Sunday, January 04, 2015

Fitter happier

If there ever was a song that defined me, it's this, and it's not even a proper song. Somehow that robot voice just completely and utterly destroys me. Naturally, I try to avoid it like the plague, lest I feel run over by a tractor for the rest of the day (putting a whole new spin on the phrase "That's my jam!").

I've been making lists like these ever since I was a kid, and I'm clearly not the only one. Whenever I stumble upon those old diary entries, what guts me is, aside from things like "move to New York" and "become a Paleontologist", how little these lists have changed. Somehow they've come to provide a constant backdrop to my life like a Greek chorus, always reminding me of how I need to be a better me.

The only difference is that now the chorus has entered the digital age. I track my weight in 3 different places every morning. I'm an active HabitRPG member, faithfully killing off my character every night by logging my cigarettes for the day, and I have Excel spreadsheets of my weight and exercise going back to 2007. This fall at work every one of us was gifted a Fitbit Flex (which apparently proved more cost-effective than gifting us with extra staff), so now every single step I take is digitized and logged and uploaded, contributing to the ever growing historical record of how I have failed. And I can't take it off, because somehow, even if I'm just recording failure, the recording soothes me, just like the making of lists in itself is a soothing endeavor. It's a neuroticism that signifies health, and provides the illusion of control.

Reading Foucault, you learn that more than anything else, our modern minds are rooted in this recording and categorizing in pursuit of discipline. We may defy discipline but we can't escape its thrall, and we can't escape being logged, now more than ever. And why fight it? After all, how would we know where we stand opposed to fellow humans with regards to wealth, beauty and social status, if we didn't take measure of these things? How would we know where we needed work? How to live?

The most disturbing thing about Dave Eggers' dystopian novel 'The Circle' (which is an altogether disturbing read, especially if you're already battling anxiety and have just started a blog, of all things) is not just how it takes this idea of logging and measuring as an inherently worthwhile pursuit and follows it to its natural conclusion, it's how on board we already are with so many of the novel's inventions.* The main characters in this world wear multiple wristbands that not only track their steps and sleep habits but also monitor their heart rate and body temperature, among other things, and I could catch myself thinking I wanted one of those, like, yesterday.
There's some notion in there that being part of a statistic entails a higher form of existence than just being alive, that being measured is a confirmation of ourselves.

Our reasons for wanting to improve these statistics have become a lot murkier than they once were, let's say twenty years ago:

Me (defiant): "Well why can't I just be fat?"

Mother: "Because if you get fat, you'll never find a husband."

Me: "But grandma's fat and she found a husband."

Mother: "That was during the war, honey. Everyone was starving then, and grandma got just thin enough to find someone to marry."

This may have been part of some truth when I was a kid, but it's far from the entire story. Jessica Goldstein hits the nail right on the head in her analysis of Amy Schumer's sketches versus that one episode of 'Louie' that got all the attention last spring:
"Schumer’s episode doesn’t directly address the issue of what men want. Garofalo and Schumer (and, at the end, a Bond girl played by a literal skeleton) are the only speaking characters, and the focus is all inward. Schumer doesn’t discuss wanting to be skinny because she can’t get a date or she wants more guys to approach her in bars. The understanding is that Schumer needs to lose weight just to exist." (my italics)
This is a notion of existing that calls to mind Aristotle's concept of entel├ęcheia, that all existing consists of a constant striving to actualize potential, of working to become what you are. Existing is an act of pursuit, of unearthing, of sweat and toil. I'm all for that.
Why then, do we sell what we are so short as to reduce it to a collection of numbers on scales and in bank accounts? To something that can at all be measured by these crude devices?
We aspire so much, and yet, so pathetically little.

To confront this fact puts us in a very paradoxical position. Schumer can create those great sketches and still confess to spending 90 minutes each time to look like the goddess she does.
I just wrote a +800 word blog post against the concept of self-improvement on a blog about self-improvement.
It's a bit disheartening to be so perfectly aware of the hidden drivers behind why we do things, and then turn around and go do them anyway. But perhaps the occasional peek behind the curtain can help us to stop taking things so goddamn seriously.

I'll leave you, as proper philosophers do, with more questions than answers, and a note of gratitude to those who have been reading this far. If you want to go ahead and skip the resolutions this year, or at least go back to rewrite them, you have my blessing.

Next week: zombies!

* Eggers mentions in interviews that he had to go back and change these inventions multiple times, as he found they had already been introduced as he was busy writing the book.


  1. Oh yes, fabulous.

  2. This post is so erudite that I can now just say that I feel inferior and I really want a Fitbit, any Fitbit (there are like a million of them, and I can't figure out how they're different from each other).
    ~ the clueless pixie

    1. Woah, it certainly wasn't my intention to make you to feel inferior, but thanks :)

  3. "It's a bit disheartening to be so perfectly aware of the hidden drivers behind why we do things, and then turn around and go do them anyway."

    So true and recognizable. :)

  4. I think my comment just got eaten...if I end up with a double-post, I will be double-annoyed :p

    In short: I've got a pedometer that's been proving for months that I walk even fewer than the too-little steps I assumed and I've got no plans to change, but I dutifully wear it and record my steps daily. I also daily record food intake, temperature, and hours of sleep. If you ever need to feel better about your activity, we could compare my steps daily to yours....

    Also, I totally ignore the idea of resolutions. Because I don't feel like building shame into my life. Beyond the things I log :p

    1. I'll show you mine if you show me yours ;p