The Dark Side of Self-Improvement

Literal perfection from Inspirobot

Self-improvement (or personal development or self-help) seems, on the face of it, like a good thing. Who doesn’t want to be better? We should all be better, right? (This should not be confused with “be best”, something that will never not make me laugh.)

The personal development industry is a $9.9 billion industry predicated on two simple messages: 1. You are not good enough. 2. You should always strive to be better. Continue reading “The Dark Side of Self-Improvement”

A Primer on Neoliberalism


I’m obsessed with neoliberalism. I’m fascinated by it as an ideology, and I’m fascinated by how successful it’s been in such a short time. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how pervasive it is–infecting every corner of life in the Western world–and yet how successfully it has remained invisible.

Like it’s brother capitalism, it’s become an ideology that just is. Ask most people what neoliberalism is and they’ll shrug. But ask them their views on government’s role in society, on privatization, on healthcare or welfare or trade and they’ll be either espousing or critiquing neoliberalism.

Because it’s become the toxic water we swim in–that is, invisible yet fundamental to shaping how we live–I thought it might be useful to offer a little primer on neoliberalism as well as some of the ways we see its impacts. Especially because a lot of writing on neoliberalism is far from accessible, and that is one of the ways we remain unable to fight it. When we don’t have language for what we’re fighting, nor the full scope of the problem, it’s hard–if not impossible–to mount an effective and broad opposition.

So first, what is neoliberalism? It’s a political ideology (that is, a way of understanding, organizing, and governing the world) that emphasizes and prizes individualism over collectivism and encourages consumption as a source of identity and the primary way that we engage with society. Continue reading “A Primer on Neoliberalism”

In Praise of Things

I was at a new friend’s (lovely) apartment for the first time last night and there was a moment that struck me–he looked around his home and said, “We’re really big fans of things.”

photo (1)I was struck by that this morning as I looked at my shelf of beloved, carefully chosen mugs–each one bringing joy for a different reason–the cheerful turquoise chevron, the pug mug with a pun. Continue reading “In Praise of Things”

Stop Telling Me Not to Sit

458709_NINATUFTEDCHAIRFUSCHIA_3/4FRONTStudy after study and article after article (after article after article ad infinitum) tells us the dangers of being sedentary. Death is lurking around the corner of every office chair. We know this. Everyone even remotely interested in health and fitness know this at this point. Anyone who accidentally spent two minutes on Facebook in the past year knows this.

     What we don’t know is what to do about it. Because the fact is there are structures in place that keep certain people desk-bound and run others ragged off their feet. Those people in white collar jobs don’t actually have much say about the amount of time they spend sitting. Corporate culture dictates spending 8+ hours sitting at your desk, working on a computer. I work in the anti-violence movement (that is to say, far from corporate culture) and I still spend the vast majority of my day sitting, either at a desk on the computer or in session with clients.

     So being told, over and over, that sitting is going to kill me isn’t actually helpful. I know that sitting all day isn’t very good for me. I incorporate as much walking and movement as I can into my day. But the reality is that the expectations of my job involve a lot of sitting. So article after article after article framing sitting as the number one menace is nothing more than click bait-y fear mongering if there are no concrete systemic solutions presented.
     When you think about what a lot of white collar jobs look like, they certainly don’t need to be 8 (or 10 or 12) hour days, and, well, a lot of them could just not exist at all. Think about how many jobs involve trading imaginary money for imaginary stocks. Think about how many bureaucratic positions universities and corporations have, many of which seem to have as their prime directive the justification of their own positions. Think about how many jobs exist simply to keep the capitalism machine running, rather than adding actual value to society and meaning to individual lives. The problem with corporate culture goes far beyond death-sitting.
     Of course, if we take a step back, we can see a more troubling aspect to this obsession with deadly sitting: it excludes huge swaths of people working physically demanding low-pay jobs and is hugely ableist.
     There are many people who are, for a variety of reasons, reliant on wheelchairs or other mobility aids or who spend much of their time lying down or sitting due to chronic pain and/or disability. I can’t imagine seeing article after article decrying the dangers of sitting all day is all that helpful for a wheelchair user.
     And then there are the very many people who spend upwards of eight hours a day on their feet. These are the fast-food and retail workers who make minimum wage, who work through illness because sick days don’t exist for low-wage workers, who juggle two or more jobs at a time because, despite working full time, they still make less than a living wage.
     These folks are standing all day! Every day! So they should be set, right? No need for a treadmill desk when you stand at a fryer or an espresso machine all day! Fit as a fiddle, right?
     Well…not exactly. If you compare the sedentary office sitters to the constantly standing and walking factory, retail, and fast food workers, you’ll find, on a population level, that office sitters have significantly better health, despite their daily dance with death in the form of an office chair. Why? Because poverty is far more detrimental to almost every health measure than sitting at a desk all day.
     So, please, stop telling me not to sit. Instead, tell me how we can provide a living wage to everyone, regardless of the type of work that they do. Tell me how we can follow The Netherlands’ lead and work a four day work week while retaining benefits so we can have a better work-life balance. Tell me how we can shift from a car-culture to more sustainable options that give people who are able the chance to bike or walk to work. Tell me how we can shift from a consumer-driven culture to a community-driven culture. Tell me anything but the dangers of sitting.
My apologies, WordPress has apparently decided to do away with paragraph breaks for this post only so the formatting is not especially readable.

