Self-Improvement is Over – The Cut

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Bored, frustrated, restless, frightened, politically enraged, homebound and free of all fancies this past year, I frequently headed into the strange, sinister badlands of self-improvement for something to do. And there was a lot. No matter which way you look at the whole self, there’s room for tweaking. Even sticking strictly to the physical form, the options were endless for me: An ab needed forging. A hamstring needed stretching. A pimple needed patching. But seeking to self-improve didn’t make me feel improved at all. At all! It just made me feel like I’d hired a snooping, pedantic consultant who kept providing me with an itemized case review of problem areas. Each item seemed kinda minor and one-off, just another little twig to spruce up and throw in the pile, which was in a world that’s on fire.

Self-improvement, by virtue of its inward-looking egotism, doesn’t seem to think much about the state of the world. In its register, everything seems as if it should be on a smooth, upward trajectory, forever and forever, into the sky. But fallow periods and plateaus and full-body falters are likely more than half the story. Reflecting on her body-building routine in a 1993 essay, Kathy Acker writes that the whole thing, the entire premise of her exercise practice is basically a courtship with constant defeat. In her project of amassing muscle, she finds herself slamming into the limits of her ability. She lifts weights until she and her muscles give up. She’s always confronting failure; and then always returning, to find that after resting and giving up, she’s able to bear even more weight. In this way, “Bodybuilding can be seen to be about nothing but failure.”

With a snake-eating-its-tail flourish, this theory seems both completely encouraging and totally demoralizing. But that’s the arrangement with fitness: there’s always a boom, a push, then retreat and collapse. This toil-then-flail principle is the whole thing. Acker was …….


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