There is no hierarchy of attractiveness. Not in any absolute sense, not outside of what we have constructed as a culture. And that construction is an illusion.
Much as I can tell, the people I have been attracted to in my life – there’s no set criteria. They have been different sizes, races and complexions, always different, and the similarities are difficult to quantify. And a gain or loss of ten pounds doesn’t change one single thing. And what people may find attractive about me, is often not what I would have expected.
But the concepts, the ideas, the suggestion that you can control how people perceive you by changing your body, the promise of becoming more attractive through behaviour, discipline, training and hard work. It’s powerful. I find myself from time to time, wishing I looked a bit different. Wanting to ‘sculpt my body’ in one way or another. One could ask – what are you going to do about it? It’s a common question. It assumes that the pursuit of a goal will result in satisfaction, or at the very least that any attempt is worthwhile. I’m not going to diet, let alone starve myself, and I enjoy training very much, but there’s this other aspect, internally – why can’t I just resist the overwhelming weight of the cultural pressure to be thinner, the pervasive prejudices of an entire civilization simply by strength of will? Whhyyyy???
Maybe because that’s not how these things work.
I have a good grasp of the difference between weight-loss behaviours and healthy behaviours. Sometimes they look the same, sometimes they appear different, but intention counts for a lot. I rebel against the impulse to try to lose weight, because I rebel against the cultural pressure to fit in, to conform, to homogenize myself. To a point, that is, of course. I’m a fairly quiet, obedient rebel, if such a thing is possible – in other ways I don’t rock the boat very much.
But although I rebel against weight-loss propaganda and the notion of weight-loss above all else, I participate in certain ways – the behaviours might look similar on the outside – I exercise a lot, I generally choose to eat foods that seem to be good for me, more than… questionable foods, if that’s the right way to put it. You could say I ‘look after’ myself, and I try to trust myself, and the experts I know and admire, much as I can. It looks like compliance, and some of it is.
But sometimes, it seems, much of health comes down to educated guess-work. The world is chaotic, nothing is guaranteed, and in that context, we do what we can.
But here’s what I can tell pretty firmly:
Regular exercise helps me to metabolise sugar/carbohydrates so much better than if I do not train. I notice, Type One Diabetic that I have been for 20+ years, if I go much longer than a week and a half without training, I need to start injecting more insulin to compensate.
But there’s a massive leap between being good at metabolising sugar and losing body fat. People often pretend that these two concepts are one-and-the-same, but at a glance you can tell they are not. Being better at metabolising sugar won’t suddenly make you thin. But it will help you to metabolise sugar, and that’s valuable too.
Striving to increase muscle mass is problematic in many ways, but it’s fun, and there are many benefits. These range from hormone function and improved metabolic function, to improved strength, and bone density, but mostly the benefits are academic. Although it all sounds good on paper, in day-to-day life, it’s hard to know how this might benefit me in years to come, compared to let’s say – if I was less muscular but still active in other ways. And the truth is: having more muscle does not really make it easier to stay lean. That maybe works some of the time, or up to a point, but it is far from guaranteed. I believe muscle mass to be good, to be beneficial, just for other reasons. It’s not all about being lean. And there is a sweet spot, excess is a real thing and you can have too much of a good thing. You can have too much mobility too. Health is more than one-dimensional.
The notion of doing a cardio workout or a strength workout is mostly hype, unless you’re competitive in a strength or endurance sport. But for casual gym-going people, it comes down to much ado about nothing. We tell people to get on the rower or whatever (for cardio) or to lift weights (for strength), but the truth is that it requires strength to run or to row well, and weightlifting requires a solid cardiovascular base too.
The only reason ‘we’ don’t ask ‘you’ to do a workout comprised of handstands and kickboxing is because we don’t emphasise the value or development of physical skills. We keep it simple. But in terms of human physiology, there’s no advantage to a fifteen minute jog over fifteen minutes of light boxing. It’s just that one is easier to tell people to do. All we’re doing when we talk about ‘cardio’ is referring to a certain state of intensity. That intensity can be achieved through the repetition of any of a vast range of practiced movements. You may swim or dance, run, train circuit style, do squats, but ‘cardio’ is about nothing more than training at a given intensity for a given duration of time. High intensity activities help make you strong, low intensity activities performed for time help you to endure. That is the balance: intensity vs duration. One side of the scale we call strength. The other side we call cardio. There is a middle-ground too, and it’s all good.