Getting Back to Our Animal Selves

panthere noire zoo de jurques 1012 1024x749I’ve had this pet theory, for a while, that capitalism only works if we silence and eschew the animal parts of us. Think about it, sitting at a desk for 8 or 10 hours a day is completely counter to our animal instincts to be in motion. Doing menial tasks (making widgets, if we want to get all Karl Marx up in here) that don’t directly relate to the care and feeding of ourselves or our loved ones makes no sense until we introduce the fear of poverty (and thus hunger, lack of shelter, etc) if we don’t comply.

But instincts are hard to suppress. They’re literally the most base reaction we have. In fact, they’re there whether we heed them or not. That’s how powerful they are. So how does a system that relies on quashing our animal selves counter something so powerful? With shame, perhaps the most powerful motivator there is.

I was recently interviewed by a university student writing a paper on a particular issue in my field and the topic of shame came up. This student asked if shame can ever be a force for good. Absolutely, I said. Shame is one of the ways that we moderate unacceptable and dangerous behaviour. Shame is based on losing in-group status. Humans are immensely social creatures who need acceptance and community to survive. So the threat of losing your connections and community due to hurting another, for example, is a very positive use of shame, teaching people not to hurt others until they can internalize that lesson.

But the power of shame is rarely used for the benefit of the collective in our neoliberal, late capitalistic clusterfuck. Rather, it is used to shut down all of the signals that tell us that what is going on is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that most of us do work that is not only spiritually unfulfilling but is actively harmful for the earth and for humanity. It is unacceptable that most of us live in some form of economic insecurity. It is unacceptable that many of us don’t have access to fresh, nourishing food and instead rely on hyper-palatable, low-nutrient play food for the majority of our nutrition. It is unacceptable that one in three women* and one in two trans people will experience sexualized violence in our life times.

But you can’t start with the big violations and hope they’ll stick. You have to start with the small pieces of animalia that you can tame. We wear clothes because we are shamed for our nudity (I mean, there are practical reasons for clothes as well, but if I strolled down the street naked tomorrow no one would be objecting on the grounds that I wasn’t protected from the elements). We wear deodorant and perfume because it is unacceptable to smell like the animals that we are (this, by the way, is very culturally specific). We hide our emotions at work because we aren’t supposed to “make a scene” by reacting honestly to rude customers or over-bearing bosses like the animals we are.

And when we routinely over-ride our instincts we stop trusting them. Introducing the element of doubt is an incredible tool for controlling someone. This is an issue that impacts everyone, certainly, but it is also exceptionally gendered. Think of all the ways women (and other people socialized female) are taught to ignore our instincts: we are taught to distrust our hunger, routinely. Whether that’s through extreme calorie restriction, or the mind-games so many of us play as we try to negotiate down our hunger (“Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Maybe I can just have some celery and hope my stomach will stop growling. Maybe I could have some gum instead. Maybe I’m just thirsty!”).How many times have you been told that “we often mistake hunger for thirst”? Ten? A hundred? Coming up on a million? Have you ever stopped to consider how ridiculous of a statement that is? If you took it out of the context of women’s continued disavowal of hunger it makes literally no sense. You’d never tell someone that has to poop that they actually need to pee and have just mistaken the two. Or that someone who is complaining of being cold is actually dehydrated. If someone is hungry they’re hungry.

