Is it possible to separate the need to exercise from the desire to be thin? And like, what do class and capitalism have to do with going for a jog? Casey Ireland reflects on her shifting relationship to exercise.
Almost a year into living in Colorado, I exercise. And worse, I have become Someone Who Exercises.
I don’t think physical fitness is tied to beauty or that wellness is tied to virtue. I know that the pursuit of weight loss is not the pursuit of happiness. I know that one’s sense of worth as a person, of desirability and attractiveness, should exist outside of weight and BMI and exercise class and cellulite. The reality is that the time to think about one’s appearance and one’s general fitness is a luxury. Even seeing doctors depends upon insurance, on a stable income, on access. And yet I spend about 3-4 hours a week outside now, whereas I once only left my house to go get cheeseburgers. The time I used to spend on eBay finding vintage Bonnie Cashin is now spent searching for new-with-tags Outdoor Voices pieces. I wore out my running shoes. I have an exercise playlist. I bought a bike.
The last time I can remember being interested in exercise was high school. I ran laps around my family’s yard while our next door neighbor, a former girls’ volleyball coach, barked encouragement. I dabbled in track in middle school, but it’s hard to retroactively separate my interest in running from my interest in being thin. The length of my runs were proportional to the amount of pizza I wanted. Exercise was a thing I did to feel better about eating. I don’t think I ever actually enjoyed running for running’s sake. What I enjoyed was the feeling of doing something, of being in control of my body and the way it looked.
When I went to college, I replaced jogs with long walks and bike rides. The move from the suburbs to a small city that actually had sidewalks meant I could walk everywhere, as long as I wanted, for hours at a time. And the occasional cigarettes I smoked in high school had ballooned into cartons tucked under my twin extra-long bed, making jogging, already on the outs, too difficult. Biking soon followed, and by my senior year of college, I would drive the 0.5 miles to my classes. My bike rusted on the rack outside my apartment, then the front tire was stolen, then the whole thing disappeared.
I’ve maintained an agnostic attitude toward physical activity for the last 10 years or so. At the beginning of grad school, I started taking the bus to class rather than walking. I developed a passionate dedication to ordering a large Papa John’s pizza for one and eating it within 24 hours. I smoked half a pack a day. I mistrusted exercise for exercise’s sake, recalling the ways it was historically tied to weight and body image for me. But then I would go to London every summer for research and average 6, 8 miles of walking a day. I’d come back to Virginia having lost some weight and with a reignited dedication to casual, integrated physical activity. Gym classes and athleisure were so American. Wouldn’t it be just as good, and far cheaper, to walk to dinner?
I moved to London for a semester in the fall of 2017 and lived like a king. By then I had quit smoking and walked daily. I assumed these two habits would cancel out all the Lebanese delivery and cheap Scotch, but when I moved back to Virginia that December, I felt bad. I was less Serge Gainsbourg and more John Belushi. I would get out of breath while walking and talking on the phone. My autoimmune disease was acting up and I was getting hives from the cold. I was losing my hair. My nurse practitioner told me I was now technically overweight and an autoimmune specialist chided me for my lack of fitness. “You know you’re pretty out of shape, right?” she asked as she felt my pulse after I hopped up from the side chair to the exam chair. After this meeting, I went for a jog and ran one mile. I looked up CDC recommendations for the amount of exercise I should get per week and found a park by the river where I could jog in relative privacy.
By the time I moved to Boulder, Colorado this August, my weight had dropped into BMI-sanctioned territory and I could withstand a half hour of physical activity. But the altitude and general outdoor culture of Colorado kicked my ass and I felt daunted enough to quit jogging. I felt like Boulder wasn’t for me, that I could only enjoy the city if I was white-toothed and blonde and drove a Subaru and took my golden retriever for 10-mile hikes. I started walking dogs for some money and some structure. Then I started walking daily on my own, then I started jogging again. Then came skiing, hiking, and preparing to climb one of the nearby 14,000-foot mountains. I get a similar surge of negative energy when I hear 60 year-olds talking about “fourteeners” as I did the immunologist talking about my heart rate. “I can do that, too,” I hiss to myself. And I seem to have done it, to have become an entry-level Outdoor Bro. When I go for long runs with my boyfriend at the reservoir on Sundays, I now get the wave from other runners. I can talk on the phone while walking.
Here are my issues with exercise as a requirement for a fulfilling and active life: access, time, and money. Boulder shouldn’t feel more welcoming to me now just because I’ve joined the club and can climb Mt. Sanitas. I don’t think that you should have to exercise in order to enjoy nature or to appreciate living in a beautiful place. Exercise also takes a lot of time, afforded to me by grad school and a flexible schedule. And though part of why I started jogging instead of taking up yoga or a fitness class was because of money, it certainly isn’t costless. Jogging, in theory, is free if you run outside. But there are still a lot of costs associated with running, some of which are reasonable (a good pair of running shoes) and some are not (coordinating leggings and sports bras). And while my interest in getting physically fit stemmed from being told I wasn’t fit at all, I still haven’t been able to separate my desire to be thin from my desire to have a better lung capacity. I like the endorphins, sure. But I also like the compliments.
I’m certainly not the first person to note the connections between material consumption and physical activity. Jia Tolentino’s recent piece for The New Yorker on the success of clothing company Outdoor Voices acknowledges the capitalist trickery of exercise-as-virtuousness, as do the countless thinkpieces about Amanda Chantal-Bacon’s supplement empire and the Goop-ification of wellness. It’s a nebulous, business-driven model for creating a need (am I fit? am I healthy? am I vibrantly alive?) and then marketing products geared towards that very manufactured need. And everybody’s weighing in. I was reading the blog of a florist I follow, Sarah Ryhanen of Saipua, who diagnosed Outdoor Voices’ catchline of #doingthings as“incredibly problematic in that it assumes that you need to buy something in order to do something.” But then Ryhanen glibly notes that “instead of buying outdoor voices athletic wear, maybe people should all just come work at Worlds End,” which is Ryhanan’s flower farm. I was filled with shame, then irritated at the ways businesses can act as if they can exist outside of the structures of capitalism. Even though Ryhanan’s not selling me recycled polyester leggings or a bouncier run, she’s still selling me soaps and flowers and thousand-dollar residencies at her farm. And I would rather direct my cash towards a sports bra that will prevent me from needing to tuck my breasts into the waist of my jeans. I bought another merino T-shirt and went for a hike.
One of my best friends from Virginia called me a few weeks ago while I was out jogging; she laughed when I told her what I was doing. When she called me back the next day, I was also out jogging. “Do you do this…. every day?” she asked me. “Yes,” I told her. “I’m so sorry.”
Casey Ireland is a 28-year-old writer, currently getting her PhD in English.