But as trainers, we are just as capable of laziness as any client we may chew out for the same perceived flaw. Trainers can be lazy in program design and instruction, only to accuse clients of being lazy for failing to stick with uninspired, cookie-cutter programs. Oh, the irony.
But gearing your training around the development of skills is more rewarding in the long term. If you fail to lose weight, or if you succeed – either way – in twelve months from now, your weight will be whatever it will be, but if you are noticeably more flexible, you have better body awareness, you can do cool dance moves, you are stronger and can successfully help people move furniture, any or all of the above – well training has a way of surprising you. If you can do cool shit, or do stuff better, or if you did something on your terms, or if you’ve become better friends with your own body in one way or another, you’ll look back and realise it was worth it, even if you didn’t shed a pound. There’s something else of value, and you’ve been through a process, and you have a lived experience of whatever it is that you did live.
In the end I feel a bit like a broken record. Do things you like to do. Add things to your life that you enjoy, that are good for you, and in future, you’ll have a life full of things you like, that are satisfying, and that are good for you. I am struck this week by a certain profundity surrounding death. Bowie, Alan Rickman, it seemed a week for cancer. And now I feel as if this is a strange alternate reality, the reality that has no Bowie in it. Under Pressure is changed, yet again. But someone told me – think that you were fortunate enough to have lived in the time of David Bowie? That you are fortunate enough to live in the time that you do? And so what next? We do what we can to look after ourselves, knowing that the world is chaotic and death is inevitable.
Speaking of records, I sometimes remember the title of an album I bought when I was a teenager: Find What You Like and Let it Kill You. Just the title stayed with me.
But I don’t mean to dwell on too gloomy a note. In accepting that death is inevitable, we can maybe be free to live life on our terms, knowing in the end that if there’s any judgement to be had, it’s not to be made by other humans… and when it comes to the end, I don’t want to go out still worrying about what other people might think of my life choices. A mile in their shoes, so to speak.
Of course I’m not talking about being too selfish or adopting a fuck everyone else kind of attitude, we still need to exist in a culture with each other, we need to live together, and hopefully we can do that well. As always, I’m talking about trying to be aware of what you’re doing, where you want to go, how you want to participate and look after yourself; it’s not just about following along doing eight hundred sets of push-ups because some blogger says a real man is measured by blah-de-whatsit, or trying to diminish yourself because some hypothetical douche thinks a thin waist is more desirable. Nobody knows.
Exercise should make your life better in some way. Fitness adds to your life. You shouldn’t need to sacrifice your life at the altar of exercise, we seem to get it the wrong way around – fitness should enable you to live your life the way you want, you should not have to sacrifice your life for your fitness goals.
The gym, the studio, the concept of training itself is there to serve you, not to change you. So what then, does that mean for New Year Resolutions? If exercise exists to serve your needs, and you do not in fact, need to be turned into a whole new person – that changes the game somewhat, don’t you think?
If you’re in charge and the gym, the trainers, coaches and instructors, they work to serve you – which actually is what happens, it’s how we make a buck – it changes the whole concept of commitment, of doing what you’re told. Because you’re not committing to the gym.
The gym is committing to you.
What then of resolutions? To change, to grow? Do you need to discipline yourself, to be hard on yourself, or instead can you be kind, gentle, understanding, and as it challenges you in the ways that it may do, can your fitness training serve you, rather than you serve it? Can you bend your training to your will and make it truly your own, rather than subjugate yourself to suit the training?
Then what of hard work? That hard work is for you, not for the altar of fitness. It exists in context, it’s about something, it’s not just hard work for the sake of hard work. And if it’s about something, you’re not at the same risk of burning out, of killing the thing that’s supposed to help you. And you will know, at a glance, when it is appropriate to work, when to rest, when to eat, when to sleep, because you’ll start to see exploitative propaganda for what it is, and you’ll start to perceive more clearly – what serves your needs? What do you need to work at, for you?
Because if you’re not bound to it, if you’re free, then it can actually be fun. Good for you. Useful. And you can have real experiences, learning about your body and yourself. Concepts fade. Prejudice fades. And you build trust with yourself. And now... now maybe there can be some resolutions worth investigating.