We are taught to ignore our gut in favour of politeness. I tell my clients constantly, “your gut is smart. Trust it.” How often do we override that niggling feeling because we want to be “nice” (one of the most toxic words in the English language if you ask me)? On the bus, with that creepy guy who won’t get out of our space. Walking home with that dude who’s been behind us for too many blocks and turns. On a date with a cute guy or girl who keeps pushing minor boundaries? With the roommate situation we knew immediately wouldn’t work out?**

We are also taught to ignore our basic comfort, from the clothes that we wear (ever notice how many women change into sweats or pjs the second they walk in the door while their male partners are perfectly comfortable in their un-restrictive pants and shirts?), to the shoes we teeter in, to the absurd and painful lengths we go to remove the body hair that is our god-damn birthright as animals.

I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately, including going back to therapy after almost a year break. And what I realized today is that almost all of the work I’ve been doing is allowing myself to get back to my animal self. It has been about trusting my gut, honouring my instincts, trusting my body, and seeking embodiment.

I recently had a dating situation where someone did a couple things that threw up yellow flags. Not red flags. They weren’t “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” infractions. They were “psst, hey, Will Robinson, maybe make a note of this, it’s a little hinky.” One yellow flag is something to mind but not a deal-breaker. But in quick succession there were three or four yellow flags on the field and I was suddenly flooded with anxiety. Not because I felt unsafe, but because I was at war with my gut. My gut was telling me “you know about boundaries. You literally teach workshops on boundaries. You tell your clients every day to trust their gut. You can’t talk the talk if you won’t walk the walk.”

I had a really clear signal from my gut that there were too many yellow flags on the pitch but I was fighting it because I didn’t want to “overreact” or “be rude.” Despite being in possession of the world’s best early alert system I was fighting something I champion because I’ve spent my life being subtly and overtly trained to ignore it for fear of shame–god forbid a woman “overreact” be “hysterical” or “a bitch” to a man who is over-reaching his bounds.

This personal work has also included embracing my hunger without questioning it or trying to barter it down, and listening to my body’s signals that it needs movement or rest.

Recognizing when we are safe or not, when we are hungry or not, and whether we are tired or not are literally our birthright as animals (ever seen a cat that’s feeling any of those? They don’t fuck around. They get their needs met whatever it takes), and yet we are taught from a very young age that all of those instincts are wrong (let Creepy Uncle Jerry kiss you, you don’t need seconds, go to bed even though you’re not tired). And so our work as adult humans is, in many ways, to get back to our animal selves.

*This is a contentious statistic for a whole lot of reasons I’m not going to go into here, related to disclosure, shame, measurement, etc. This statistic comes from Stats Can in 1993, the last time they did a Violence Against Women survey. The commonly cited American statistic comes from RAINN and is one in five. My instinct is that that is a low estimate.

**Oh do I have stories. And for every bad roommate story I have a matching story of ignoring my gut instinct.

Let’s Just Stop With the Food Wars, Okay?

Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search. Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post.
Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search.
Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post. Link here.

There’s something about the internet that brings out the basest parts of us. Can you imagine if people lived their day-to-day lives like they were on a Facebook thread (or, god forbid, in the Youtube comments section)?

I’m vegan (for political reasons) and gluten-free (for IBS reasons). Here’s what such an announcement would look like on the internet:

Commenter 1: I’m vegan too, but I don’t eat soy, corn, oil, sugar, grains, or joy. Anyone who does isn’t a real vegan!
Commenter 2: Fuck veganism. I’m paleo. Veganism is for [redacted misogynistic slur]!
Commenter 3: Gluten-free is such a fad! Stop being so pretentious! Fuck you!
Commenter 2: Fuck you! I’m gluten-free because Grok didn’t eat glutens! Do you even lift, bro?
Commenter 4: I can’t be vegan because as a man it will turn me gay and make me grow breasts.  STOP TRYING TO FEMINIZE ME YOU FEMINAZI!!!!
Commenter 5: I make $900 an hour working from home! Ask me how!

