘medicalised’, every act can be shown to have health implications and can, therefore, form part of our lifestyle dossier being compiled by whatever recording angels inhabit healthist heaven.”
The religious aspect of our fascination with fitness was already manifest.
No wonder this religion came about in the 1980s, as we collectively reached the apex of consumerism. And indeed, our obsession with fitness is a quintessentially modern religion. Why? Because redemption can readily be purchased. You are missing something, there is a hole in your life that consumerism can help you fill. The body is a commodity and can be improved using supplements, products in bottles, and miraculous solutions to your ailment (the fitness religion, too, is fond of miracles: “see how a woman lost 100 pounds in 3 months”, anyone?).
And indeed, while the promotion of fitness exists in other ideologies such as communism, the ties between the fitness ideology and capitalism are strong and noteworthy. The fact that exercise is seen as proof of moral character and that the fitness ideology encourages hard work makes the parable to the Protestant work ethic all the more appealing. Steven J. Overman thus writes that:
“Capitalism is essentially achievement oriented and competitive; sports present a model consistent with this ethic. In the minds of many Americans, winning is to the spirit of sport what profit-making is to the spirit of capitalism – a saving grace and proof of individual worth”.
Equality of the sexes?
Because no social phenomenon ever occurs in a vacuum, the rise of fitness as a religion is ripe with racial and sexist undertones. While the fitness ideology plagues both genders, it takes a special toll on women, encouraging eating disorders, body image distortion, and dysmorphophobia.
Indeed, the fitness religion readily conflates with the discourse of beauty as an obligation and a source of value for women. Once again, women are told that their value is based almost exclusively on their appearance, and, more specifically, on their ability to maintain and never exceed a certain weight. This heartbreaking message has really found its audience with teenagers, whose Pinterest boards are filled with the hashtag “fitspo” and the closely-related, sometimes overtly pro-ana “thinspo”. Assumptions on moral qualities are made solely on the basis of physical appearance: a young overweight girl is committing a moral wrong by not being as thin as we’d like her to be. No thigh gap? You’re probably a failure, and no one will ever love you. Not doing 50 squats a day? Shame on you, you’ll never know how “nothing tastes as good as being fit feels”.
Over at Thought Catalog, Lauren Hart writes that:
“Three main values that are instilled results from fitspiration are control, perfection, and success. (…) Fitspiration has caused women’s insecurity levels to soar. Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies, only 5% of which have body types that fit this “perfect body” standard. The unattainability of this standard causes a lot of damage to the female psyche, and while it has been this way for many years, fitspiration has exacerbated the issue.”
Further, when a woman is enjoined to work out, it is hardly ever so that she will gain physical strength, which would empower her and render her more independent, something society has always actively discouraged. Rather, she must work out to be thinner, prettier, more attractive, more youthful-looking, and altogether closer to the universally-upheld Western standards of beauty. But she must exercise in moderation, for a woman who exhibits too much muscle is deemed unattractive and manly. The role of the fitness ideology, (which, again, differs significantly from moderate working out as a means to stay healthy and in shape) is to strengthen gender roles. Women must be leaner, as thinness is regarded as a female trait, while men must become more muscular and thicker, and thus more masculine.
Fitness and whiteness
The bodies presented to us as ideals, targets to be achieved, are not only thin, young, and wary of androgyny, but also overwhelmingly Caucasian. This is no surprise, as the obsession with fitness is a distinctly white ailment and a luxury reserved to the wealthiest. Sarah Hentges writes that:
“The seemingly personal goals of fitness can seem like a luxury and/or a waste of time when there are bills to be paid, long hours to be worked, children to shuttle from here to there, family demands, dinner to be made. But food, water, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, and fitness are basic human necessities. And white people, in the U.S. and around the world, continue to dominate the ownership and arrangement of such resources. Conceptualizing fitness as a luxury relegates fitness to whiteness, to a kind of pure imaginary”.
Thus, just like it promotes an ideal, thin female body and strict adherence of both men and women to accepted gender norms, the fitness ideology contributes to white privilege and to the promotion of whiteness as a quality to be sought, while it sends the implicit message that bodies of other colors cannot, ever, be considered beautiful. The story of the fitness ideology reads not only like the rise of a destructive collective superego, but also like a true case study in why intersectionality matters.
But compulsive exercise and the discourse which enables it may also be a way to punish ourselves for having it all. In an era where many have never experienced war, poverty, or any form of personal struggle, where our lives have reached a disconcerting level of comfort, where expensive education, spacious housing, and exotic vacation are just a bank loan away, we desperately need to work for something. In other words, when too much freedom becomes stifling and mind-numbing, a little oppression of the body can go a long way!
What is particularly despicable about the fitness ideology is the amount of time it spends shaming individuals over their bodies and choices. There is nothing more arrogant, more ignorant, and more intolerable than the self-proclaimed preacher who thinks they know why you have a beer belly, cellulite or a muffin top: because you’re a lazy failure, a sad excuse for a human being. All lives are different, all bodies are different. A person might be overweight because of a medical condition, another because their income doesn’t allow them to make healthy food consumption choices, and another because they simply don’t like exercising.
Everyone has their own way of boosting their self-esteem and increasing their self-confidence and filling the void (the phrase “No pain, no gain” doesn’t exactly exude self-care). The fact that the fitness addict needs to roll around in mud, their muscles aching and their pulse reeling, in order to feel like they have a purpose in life, or like they have power, is their problem and their choice alone. In return, one sometimes wishes they would refrain from deeming their specific choice superior to everyone else’s. Perhaps they should focus instead on how to eschew a futile quest for physical perception and social approval, in favor of finding pleasure in our short lives.
 Shari L. Dworkin, Faye Linda Wachs, Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness
 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport”, Steven J. Overman
 I can think of at least one other ideology that raised fitness and physical effort to the level of a national obsession and public religion aimed at achieving an ideal Caucasian body, while dismissing all other racial identities as worthless, repugnant, and undesirable.
 Women and Fitness in American Culture, Sarah Hentges, McFarland, Nov 5, 2013.