Barbara Ehrenreich: Working out is another form of conspicuous consumption

From Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich… 

Working out is another form of conspicuous consumption: Affluent people do it and, especially if muscular exertion is already part of their job, lower-class people tend to avoid it. There are exceptions like the working-class male body builders—“ meatballs”— who can be found in places like Gold’s Gym, as well as the lower-class women who attempt to shed pounds at Curves (a descendant of the women’s-only gym where I started my workout career). By and large, though, working out is a reliable indicator of social status.

And why should the mind want to subdue the body systematically, repeatedly, day after day? Many gym-goers will tell you cheerfully that it makes them feel better, at least when the workout is over. But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body, you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else, and in their work lives that is a large part of what typical gym-goers do. We are talking here about a relative elite of people who are more likely to give orders than to take them— managers and professionals. In this class, there are steep penalties for being overweight or in any other way apparently unhealthy. Flabby people are less likely to be hired or promoted; 13 they may even be reprimanded and obliged to undergo the company’s “wellness” program, probably consisting of exercise (on- or off-site), nutritional counseling to promote weight loss, and, if indicated, lessons in smoking cessation.

The author points out that the fitness culture provides equal opportunities for misery:

But if women are in a way “masculinized” by the fitness culture, one might equally well say that men are “feminized” by it. Before the 1970s, only women were obsessed with their bodies, although in a morbid, anorectic way. But in the brightly lit gyms, where walls are typically lined by mirrors, both sexes are invited to inspect their body images for any unwanted bulges or loose bits of flesh and plan their workouts accordingly. Gay men flocked to the gyms, creating a highly chiseled standard of male beauty. The big change, though, was that heterosexual men were also “objectified” by the fitness culture, encouraged to see themselves as the objects of other people’s appreciation— or, as the case may be, scorn. For both sexes in the endangered white-collar middle class, the body became an essential element of self-presentation, not just its size and general shape but the squareness of shoulders, the flatness of tummy, and, when sleeves were rolled up, the carefully sculpted contours of muscle.

Ehrenreich points out that blue collar workers are likely to be so damaged by age 50, e.g., with back pain, that they can’t participate in the fitness competition.

Knee and lower back pain arise in the forties and fifties, compromising the mobility required for “successful aging.” … The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 40 percent of people age sixty-five and older suffer from at least one disability, with two-thirds of them saying they have difficulty walking or climbing. … “You don’t become inactive because you age,” we’ve been told over and over. “You age because you’ve become inactive.”

Who is fighting the hardest against what formerly had been accepted as the natural order?

The goal here is not something as mundane as health. Silicon Valley’s towering hubris demands nothing less than immortality. The reason why Kurzweil has transformed himself into a walking chemistry lab is to prolong his life just long enough for the next set of biomedical breakthroughs to come along, say in 2040, after which we’ll be able to load our bodies with millions of nanobots programmed to fight disease. One way or another, other tech titans aim to achieve the same thing. As Newsweek reports: Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.”

If you are one of the richest men in the world, and presumably, since this is Silicon Valley, one of the smartest, why should you ever die?

Maybe it is time to hit the gym…

More: Read Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.

10 thoughts on “Barbara Ehrenreich: Working out is another form of conspicuous consumption

  1. Speaking purely for myself, about myself, I’d like to share something personal, because it’s difficult to write about this in the abstract right now. In my lifetime I’ve gone from muscular, strong, healthy and fit (jogging 5-6 miles a day, lifting 3x a week) to being an obese smoker (a pack a day!) who was mostly sedentary, and now I’m on my way back again. I have a few observations:

    1) Being seriously overweight (I’m talking more than 75 pounds) is no fun. Everything hurts. Most physical things are a little to a lot harder to do, and it’s like a penalty. Your health problems are magnified. People do treat you differently. A lot of the time it’s subtle. They don’t come right out and insult you, necessarily, but if you look like a fat slob, I can see why people think there’s something wrong and a lot of the time they’re on to something. For myself there was a lot wrong. Relationship problems, career trouble, money trouble, lots of stuff. Once you start to let yourself go, because of sheer obliviousness or whatever, it keeps getting worse. It bothers me that she assigns some dark, menacing motive to people trying to stay in shape. I know I want to get back to being closer to where I started – big time – and it has nothing to do with controlling other people or being a “member of the elite”. Here’s the news: finding out that you can’t run run up a flight of stairs in an emergency can be a terrifying thing if you have to attempt it and find out the hard way that you can’t do it. It’ll scare you pretty good.

