Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Sociopolitical Complexities of Self-Improvement, or, How to Make Yourself Do Push-Ups

"I swear, I'm so ANGRY right now! I'll avenge your beautiful hand and your beautiful foot! I'll chop the legs off every dragon I fight! With my face!"

How to Train Your Dragon

I've just had a thought.

This thought has two points of origin. The first is John Oliver's brilliant segment on the Miss America pageant from this week's Last Week Tonight, which you really should watch if you haven't yet. The second is my semester goal.

I've discovered that I can handle semester goals. New Year's Resolutions can bite me, but a semester goal is manageable. And, at least for me, a four-month goal can become a habit. Last fall semester, for example, I decided to swear off fast food and meat until Christmas. Both of these have worked out quite well. I now regularly pack my lunch to work, and that lunch tends to be made of black beans, noodles, quinoa, or lentils. Very healthy, extremely cheap, quite yummy. (The yumminess took some practice, but we got there in the end.)

This semester, I have decided I'm gonna freakin' exercise. This has always been a problem for me, because I am A. lazy, B. poor, and C. self-conscious. This fairly well rules out any exercise that I have to leave my house for. Swimming's a hassle that puts my body on display. Gym classes cost money. Cycling has a tendency to leave me stranded far from home in the cold and the dark with a flat tire. Kayaking is wonderful, but only while the weather holds, and it involves a fair bit of there-and-back transportation. And anyone who suggests any kind of competitive sport is gonna get a kick in the shins.

So I've been doing these: Nerdfitness.com's Body Weight Circuits. Zero money, zero travel time, zero special equipment. I can huff and puff and blow my lungs out in the privacy of my own room and the privacy of my own underwear (I don't own workout clothes. Seriously, none at all). And so far, it's been really pretty good! I'll watch or listen to something while I do my circuits, then pop immediately into the shower as soon as I've completed my daily squats and lunges and push-ups. No muss, no fuss.

Of course, I loathe being in pain. I'm a complete sissy about it. So doing "just one more" push-up is decidedly NOT my idea of a good time. And I've never managed to do it consistently in the past. So why is this working so well now?

That's where John Oliver and Miss America come back in. See, exercise for me carries this far-off, teasing promise: If you do this enough, eventually you will be beautiful. You'll be beautiful enough for someone to love you. Beauty is a weapon in the competition of singleness; it allows you to dominate other women and claim a partner for your own. Maybe. If you're also a nice person. And smart, but not too smart. And just dang lucky. But you'd better be doing your workouts, or the kindness and smartness and luck aren't gonna do you a bit of good. It's a buyer's market out there. You've got to beat out the competition.

I hate competition.

Like haaaaate.

And this is why I've never exercised regularly. Because fitness means beauty and beauty means competing and competing means somebody has to lose. I would much rather stay quietly at home and marathon-watch The X-Files than engage in a competitive sport like spouse-hunting where somebody, inevitably, is gonna get hurt.

So I've given myself a new far-off promise: If you do this enough, you will be strong. You'll be strong enough to lift boxes of costumes and heavy wooden benches and sections of the dock. You'll be strong enough to haul huge coolers of cranberry juice up and down hills, to keep injured victims afloat in deep water. You'll be strong enough to be useful at camp.

And that's a great promise. That's amazing. Because I will do pretty much anything to be useful at camp. Useful at camp is my favorite thing to be. If I am strong, I can help. I can serve. There's no possibility of me losing, because it's not a competition. If I am stronger, everybody wins.

I can't serve people with beauty. I can't use my face to do any good in the world for anyone except myself, and even then, the good for me would be harm for someone else. But I can serve with strength. I can haul things and lift things and fix things and climb things. I can be not simply good, but good for something. And that is so satisfying. Satisfying enough to merit one more push-up.


  1. The ward that we moved into is in a generally-more-affluent area and is full of impressively put-together women. I sometimes have trouble figuring out how to relate to all of this. It's just very *different.*

    For the record, I think you have a very nice face. :)

  2. We have started taking the girls swimming at OSU's pool (free), and at first I felt really self conscious, like my body was on display. After all, that's a lot more of my body than I regularly show people - but then, I realized no one was looking at me. What a relief! And it's not like my kids care. So no I just remember, when I (or others) are swimming, we are not looking at each other and thinking about what we look like.
    I have never liked exercise just to exercise - I think I am allergic to gyms. But I do love walking, and now I walk at least two miles a day on school days, in addition to regular moving, and it is nice. For me I would like to be strong too. I don't want to be an old lady that moves to a wheelchair because I never moved enough, and got too weak. I want to be able to lift things, and climb a mountain, and enjoy good health. (Also, I wouldn't mind losing my baby weight, but I know this ought to be at the bottom of the list).
    I think competition in things like this is horrible, and the worst part for me, not that I'm doing it for spouse hunting, but let's cut an paste in skinny mom hunting, is that no one really cares. But me. So I am just making it up in my head. (Um, this Thora, not Avram. But I am too lazy to sign me in. I am pretty sure Avram has never once thought about losing baby weight.)