Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Modern virtue - the religion of physical fittness

As I have morphed during my life from a devout teenage christian church organist into a crusty old materialistic atheist, I have found a new church in the cult of physical exercise and fitness. Virtue and badness can be simply measured by whether I have worked out today. Until I read this fascinating tribute to Jack LeLane, who recently died at the age of 96, I had not realized what a modern invention my church is, growing from the opening of his first gym in Oakland, CA. in 1936:

With “The Jack LaLanne Show,” he also had a hand in the spread — a contagion, really — of television programs exhorting viewers to rise up from their La-Z-Boys...An army of spandex missionaries was unleashed....What he left behind when he died last week...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...A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills...There’s a bullying strain to the modern fitness ethos, a blurred line between cheerleading and hectoring...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.

1 comment:

jim said...

This is a bit of a sign of the times: Throughout most of our history nutrition was usually scarce so extra pounds advertised biological success. With the advent of farmed carbohydrates, optimal energy intake is easily achieved and exceeded, even by the poor, so the status must now be advertised by being trim.

A similar situation exist with muscles and fitness. Prior to the invention of grunt-saving devices like cars and mechanical diggers, muscles indicated an individual who used their bodies rather than their brains to earn a living. These days maintaining a good body (putatively) requires surplus time, gym memberships, expensive clothes and equipment, and perhaps even a personal trainer.

The underlying attraction of a fit and healthy body has presumably endured since something crawled out of the slime and tried to look a better proposition than the next slimy guy, but the social signalling component has a more whimsical biological history.

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