    2) Quitting smoking and starting an exercise program is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done at my (now middle) age. I quit cold turkey because one morning a couple years ago I had a morning cough spell that lasted 35 minutes and ended with me hyperventilating, unable to catch my breath, seeing spots and the blood vessels in my eyes. I really thought I was going to die, have a stroke, or go into cardiac arrest. I quit that day and never had another cigarette. I felt like I was going out of my MIND a few times during that experience, which I’d be happy to talk more about, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, *hands down*.

    3) This winter has been a real challenge but now I’m trying very hard to get back in shape. I’m improving my diet, cutting out a lot of toxic foods that I knew were also killing me. As a man, it gets a lot tougher when your testosterone level starts to decline. When I started, I couldn’t believe how challenging it was to just *walk* for half a mile and back on a road with some mild elevation changes. It’s very humbling. It takes effort and involves some actual pain, and that’s why a lot of people need extra motivation, companionship, coaching and yes, participation at a health club with other people who are motivated. A lot of the time people just do not have the will power to do it by themselves, especially in the critical first few weeks.

    I say more power to anyone who is trying to get healthier or maintain their fitness, particularly as they age. I also have to confess that there’s a grain of truth to the idea that if you don’t take care of your own body and your own health, you might not be able to take care of other things, either. Everyone is different but “letting oneself go” was, at least for me, part of a syndrome, a complex of problems, some of which I caused and some of which I didn’t.

    Fortunately this really is something most people have a chance to change. Ehrenreich always tries to work that race/class/oppression angle into everything she writes. I don’t need the guilt trip. I’m insulted by her cover graphic with the grim reaper on the treadmill, it’s preposterous in a country where so many people need to lose weight and eat more healthfully (and less!)

    It’s a nice afternoon. I’m going out for my walk. Over and out.

  2. “If you are one of the richest men in the world, and presumably, since this is Silicon Valley, one of the smartest, why should you ever die?”

    Because you are mortal and all mortal creatures die?

    Roman generals, when they were being cheered as they paraded through Rome in a triumphal procession, supposedly had a slave whose sole job was to whisper into the ear of the triumphant victor, “Remember, thou art mortal.” It sounds like these tech guys could use a slave like that right about now.

    I had an uncle who was a pretty rich guy – not tech billionaire rich but rich enough and somehow he thought that his money entitled him to live to a really old age. It didn’t. Rich guys are used to buying whatever they want. It turns out that Angel of Death is not at all impressed by money. This has been understood by the wise since ancient times, but I guess rich guys have to keep learning this lesson over and over in each generation.

    See also E.L. Doctorow’s novel, The Waterworks.

  3. Want to live longer? Eat less. It extends the lives of lab rats by 30%. Calorie-restricted diets aren’t fun, but happily researchers found you get all the benefits by fasting (<600cals) only 1 day/wk. Dr. Michael Mosley did great “BBC Horizons” tv episode on it titled “eat, fast, live longer” where interviews scientists and tries it himself:

    Dr. Mosley also did episodes on exercise (short high-intensity gives best results) and diet (cutting carbs makes blood sugar worse?) – youtube them.