And so on and so forth into perpetuity.

Here is what it looks like if I tell a room full of people that I am gluten-free and vegan.

Person 1: Huh. That sounds hard.
Person 2: I think the cafe around the corner has some stuff you can eat.

I think part of the problem is that the internet is, still, kind of like the Wild Wild West and people are trying to find their people. One way to do that is to make big, extreme statements, hoping that doing so will bring your kind of people out of the woodwork. If you eat in a restricted or unusual way, it can be hard to find people who get it and have tips and recipes and can commiserate. I’m sympathetic to that.

But, more than that, I think the internet lets us conveniently forget that every username and avatar belong to a real person with real feelings and so we say the nasty things we would never say out loud but feel emboldened to say on the internet.

Pair that with the fact that a lot of the extreme, exclusionary diet talk is based on a type of moralizing that sounds, frankly, bananas, when said out loud in mixed company, and you have a perfect storm.

A lot of the extremely restricted ways that people eat don’t actually make any sense, and so they can create a lot of cognitive dissonance. Do we know what Grok was eating 10,000 years ago? Kind of. It was varied. Climate and geography have a huge impact on what foods are available at a low energy and safety cost. It wast mostly vegetarian. With maybe some grubs thrown in. And, more importantly, if given the chance, Grok would shovel down pastries by the fistful because he lived in a time of scarcity. (Plus, you know, evolution didn’t just stop 10,000 years ago–as evidenced by the various levels of lactose tolerance around the world and so many other things.)

Really thinking about why you’re eating bacon on bacon on bacon with half a sweet potato might lead you to some uncomfortable places. Are you swept up in a fad? Are you deathly afraid of carbs? Are you tied to an outdated ideology that is less and less acceptable in nominally liberal spaces?

Durant constructs an image of the “natural” that is entirely ideological. The real appeal of hunter-gatherer life is what he imagines to be its strict partition of gender roles, where “Men were hunters, women were gatherers” and where “women rewarded great hunters” with sex. Paleo eating is here connected with an image of society which reproduces itself largely through masculine competition.

Or maybe you have embraced “healthy veganism” wherein you exclude all “processed foods” such as flour, oils, sugar, and perhaps grains. And let’s throw soy in there for good measure because of something The Food Babe said. And maybe you’re doing it based on the promise that you’ll feel better for it, yet wondering why you are so tired and cranky all the time. So maybe you start eliminating more foods. And maybe you’re starting to get really afraid of food. But you’ve been sold a bill of goods that eating the right way will extend your lifespan, cure all known diseases, and make you a good person.

You can’t exactly walk away from that, can you? So how do you silence those doubts? You double-down. Maybe you start a new blog about “clean eating” or start trolling your friends’ pics of pasta on instagram. Maybe you just remove everyone from your Facebook feed who isn’t also paleo or raw vegan or orthorexic.

Whatever the case, you begin to build your identity around your diet. And that is a dangerous place to be. Not only because there are so many cultural and economic factors behind who eats what (and, make no mistake, both Paleo and mainstream veganism are not financially available to most low-income people, and are culturally irrelevant to many people’s traditional foodways), but because there may well come a time when you can’t eat that way anymore. And what happens to your identity if its prevailing factor is no longer available to you? The vegan community has seen what happens when people stop being vegan and become militantly ex-vegan. It’s weird and ugly.

The truth is, there are conversations we should be having about food. They involve the scarcity of good quality, varied foods in food deserts; the inequitable ways food is grown and distributed around the world; the subsidies high calorie/low satiety/low nutrient food producers get and their obscene advertising budgets; the lack of time and access many people have to the knowledge and means to cook for themselves between multiple under-paying jobs; the exploitative practices of using temporary migrant food workers for food production in Canada and the US which often involve unsafe work and living conditions and criminally low pay; the abhorrent realities of CAFOs which damage land and water while torturing animals and traumatizing slaughterhouse workers.

These are the conversations we should be having. And these are the food issues we should be moralizing–these are all incredibly unjust, unethical practices allowed and propped up by systemic issues of class inequality, racism, colonization, neoliberalism, and undue corporate influence on government policies.

