Last night while I was drifting off to sleep I realized: I am one of those people. I prioritize working out and physical activity like nothing else in my life; I talk about it incessantly, and I even have a blog about it. Damn it, when did this happen?
But I also really work at being one of those people who, although excited about working out, doesn’t judge others for their physical activity (regardless of if it is higher then mine, lower, or just about the same). This can be hard, especially when I pull myself from bed at 5 am to go for a nine mile run (bragging) and still get to work at 9 am. And to be very honest the creeping judgement is often tied to how someone looks, or even how they are moving through workouts (in the gym or on the road). I’m that asshole.
Physical culture in our society is rife with judgements. While companies that market us the same things over and over (really, how many iterations of running shoes do you need) have individualized and powerful slogans of “Just Do It!” the imagery that matches it is of elite (muscular, cut, fit, fast) athletes. Ads for gyms, gear, etc are all filled to the brim with smiling people who all have one of two body types – slim or jacked (I wont even get into race, gender etc here).
So clearly to be fit is to look “fit.” It isn’t odd that a state of being equals a particular look. Humans (you and me, but not the curl-bro in the squat rack –judging) are narrative creatures. We look for story everywhere because it helps to organize all this information in our little monkey brains. It also allows us to make sense of an otherwise very chaotic and very frightening world. But there is a problem with narrative, you only get one side of the story, and combined with the tendency to ignore what is not seen (history is written by the victors, and the losers, well they are dead, and have no story to tell), the story is entrenched and the characters become archetypes. Really-fit looking archetypes.
Think about it: What do distance runners look like? Emaciated. What do swimmers look like? Hott (come on you’ve said it). What do male gymnasts look like? Muscle bound hobbits. Etc.
But what about the “overweight” runner.
I know some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking if you run a lot you wont be overweight. Or not. I would argue that, in the case of elite distance runners three things have happened
1. The demands of running at high speed for long distances generally requires a particular body type (we love generalities, they protect us from random anomalies).
2. People who naturally have that particular body type are going to be more inclined to succeed at distance running (and not, by contrast, strong man competitions). This is the reverse of running makes you look emaciated.
3. Because we are narrative animals those people without that body type regardless of skill or ability are discouraged, through a combination of un-spoken and then outright pressure, to not pursue long distance running. This individual discouragement can and has become more deeply systematized in our society as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. (more on this in later posts).
Narrative may have just stopped the next fastest marathoner from pursuing her dreams because her ass wasn’t flat enough in those tight little shorts.
Now we combine this need for narrative with a strong desire to be a part of a group. Groups are defined as much as who is let in as who is not. Strict boundaries are created around those in the group and those out of the group. Those boundaries are ruthlessly enforced. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in the Black Swan, “We are social animals; hell is other people.”
Narrative (and archetypal assignment of traits to characters) + Groups = Judgment?
Whoa. Wait. Wait one second!
I just went far afield. Let me bring it back. Ultimately it isn’t about the next “overweight” running prodigy. It’s about the images of fitness (elite and otherwise) we are presented with and how they become barricades to people really getting fit.
And beyond that, I fooled you. I made you look over there (the general) when I started out with over here (me, the specific judgmental asshole). I (hopefully) distracted you with my deep dive into some scientific-y, over my morning coffee, explanation of why judgments happen in the gym, on the road, on the subway etc. and what they mean for fitness.
But seriously, I can intervene on this feedback loop. It is simple. I need to stop being a judgmental asshole. Maybe by the pure absence of judgment, which is the flip side to acceptance, I will encourage others around me to get fit, not matter what shape that takes.
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