  4. Solon had something to say about happiness and the riches of Croesus, according to Plutarch:

    As for [Solon’s] interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement. So then, they say that Solon, on visiting Sardis at the invitation of Croesus,had much the same experience as an inland man who goes down for the first time to the sea. For just as such a man thinks each successive river that he sees to be the sea, so Solon, as he passed through the court and beheld many of the king’s retainers in costly apparel and moving proudly amid a throng of courtiers and armed guards, thought each in turn to be Croesus, until he was brought to the king himself, who was decked out with everything in the way of precious stones, dyed raiment, and wrought gold that men deem remarkable, or extravagant, or enviable, in order that he might present a most august and gorgeous spectacle. But when Solon, in this presence, neither showed any astonishment at what he saw, nor made any such comments upon it as Croesus had expected, but actually made it clear to all discerning eyes that he despised such vulgarity and pettiness, the king ordered his treasure chambers to be thrown open for the guest, and that he should be led about to behold the rest of his sumptuous equipment. Of this there was no need, for the man himself sufficed to give Solon an understanding of his character. 4 However, when Solon had seen everything and had been conducted back again, Croesus asked him if he had ever known a happier man than he. Solon said he had, and that the man was Tellus, a fellow-citizen of his own; Tellus, he went on to say, had proved himself an honest man, had left reputable sons behind him, and had closed a life which knew no serious want with a glorious display of valour in behalf of his country. Croesus at once judged Solon to be a strange and uncouth fellow, since he did not make an abundance of gold and silver his measure of happiness, but admired the life and death of an ordinary private man more than all this display of power and sovereignty. Notwithstanding, he asked him again whether, next to Tellus, he knew any other man more fortunate than he. Again Solon said he did, naming Cleobis and Bito, men surpassing all others in brotherly love and in dutiful affection towards their mother; for once, he said, when the car in which she was riding was delayed by the oxen, they took the yoke upon their own shoulders and brought their mother to the temple of Hera, where her countrymen called her a happy woman and her heart was rejoiced; then, after sacrifice and feasting, they laid themselves to rest, and never rose again, but were found to have died a painless and tranquil death with so great honour fresh upon them. 6 “What!” said Croesus, who by this time was angered, “dost thou not count us among happy men at all?” Then Solon, who was unwilling to flatter him and did not wish to exasperate him further, said: “O king of Lydia, as the Deity has given us Greeks all other blessings in moderation, so our moderation gives us a kind of wisdom which is timid, in all likelihood, and fit for common people, not one which is kingly and splendid. This wisdom, such as it is, observing that human life is ever subject to all sorts of vicissitudes, forbids us to be puffed up by the good things we have, or to admire a man’s felicity while there is still time for it to change. 7 For the future which is advancing upon every one is varied and uncertain, but when the Deity bestows prosperity on a man up to the end, that man we consider happy; to pronounce any one happy, however, while he is still living and running the risks of life, is like proclaiming an athlete victorious and crowning him while he is still contending for the prize; the verdict is insecure and without authority.” When he had said this, Solon departed, leaving Croesus vexed, but none the wiser for it.

    Now it so happened that Aesop, the writer of fables, was in Sardis, having been summoned thither by Croesus, and receiving much honour at his hands. He was distressed that Solon met with no kindly treatment, and said to him by way of advice: “O Solon, our converse with kings should be either as rare, or as pleasing as is possible.” “No indeed!” said Solon, “but either as rare or as beneficial as possible.”

    At this time, then, Croesus held Solon in a contempt like this; but afterwards he encountered Cyrus, was defeated in battle, lost his city, was taken alive and condemned to be burnt; and then, as he lay bound upon the pyre in the sight of all the Persians and of Cyrus himself, with all the reach and power of which his voice was capable, he called out thrice: “O Solon!” Cyrus, then, astonished at this, sent men to ask him what man or god this Solon was on whom alone he called in his extremity. 3 And Croesus, without any concealment, said: “This man was one of the sages of Greece, and I sent for him, not with any desire to hear or learn the things of which I stood in need, but in order that he might behold, and, when he left me, bear testimony to the happiness I then enjoyed, the loss of which I now see to be a greater evil than its possession was a good. For when it was mine, the good I derived from it was matter of report and men’s opinion, but its departure from me issues in terrible sufferings and irreparable calamities which are real. And that man, conjecturing this future from what he then saw, bade me look to the end of my life, and not let insecure conjectures embolden me to be proud and insolent.” When this was reported to Cyrus, since he was a wiser man than Croesus, and saw the word of Solon confirmed in the example before him, he not only released Croesus, but actually held him in honour as long as he lived. And thus Solon had the reputation of saving one king and instructing another by means of a single saying.