Focusing on anything less is navel-gazing, us-vs-them bullshit that hides the real ethical issues of food politics and I’m tired of it.

Don’t Listen To Me, I’m Just Some Lady On The Internet

If you are someone who uses the internet to look at recipes, or workouts, or workout gear, or seek workout inspiration, or diet info, or pretty much anything targeted toward women you’ve seen them. Tonnes of them. Life coaches; holistic coaches; health coaches; health and wellness coaches; holistic health and wellness coaches; holistic health, wellness, and life coaches.

And if you’re anything like me, when you see that in their “about” section you think to yourself “hmmm. What the fuck does that actually mean??”

See, anyone can call themselves a coach. Watch this: I’m a feminist blogger coach. Boom! Now to do some social media marketing…

Now, I truly believe that all of these various coaches are well-meaning. They feel like they’ve figured something out and they want to share that with the world. Often, it seems, they have overcome (whether fully or partially) a disordered relationship with food and want to share that newfound freedom with others. That is commendable and lovely. It is also really, really worrying to me.

First, my observations about coaches: they are almost always middle-class white ladies who are dissatisfied with the jobs available to them and wanting to both help others and be their own bosses. I can dig that. I’m a white lady who is just about to squeak into the middle-class with the start of a new job (and I was raised culturally, if not always financially, middle-class). I am often dissatisfied with the jobs available to me and would be happy to be my own boss. I am also committed to helping people. I get it. (I also think this can be tied to the neoliberalization of health–in short, it eschews regulation, mandatory training, and any kind of job stability or benefits while putting the onus for health on the individual in very visible ways (health coaches are pretty much always thin, conventionally attractive white women)–but that’s a post for another day.)

But here’s where I have a huge concern with coaches. Anyone can be a coach. There is no legal restriction on who can be a coach. There is no regulatory body that ensures all coaches are certified. And then there’s that question…certified in what? There are lots of health coaching certifications. They seem to span from a weekend to months. But, to paraphrase some graphic novel I haven’t read, who certifies the certifiers (sorry)? What does it actually mean to be a certified health coach? Who are you capable of responsibly and ethically working with?

I’ve worked in the anti-violence movement for a long time. I have been a victim support worker. I have a masters degree that focused on the intersections of mental health, physical health, and policy. What I’m saying is, I know a lot about mental health, I know a lot about how to support people who have experienced horrifically traumatic events. I have a lot of training and even train others. But I am not a counsellor. I am not a psychologist. There is a whole lot of mental health stuff that I am not qualified to do and it would be unethical for me to do it.

And that’s what concerns me. I recently read an article by a health and wellness coach who specializes in treating eating disorders. Red flags started shooting up left and right for me. Trained and registered therapists (psychologists, clinical counsellors, clinical social workers) need years and years of specialized training in order to be able to work with people with eating disorders. They also have their own clinical supervision which ensures they are not only providing good, competent, ethical care, but they they themselves are mentally healthy enough to be working with clients. I have seen far too many health and wellness coaches who seem to have their own unresolved eating disorders putting that skewed information out into the ether (and, presumably, into their clients’ lives) and that is profoundly worrying to me.

Therapy is not one-size-fits all, and it’s certainly not a perfect field. But it is backed up by rigorous training, it’s well regulated, and it has a lot of academic literature to support the efficacy of many modalities. If I want to visit a clinical counsellor I can check with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors and ensure that she is registered with them, which means she has at least a Master’s degree in an approved field, has references which speak to her abilities as a counsellor, has completed a 100 hour practicum, has a broad base of skills and knowledge, and has pledged to follow a strict ethical code.

Whereas someone who lists themself as a life coach or health and wellness coach could have some kind of certification or none. And if they do have a certification it’s quite difficult to find out what that actually entails (I’ve tried). And, unlike with a registered clinical counsellor or psychologist, they have a lot of leeway in what they do. An RCC or psychologist has bounds they can’t step outside of–they can’t start giving you dietary advice or prescribing workouts, or any number of things–while a health coach can tell you pretty much anything they want to, regardless of the efficacy, safety, and sanity of their recommendations.

