Thursday, July 18, 2013

One with nature

Why do we run? (Cue the soft music.) We run to be one with nature, to reach some kind of meditative state. We can really focus when we run, and it's while running that we come up with our greatest ideas. Running inspires us to care for our bodies. It's a way to transcend the quotidian, to escape the rush of modern life, it's... and so forth.

While we tolerate the idea that running might reverse obesity-related ailments or help someone quit smoking, we draw a line between running, this noble enterprise, and working out. Working out, then, is about lookin' hot. Running, many seem to think, exists on some other plane. Like yoga, except not like yoga, because there's no spiritual justification. There's just this idea that running isn't like the other day-to-day ways people stay in shape. It's fine to spend a lot on running-related this-and-that - on races or even clothes. But - cue Bobos in Paradise - it has to be functional. It can't be about whether or not your butt looks good in those leggings. (Which reminds me - going by the reviews, poor Lululemon does not appear to have fixed its pants situation. My cheapness resistance to their siren call remains intact.)

And, no. Running, like all exercise undertaken by adults who are not professional athletes, is nearly always (by which I mean, always) at least somewhat about vanity. It's impossible to be indifferent to its (often ridiculously subtle) transformative power. I mean, how could you be indifferent? One way one looks more... airbrushed or something than the other way. Who among us is like, meh, that means nothing to me?

It's rarely just vanity, though, as there are, for women at least, many more straightforward ways to be increase conventional attractiveness. (Lipstick, eyeliner, eating less pasta.) Of course there are other reasons to exercise. Procrastination (a socially-acceptable reason to watch a half-hour of bad television). Anxiety-diminishment. "Health," I suppose, but I think the current science on this is that it's enough to just walk around a bit.

And by "vanity" I don't necessarily mean losing weight - different people have different... vanities, and I can vouch for running never leading to weight loss in some people. But if you think vanity doesn't enter into why you run at all, ask yourself this: if you saw no difference whatsoever between your physique with or without running, would you keep at it?

An analogy: for those who say they drink alcohol only for the taste (and there are supposedly people who say this), if an alcohol-free product were invented that tasted identical to wine, some kind of mutant grape juice, would they drink it?

Some of us run not because it suits introversion or introspection, or anything so profound, but because it's the only exercise we can stick with, or (on a good day) enjoy, and - more to the point - are coordinated enough to do.

*****

So I'm very much in favor of frankness when it comes to the relationship between exercise and vanity. But I don't seem to be able to get behind the idea that one must look good while exercising. Into The Gloss offers up a guide to gym beauty, which... is this even something to attempt? Maybe for people who don't turn beet-red from exercise, and whose hair doesn't frizz from sweat. It's not that no one ever looks good while working out. It's that few among us are Italian soccer players.

But no matter. A personal trainer advises moisturizer (for the gym?) as well as illuminator (!) and mascara (!!!). It's not that makeup before the gym would necessarily take too long, or that it's somehow trying too hard (esp. given that makeup worn at the gym can well be the result of having not bothered to remove makeup worn earlier in the day). It's not that it violates some kind of rule about being hardcore, or that it's wrong to admit that one is working out for a frivolous or selfish reason. It's that makeup would, I'd think, promptly pour off your face if you're working out enough to actually be accomplishing anything.

Anyway, we learn that black is the only flattering color for leggings (true), and that only supermodels should wear shorts (bizarre). Not actually all that bizarre, though, when one remembers that the trainer interviewed is the "face" of a company that makes leggings. (And shorts, though - so much for that conspiracy.)

Also that the goal is looking good for some guy named Roger, who we have no reason to believe is an Italian soccer player jogging by the sea.

*****

In further beauty-and-nature news, women are being encouraged to let body hair be during August, in solidarity with women who suffer from PCOS, a condition that causes hairiness. Women with and without this condition are going to participate. Which seems... as a Guardian commenter says, like it would do the very opposite of making women with significant amounts of facial and body hair more comfortable. Most women who leave be are going to be not all that hairy, meaning that the few who are will stand out.

And this comes back to the natural-beauty issue. The presumption of artifice allows those who go in for whichever beautification ritual to imagine that all are quite possibly doing the same. The likely result of large-scale abandonment of artifice isn't a utopia of everyone being thought beautiful in their own way. It's that the same traits will be valued, but only those who come by them 'naturally' will reap the benefits.

It's a tricky issue, though, because there's also proliferation of 'necessary' primping which we'd probably like to avoid. Acceptance of artifice shouldn't have to mean an enthusiastic embrace of a world in which cosmetic surgery is the default. And there's no obvious place to draw the line (except there kind of is: surgery). It just continues to see odd to me that we're meant to believe the abandonment of artifice would be an unqualified good for those who most rely on it.

4 comments:

Petey said...

"And by "vanity" I don't necessarily mean losing weight - different people have different... vanities, and I can vouch for running never leading to weight loss in some people. But if you think vanity doesn't enter into why you run at all, ask yourself this: if you saw no difference whatsoever between your physique with or without running, would you keep at it?"

I don't run, but I do regular aerobic exercise.

And yes, given that I started doing regular aerobic exercise for reasons that had nothing to do with my physique, I'd certainly continue under your stipulation.

I think I'm not too much of an outlier on this count.

Also, even ignoring the obvious mental-wellbeing rationales, regular aerobic exercise caters to a large number of (broadly defined) vanities reaching far beyond just physique.

Finally, I think this spans gender.

Phoebe said...

I didn't say it's only about vanity, or physiques, nor would I say this is the only reason someone will begin working out. But I don't think, in a society that values a fit appearance, anyone male or female can be indifferent to having come to look more fit. If such people exist, more power to you/them.

Petey said...

"I didn't say it's only about vanity, or physiques, nor would I say this is the only reason someone will begin working out."

No doubt. I'm just taking issue with that one stipulation of yours.

"But I don't think, in a society that values a fit appearance, anyone male or female can be indifferent to having come to look more fit. If such people exist, more power to you/them."

While I thank you for your generous offer, I need no more power on this count. Thanks to a lucky draw of the genes and a discriminating palate, I can eat anything I want and not exercise while maintaining a good physique. So I can painlessly afford to be indifferent to the topic.

To give my own example, as a mere pup of a young adult, I had a strong cultural aversion to folks who worked out. But I was living by the beach in West LA with a bicycle at my disposal, and I starting riding for the sheer fun of visually taking in the surroundings. Unexpectedly, I noticed that the sweat of this joy-riding made me feel much, much better, both physically and mentally. And thus, my addiction to regular aerobic exercise was born.

Now, that unexpected byproduct of improved physical and mental wellbeing did genuinely cater to several of my vanities, which I could bore you with in detail should you care, even though those vanities had absolutely nothing to do with 'looking more fit'.

(And I'll reiterate my thought that a centrality of such non-physique rationales behind exercise is far more common than I suppose you suppose.)

Not to mention that, given current fashion standards, if one wants to focus purely on societal appearance, isn't a discreet heroin habit or eating kleenex a significantly more effective solution than exercise?

Sigivald said...

An analogy: for those who say they drink alcohol only for the taste (and there are supposedly people who say this), if an alcohol-free product were invented that tasted identical to wine, some kind of mutant grape juice, would they drink it?

Well, while I like getting a nice buzz on, I would totally sip a really good no-liquor scotch, if it existed.

Good tastes are good!