  5. Surprised she equated fitness to higher status & wealth. That’s definitely not how it is with men, above a certain point. Above a certain fitness is where the conspicuous consumption comes in & that’s a lot lower for men than women.

  6. This is so true, in tech gone are the days of fat, bad- looking managers of 2000s. All VPs and Directors now look slim, tanned, with neat haircuts. They project healthy, energetic images. I saw 12 year-old photo of one of VPs I know – he was obese! Now he is slim! Aspiring middle and lower managers fit the bill as well.

    Once I got into more senior positions myself, I started to feel it as well – you can see that you are considered not part of the club if you are not fit.

  7. > Working out is another form of conspicuous consumption: Affluent people do it and, especially if muscular exertion is already part of their job, lower-class people tend to avoid it. There are exceptions like the working-class male body builders—“ meatballs”— who can be found in places like Gold’s Gym, as well as the lower-class women who attempt to shed pounds at Curves (a descendant of the women’s-only gym where I started my workout career). By and large, though, working out is a reliable indicator of social status.

    This is absolutely, and easily observably, just not true. I don’t even think it’s a function of age. It’s just not true.

    The majority of men at the 24 hour fitness clubs I’ve been to in SF are people of color (of all colors) and the language they speak can be Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or English and you can tell by sight (ie, by gym clothes, hair styles, weight, etc.) these are not fashion conscious male body builders, and if that’s not convincing, one look at the cars in the parking lots will tell you more. They are just people who enjoy and value working out.

    I see almost no ” white-collar middle class” or executive types, and the reason is clear, 24 Hour Fitness is a dump and if you can afford it, you go to any one of five dozen high end SF gyms.

    But that doesn’t mean that any of the ten or so 24 Hour Fitness gyms in San Francisco are lacking clients. And the clients aren’t more than 50% women either.

    They are packed with the lower and middle class of all ages, of all body types.

    If the VPs and Directors and Managers of Tech all look young, slim, tanned and worked out, it’s because everyone in Tech now looks young, slim, tanned and worked out, including the nerdiest of the nerds.

    That’s because of televised sports, rock stars, music videos, movies, televised sports, selfies, tinder, porn, televised sports, and youth and high wages along with the trillion dollar rec centers that have been de rigueur for colleges for 25 years. And televised sports and rock stars.

    (And isn’t Venice Beach famous for the lower classes working out for free on its beaches and gyms. Let’s ask Arnold how upper class he was in the 60s and 70s).

    Let’s all blame George Reeves, Steve Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Arnold, Rocky, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and every movie star we’ve seen since the 80s.

    Is it objectification? Perhaps. So what? People see each other as either sexual objects or competitors. Ehrenreich can fight with Darwin over that.

    Jews were once the boxers….

    Anyway, I blame John F. Kennedy, ultimate privileged white collar preppy.

  8. I like the way she reads the minds of those she is criticizing — if you can’t control your own body how can you control some one else’s, etc. Most of us have a problem reading our own minds, much less the minds of others.

  9. From interactions I’ve seen at both, I’m genuinely not sure the morning gym and the morning minyan don’t serve similar social functions. I also know people who have attended both.

  10. “There are exceptions like the working-class male body builders—“ meatballs”— who can be found in places like Gold’s Gym”

    The term is “meatheads” not “meatballs.”

    I’ve been working out in gyms for over 40 years, from upscale, large health and tennis clubs to non-air conditioned, 600 sf neighborhood weight rooms. By far, most attendees are solid middle-class.

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