In pursuit of a political argument for exercise

by Stephanie on October 3, 2012

I’ve been a bit low lately. I’ve had knee problems since the half-marathon and for a few weeks I didn’t run at all. Even my bicycle seemed to be constantly in for repair, which meant hideous train rides to and from work every day. I got sick. Then I got sick again. The Melbourne Writers Festival came along, followed by the Brisbane Writers Festival, I was still working five days a week at MTC and every night my calendar seemed to demand my presence at an underlined-in-red-pen important event. I fell behind with quite a few writing projects due to sheer exhaustion, and twice in the space of three weeks the thought of leaving the house reduced me to tears because all I wanted was a goddamn afternoon to myself. The fact that I haven’t had a holiday since well before I finished my PhD probably has a lot to do with this. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the enormous emotional slump I fell into corresponded exactly with a dramatic decline in the amount of physical activity I’d been doing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies over the last few weeks, about exercise and its relationship to the individual, but also about its relationship to politics and society. Outside of feminist-driven criticism relating to body image and beauty, there doesn’t seem to be much political theory about exercise in and of itself. It’s understandable, in a way. It’s common, particularly in feminist circles, for discussion about exercise and the body to morph rapidly into issues of weight, body shaming, social expectations, beauty industries and personal choice. Trying to critique aspects of this debate from a pro-exercise point of view is inherently tricky, because fitness rhetoric is tied so tightly to sexist beauty standards imposed by corporations and institutions that exist to make personal profit from women’s (and men’s) insecurities, so it’s easy to misinterpret advocacy for physical activity as social pressure to conform to the status quo.

But I don’t think it has to be like that.

From a materialist perspective, a person is solely a physical entity. There is no soul, no separate spirit that exists apart from the corporeal, but only a creature composed entirely of matter. I don’t mean that to be reductive: if this being that is me is solely material, then the capacity, complexity and intricacy of the body is perhaps even more fascinating and wondrous than if it were inhabited by some supernatural force. But conceiving of the body in this way has far-reaching implications. If a person is no more or less than their body, then what you do with that body, how you treat it, is incredibly important. If a person is no more or less than their body, then how you treat other people’s bodies is simultaneously important. It might be stating the obvious, but rather than being a kind of ancillary concern, actually, the body itself matters a lot.

This has political implications. It suggests that how corporations and state structures treat the body is crucial. Feminists often argue that women’s bodies are the sites upon which misogyny is made manifest. But I would argue that all power abuses are enacted, in some way, upon the body. Consider assault, rape, torture, murder, war. Politics as a question of a relationship to the body also speaks to issues of personal agency: consider restrictions on access to birth control and abortion. Consider social structures that prohibit sex between consenting adults. Consider slavery, sweatshop labour, child labour, incarceration. There are further implications for social services and government: consider provision of public hospitals and easily accessible health care. Consider public sports facilities, open community spaces, and first aid. Consider disability access schemes. Consider hideously expensive pharmaceuticals. Consider food, shelter and clothing.

Furthermore, understanding a person as a purely material entity does not exclude attention to the mind or the emotions, but rather, reminding oneself that the mind is part of the body. Consider access to education, trauma counselling, creative fulfilment, holidays, time to oneself, child care, social networks, and the arts.

And it has personal implications, too.

There’s this idea that permeates contemporary liberal thinking that discipline is in itself bad. That it is diametrically opposed to agency, to freedom. But discipline and agency are not mutually exclusive. They are dynamic, fluid, contradictory aspects of the same entity. The practice of personal physical discipline doesn’t restrict your personal power, or your physical and mental strength and ability; it increases it. It is through that discipline that you gain greater agency. Writing is a great example of this process in action, but so is exercise. Our bodies are made to move. The muscles are there to be used, and if, in the end, this temporal lump of matter is the sum of us, then we should be embracing that and all of its physical potential with all the energy we have.

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