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An Aspirational Accoutrement

Tue, 02/28/2023 - 12:21
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
Sylvie Rosokoff

“Fit Nation”
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
University of Chicago Press, $29

Full disclosure: I'm a fifth-degree black belt in traditional Japanese karate. I have been studying karate, attending class sometimes more than once a day, for going on 32 years. In addition, I boxed for many years. I've had two concussions, one in the ring at Gleason's and the other at my first black belt promotion. Besides karate, I work out every day, doing at least 60 minutes on a stationary bike when it's too cold to ride outside. 

On a bike trip in Slovenia, I once rode a 10K climb of the Vrsic Pass, where the grade is 13 percent. I attribute my finishing this "challenge" to God. 

I used to skip rope. The regimen would be 5,000 turns. One time I felt a sharp pain around 2,500. I'm used to discomfort and it doesn't stop me or act as a warning signal. I felt a slight stabbing sensation, but said, "So what?" Until I went down like a horse, having fractured my tibia.  

I was so depressed in a full leg cast that I did what came naturally, which was to exercise, in this case by using my crutches to get to the pull-up bar I have in my apartment and to the weight deck that sits conveniently in my living room. 

All of which is to say that I'm a compulsive exerciser. Exercise is my drug. I use it to combat depression. The Wall Street Journal once did a story about my exercise routines, which unleashed a torrent of hate mail. To many readers I was like the drunk at the party. The fact is, I was once the drunk at the party. Would you rather have me staggering and interrupting your conversation as I came on to your partner, or watch me running a 10K, as I faithfully did for years? 

I never feel good in my resting state. Religion has never worked for me, though I have tried it. I rarely say no to a physical challenge unless it involves the ocean, since I almost drowned when I was 5. I exercise to feel better than my resting state. I've always wanted to get high, but for the past 35 years or so the high has come from an endorphin rush. I don't exercise for the sake of health (in fact, the way I exercise isn't health). It's like Burger King's Impossible Whopper, which I eat because it makes me feel better, at least for now. 

Regarding "Fit Nation," let me make one factual correction. In discussing disadvantaged students at Washington Irving High School, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela asserts that the McDonald's on the west side of Union Square "has since shut." That's not the case (I know because I'm a regular). But many of her other observations are spot-on, particularly with regard to the sociology of fitness. 

"Fitness has become not only a physical pursuit but a ubiquitous accoutrement of an 'aspirational lifestyle.' " And also a signifier of social status. "One writer traded triathlons for powerlifting and realized that his friends and even his wife were vaguely disgusted by his bulging muscles." Ms. Petrzela goes on to state, "fitness has become a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption." Indeed, gyms are status symbols. The Gladiator in Alphabet City, with its simple equipment, attracted a totally different demographic than the old Vertical Club and now Equinox, which caters to a high-end clientele. 

Those who actually boxed at the "white collar" Gleason's tournaments (which weren't white collar) constituted a totally different demographic — those who take so-called "boxing" classes where there is no physical contact to ruffle the Botox. 

And here's an observation on which liberals and conservatives could conveniently agree: "Bodily autonomy and self-determination were rallying cries of the Left, but they dovetailed surprisingly elegantly with a conservative worldview that prized individualism and personal responsibility."

Ms. Petrzela's emphasis from the beginning is weighted on the millenarian aspects of exercise as a transformer of body and mind. Students in her exercise class "shared predictable triumphs . . . but also disclosed surprisingly, and even troublingly, private details about their pregnancies, mental health, and sexual experiences." Anything that makes us more honest and intimate has to be good. She's an advocate, but not at the expense of subtlety, and she leaves little to the imagination. You learn not only about Pilates but the Joe who created it. She's invariably eloquent in her iterations, which to her credit readily accommodate contradiction. 

If you live in an enclave of prosperity like East Hampton, many of Ms. Petrzela's insights about the commodification of exercise will ring true. Fighting over prime property like spin bikes has mirrored our tortured politics; one spinner famously threw another off a bike at an Equinox location. 

Volumes about exercise usually exude a mind/body problem to the extent that the text tends to restrict itself to meat-and-potatoes issues like what regimens increase speed and strength. However, Ms. Petrzela's prose flows as energetically and with all the form one appreciates in an accomplished athlete.