Now, this isn’t to slag off every “coach” out there. As I said, I think they are well-intentioned and truly want to help people. And sometimes having a facebook page or blog that focuses on movement that feels good and mostly whole foods is just what you need for motivation and inspiration. But I think it gets into dicier territory when money starts exchanging hands and recommendations are being given.

But don’t listen to me, I’m just some lady on the internet.

The Problem With (The Problem With) The Quantified Self Movement

For whatever reason, perhaps because it’s that time of the year and I know many fitness-minded people, I keep coming across articles about the Quantified Self Movement (briefly: the movement towards collecting your own health data whether it’s steps counted with your fitbit, calories and macronutrients eaten, quality and quantity of sleep with a phone app) and the problems with it.

But the problems I keep seeing people write about are not the problems I’m particularly interested in. Yes, the question of where does that data go and who is using it is important (though hard to get excited about knowing that everything from my Facebook to my debit purchases are tracked, sold, analyzed). As is the issue of how male-oriented a lot of health trackers are (half the population has periods and the things that go along with it!).

But the biggest problems, to my mind, are the ways that the Quantified Self Movement (or, if you’re not crazy about the title, the increasing ubiquity of health-trackers) reifies the neoliberal approach to health as a project of surveillance and self-governance with a complete elision of the structural factors that affect health much more deeply than the number of steps you take in a day.

While activity is important for health, and 10,000 steps is a good goal for those whose bodies are able to meet it, the more pressing matters for more and more people are living in a safe environment (does your pedometer matter when you have black mould in your damp apartment? When you can’t walk down the street for fear of violence from passersby and/or the police?), having access to enough reasonably healthful food (who cares about goji berries when the only food options within an hour’s walk are fast food?), and living above the poverty line (did you know poverty is one of the biggest risk factors for diabetes?).

So far, $1.4 billion has been invested in wearable technology and it’s estimated that revenue from wearable tech will hit $19 billion by 2018$19 billion. Nineteen billion dollars. Imagine what $19 billion dollars could do in terms of infrastructure. $2 billion could cover my entire city with streetcars, which would get more cars off the road, more people walking, and would stimulate local businesses. Imagine how many community gardens, culturally-relevant food sharing and cooking programs, safe green spaces in urban communities, grocery stores in food deserts, bike-sharing programs, low-cost/free health clinics, mental health programs, and domestic violence programs could be funded. Hell, imagine how much lobbying for fruit and vegetable subsidies we could do with $19 billion dollars.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. It’s not like that $19 billion dollars, if not going to Fitbits and Misfits and other weirdly named trackers, would go into infrastructure and alleviating poverty. But the salient point here is that if these companies (and the middle class Whole Foods goers who buy them) are going to claim to care about improving health, we need to look beyond the individual. We need to look at what creates healthy societies and invest our time, money, and talents in that, rather than getting yet another gadget to sync with our phones.

(Full disclosure: I have a Withings Pulse and wear it daily. In hindsight, a $10 pedometer would have done the trick just as well.)

Why I Don’t Leave It On The Field

There are two interesting and contradictory trends in fitness I keep seeing. The first is the “leave it on the field” (or workout ’til you vomit) trend and the latter is, seemingly, a backlash, mostly found in more feminist (whether explicitly or not), body-positive spaces that argues training and movement should be additive–they should positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them.

This post was inspired by (among other things) this post about a Spartan race in California that resulted in a dozen people being sent to the hospital, including broken bones and two heart attacks. It’s also inspired by the ongoing conversations about the sustainability of Crossfit as well as the influx of Tough Mudder, Spartan Run, and Mud Run pictures crowding my Facebook timeline. And it’s inspired by my own past all-or-nothing tendencies that saw me doing two hours of cardio a day, running myself ragged in pursuit of…something.

So I want to think about what that something is and why so many of us fall prey to the pursuit of it at the expense of our health, wallets, and time. And I want to think about how it’s probably related to the neoliberal conception of health and fitness. I’m going to be totally gauche and quote myself here:

Both Schee (2008) and Guthman and DuPuis (2006) borrow Foucault’s concept of governmentality to describe the ways that dominant forces shape a self-governing ethic that creates a “hypervigilance about control and deservingness” which then “creates divisions between active citizens, those who can manage their own risks, and ‘targeted populations’, those who require intervention in management of risks” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443). Colls and Evans (2009) argue that even those who are at a ‘normal’ weight are considered at “risk of becoming ‘overweight’ which in turn is a risk for becoming ‘obese’” (p.1013), thus all bodies are subject to that hypervigilance and surveillance. Those currently construed as active citizens are viewed as self-disciplined and rational, while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are viewed as irrational and lacking discipline (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006). It is in this way that class (and its corollaries race and gender) is performed through the body (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006).

