A Rhetoric of Fitness: Persuasion and Perspiration
Rich, Susanna, et Cetera
EACH SPRING and summer we pay homage to Sisyphus, the patron of modern fitness routines, by pushing our winterbodies up an Everest of dumbbells, Nautilus racks, Nike's, Adidas socks, sit-ups, and Fonda tapes. We hope to round the pinnacle and reach the promised land of skinny bathing suits, washboard bellies, and love ever after. But just as Sisyphus's stone rolls him inevitably back, by autumn too many of us bottom out just in time for 2-for-1 lures at Jack Lalanne's and the 50% off sales on the size 8 bathing suit into which we couldn't skinny down. It's a wonder that we return to fitness centers and canned fitness masters on television and video. If we're not getting our money's worth, how do we become persuaded into all this pumping up, trimming back, bottomfirming running around? For what, truly are we becoming fit? It seems that contemporary fitness runs on three rhetorical routines: Divide and Conquer, Put Out, and Measure Up
In The Dynamics of Literary Response, Norman Holland argues that reading helps us manage our feelings and anxieties by displacing our attention to the language which encodes them. In fitness routines, the displacement is largely to numbers. Numbers are what count, not energy, exuberance, or strength. It's not unusual for a woman who has trimmed back into her summer clothing to be disappointed because she still weighs in at the same number she did before replacing her spread with lean but heavier muscle.
Fitness routines weigh heavily on someone counting. We hear the endless barking of one, two, three, ad (literally) nauseam, of the instructor in person or on television (taped or live). One does 60 sit-ups, 3 sets of 20 leg-raises (each leg), holds a pose for 60 seconds, runs for two miles, calculates pacing, and so on. Exercise is done at certain set times (6 and 9 a.m. for It Figures on Channel 12) and for a duration of 20, 30, or 60 minutes, or until the next commercial break. Published exercise journals require you to report on how much, how often, and how long you perform your running, swimming, or stationary bicycling. The before and after of your becoming fit for life is measured by tape (upper thigh, halfway between thigh and knee ...), scale 2 (optimum weight determined by insurance companies), and your shirt size. There's more. Heart rate is calculated by fingering one's pulse (throat or wrist, don't use your thumb or you'll get a double reading) for 10 seconds, multiplying by 6 and then taking a percentage for optimum and resting rates. One of the problems with this process is that taking one's pulse while trying to watch the sweep second hand can occasion tripping, twisting of an ankle, or a too sudden stop. Sudden stops break the breathing rhythm and tax the heart. The calculations themselves burn up energy better spent on moving one's legs.
The story is that measurable success breeds more success. But what happens in fact is that we turn from existing as sedentary food junkies, to performing as running numbers junkies. Instead of learning more about our own bodies, its tensions, flexibilities, and endurance, we learn how to calculate and bargain with them.
Beating the clock beats the body, as does making the count. People often hold their breath while counting. Counting is easy, exercise is not. To match the speed of the body to the speed of the mind is to race against oneself. We end up throwing our bodies around instead of working them.
A stopwatch commerce between will and body curtails the exercise it's meant to encourage. I'll give it two minutes and no more. Ten more, translates into, I can only manage ten and no more. Fitness masters have not realized, as some professional weight-watchers have, that calorie-counting and constant weighing against ideals just exacerbates the attempt to trim back.
We become convinced that there are no alternatives to numbers, even though there are. No runner would dream of breaking the rhythm …
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Publication information: Article title: A Rhetoric of Fitness: Persuasion and Perspiration. Contributors: Rich, Susanna - Author. Journal title: et Cetera. Volume: 53. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1996. Page number: 266+. © International Society for General Semantics-ARCHIVED Oct 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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