She has a full grasp of the sociology of working out as well as its history, as is indicated in her portrait of Eugen Sandow, a 19th-century strongman who anticipated Charles Atlas. Sandow was apparently also a racist who once dangled an impudent Black bellhop over a "sixteenth-floor banister." Ms. Petrzela points out that a well-developed body was still associated with being from the class of "immigrant and minority laborers" who did "the heavy lifting." 

"Fit Nation" is a kind of of the industry. Santa Monica's Muscle Beach was the site of a Joseph Strick (of "Ulysses" fame) documentary. Jack LaLanne and Pudgy Stockton made cameo appearances. Vic Tanny, another Muscle Beach alumnus, later attempted to attract an affluent following with elegantly appointed gyms in upper-class neighborhoods like Scarsdale, N.Y. Steve Reeves, a Muscle Beach aficionado later cast as Hercules, was one of a number of actors discovered at what was a former Works Progress Administration-financed playground. 

Ira Wallace would eventually write "Muscle Beach," a novel whose main character discovers, as Ms. Petrzela puts it, "that anyone so fixated on outward appearance lacks an interior life." Still, J.F.K. as a power of example "challenged the ingrained assumption that intellect and exercise were mutually exclusive." 

Exercise is a cult, whether it's practiced by extremists who compete in super-marathons and undertake free solo climbs or undertaken by those ascribing to the edifying notion of exercise as a form of self-realization. And cults require leaders. Commenting on Jivamukti yoga, she remarks, "its prominence in a world where fitness and yoga were becoming ever more enmeshed spoke to a new conception of an authoritative, knowledgeable, and inspired teacher — even guru — at the head of the room, a conception that spread as the lines between fitness and yoga became more permeable." 

Of course, the devotion of disciples could be problematic. The charismatic Bikram Choudhury came to be accused of sexual abuse. Yogis walk on nails and CrossFit types turn into tomorrow's Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

William Bowerman and W.E. Harris coined the expression "Run for Your Lives!" as they ushered in the jogging craze, along with Jim Fixx, the author of "The Complete Book of Running," who died at 52. Ms. Petrzela quotes a runner who tells The Honolulu Advertiser, "Running is in our genes, while jogging is 'in' like jeans." 

The running craze would have its dark side too. "Nothing solidified this notion of the Black threat to white joggers as viscerally as the l989 frenzy over the 'Central Park jogger,' when five men of color were wrongfully convicted of the rape and attempted murder of a white female investment banker who had been out running." 

"Fit Nation" is a detailed Baedeker of the democratization of athletics. The number of adults who exercised regularly went from 24 percent in 1961 to 59 percent in 1984, with 1.7 million gymgoers in 1972 increasing to 24 million in 1995. "The Richard Simmons Show" and the "Jane Fonda's Workout" tape became milestones. The porn industry experienced a parallel expansion thanks to the VCR, producing such fitness-themed classics as "Lesbian Gym" and "Midtown Queen," "Muscle Motion" (produced by Chippendales) and "Warm Up to Traci Lords." 

At one point, fitness and hedonism became uneasy bedfellows. The author remarks, "In 1984 even Jack LaLanne — at age seventy — told Playboy he saw punishing workouts and equally intense weekend debauchery as mutually reinforcing."  

Ms. Petrzela's method is to present the history of the millennium as a history of fitness — annotated and exhaustively footnoted. There's something curiously absurd, tendentious, and remarkably true about that, particularly if one looks at fitness, wealth, and self-realization — all forms of aspiration — as symptoms of the drive and insatiability of an almost romantic culture. 

She ends by singling out 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and the coronavirus epidemic in 2020 as milestones not only in U.S. history but the history of fitness. 

In the era of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling "Eat, Pray, Love," spiritually oriented programs like Patricia Moreno's intenSati, of which the author was an adherent as well as instructor, attained a new currency. And MAMILs, "middle-aged men in Lycra," became an acronym. Did the advent of the Fitbit coincide with Ms. Petrzela's assertion that by 2018 "exercise science" was the fastest growing major? It's enough to make you sweat.

Francis Levy is a Wainscott resident. A trailer for an animated version of his novel "Erotomania: A Romance" can be found on YouTube by searching for "Francis Levy Erotomania," and his book of parables, "The Kafka Studies Department," with illustrations by Hallie Cohen, will be released in September.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at the New School. She lives part time in Springs.

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