Because I think this idea may be at the root of the popularity of balls-to-the-wall fitness trends.

It is not enough, in our culture, to strive for moderation, something that is hard enough to attain in our current obesogenic environment (a not unproblematic term, certainly, but I haven’t found a better one that attends to the constant availability of hyperpalatable foods, the billions of dollars that go into advertising and lobbying, the agricultural conglomerates that receive subsidies for calorically dense crops while fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for many, and the car culture and other forces that encourage sedentary lifestyles). Rather, we divide ourselves between those seeking ritual self-flagellation, couch potatoes, and the growing number just trying to find sanity and health in their food and movement practices.

One thing that strikes me about Crossfit and its ilk is that it may stand in for church in our increasingly secular culture. It is somewhere you go regularly, where you have community, and where you are promised some form of purity–whether that’s in the form of punishment for your sins (try doing a WOD hungover, I promise you’ll feel punished) or in doing something few others can (or want to) do. Of course there are those who just enjoy a CF workout and like hanging out with their friends while they sweat their buns off. And that’s fine. Do what makes you happy and healthy. But let’s not ignore the larger cultural forces at play to avoid stepping on toes.

From Crossfit to SoulCycle, the last few years have seen a rise in exercise-with-the-fervour-of-religion. Which, I think, dovetails nicely with the idea that the good citizen keeps themself under constant surveillance, making sure to both consume and sacrifice at the same time. Crossfit, SoulCycle, and obstacle races like Tough Mudder are populated by primarily middle (to upper) class white 20-40 year olds who are willing to spend boatloads of cash on fitness. They are able to consume (spending money on classes, races, gear, and swag) while remaining slim and self-disciplined. The neoliberal problem of inelastic demand (we can only eat so much, own so many houses, drive so many cars) paired with the failing health of a population that is overworked, overfed, over-stressed, and lacking the basic right to affordable health care (still an issue in the US despite the Affordable Care Act) is fixed by a culture that “returns improvement to the individual” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443).

Rather than looking at systemic issues like how to ensure quality nutrition for all, a healthy work-life balance, adequate and safe housing, safe outdoor spaces, and the systemic barriers facing marginalized people, these exercise cultures focus on the individual and the path to purity through pushing beyond your limits.

And these exercise cultures burn people out because bodies aren’t meant to go 100% 5 (or 6 or 7!) days a week. We aren’t meant to tax our immune systems and nervous systems every day at the gym, pushing harder, harder, harder, until we puke or faint or rupture something. And while some people can keep that intensity up for a surprisingly long time, eventually the body gives. And, in the meantime, we are sacrificing so much for this ritual purity. How many times have you given a workout your all and then found yourself lying on the couch the rest of the day because you were spent? How many times have you pushed too hard, too fast, too far, then limped for four days, cursing every time you sit down on the toilet because your legs are on fire?

That is not sustainable, it is not loving. It is self-flagellation. It is seeking punishment for sins defined by a dysfunctional culture.

Which isn’t to say never go hard. I fully believe a sustainable movement practice can (and, ideally, should!) incorporate hard days. I’ve been incorporating clean-and-presses into my practice lately and you have got to be all in to do them. Every part of your body focused, engaged, working hard. But that can’t be every day. Not just because your body can’t sustain it (ever tried running the day after a heavy deadlift? It’s hell on earth) but your mind and soul can’t either. It wears you down. It strips the joy from movement and thus life.

Movement should be additive. It should enable you to conquer the massive floating log at Wreck Beach with ease (SO MUCH FUN) and then walk up the one million stairs to get back to the road. It should enable you to help your friend move with ease (seriously, moving is so much easier when you deadlift!), it should shore up your resources for times of high stress. In short, it should let you do the hard work of living–it shouldn’t be  the hard work.