For those of you who have worked retail, you are familiar with the petty jabs employees tend to hurl secretly at customers. Work any job long enough and you will unfortunately secure a hyperawareness of customer "flaws". I remember a specific day when my boss relayed to me what irked him about a customer he had interacted with earlier. The customer's faults included: "creepily" inquiring about my absence, possessing an unwarranted snarky tone, and, worst of all, transgressing rules of physical propriety by being "out of shape".
Now, being an English major means I mentally chew on even the most flippant insults, and this one was no exception. Eventually I concluded his last phrase choice struck me because it was so specific. It wasn't the generic (but equally inexcusable) dismissal of someone as "fat," but jargon that more specifically critiqued someone's lack of physical exercise.
In this one condescending phrase I couldn't help but see a microcosm of a much more large-scale and unhealthy attitude toward bodily fitness today. I believe American culture's fitness obsession has become such a pervasive ideology that it nearly renders lack of exercise a kind of vice and, conversely, exalts physical fitness as a virtue. But I specifically want to explore how this flawed mentality impacts Christians today-particularly, Christian college students.
No doubt the media both fuels and feeds on today's "aerobic fitness craze du jour" as a way to propagate distorted standards of beauty. Hollywood manufactures one celebrity after the other, like commodities in high demand, to fit (quite literally) the prototype of "buff" or "thin." Constance Rhodes, author of Life Inside the Thin Cage, recognizes that for women specifically, "Television programming continues to project images that glorify a barely-there body" (134).
It may be easy for the rest of us (Christians especially) to “villainize” the celebrity lifestyle and dismiss it as foreign to our own; but these distorted values and behaviors have so diffused within society that the pressure to achieve an ultra-thin or muscular body is tangible to believers and unbelievers alike—no matter how distanced either group claims to be from the media. Indeed, the importance that our culture allots to body upkeep has become disturbingly normalized and rarely challenged; one expert even suggests that this “increased tolerance for thinness and ambivalence about excessive exercise” has become one of “the biggest changes in our collective consciousness.”
To think instinctively that this change in society’s tolerance is a good thing, because exercise is a good thing, would only affirm the aforesaid argument. This tolerance of excessive exercise has spawned thoughts and behaviors that are far from beneficial. There is no way around it: for one to maintain what he or she perceives as the “perfect” body takes great time, great energy, and a great toll on mental and spiritual well-being. As a person’s workout intensifies from 4 to 5 days a week, from 25 minutes of running to 35 minutes of running, to having to burn 100 calories more than yesterday, one motive slowly becomes the slave driver of that person’s exercise regiment: maintenance.
Yet many gym-goers today neglect the possibility that exercise can become a kind of bondage when governed by the wrong motives. One commentator notes that this “Herculean effort to appear effortless” in our body maintenance only “keeps us silent or nonchalant about the pain we’re in.” Because our culture so celebrates fitness, it is difficult for some to consider the reality of this pain or discuss it with others. In Christian circles specifically, we tend to delegate accountability to more “black and white” spiritual concerns, like whether I’ve spent enough time in Scripture or have consistently kept up with my prayer life. But when it comes to a suffocating, high-priority exercise routine, it’s easier to assume that something is wrong with me—that I must approach my workout more energetically or with a better attitude—if I am feeling any kind of “maintenance burden.”
The subtly overbearing nature of fitness today spawns two ironic negative effects. For one, such incessant attention to body sculpting often generates more dislike toward our bodies than less when we can’t whip them into the exact shape we want. Indeed, “an era of exercise has brought more obsession and self-hatred rather than less” (71). And it is often this judgment of oneself that becomes the engine accelerating the impulse to judge others, even with such seemingly minor insults as “out of shape.” A kind of airborne condescension can loom throughout the fitness center, and feelings of inadequacy linger with a contagious nature that rubs off on others as easily as the germs that linger on the elliptical.
But perhaps more ironic is the fact that the centrality of fitness in the priorities of believers and non-believers alike actually undermines the original intent of health. People become so “corseted under tight external constraints... through diets and exercises” that they comply with the “social prescriptions of specific body sculpture to the point of jeopardizing their own health”. Essayist Mark Greif also pinpoints this irony, saying that “exercise flirts with a will to annihilate the unattractive body rather than to preserve its longevity” (69). And a full-blown love affair between this will and exercise can result in compulsive exercise, or exercise addiction.
Over-exercising will yield not only a slew of physical “overuse syndromes”— including stress fractures, low heart rate, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis—but emotional and relational problems as well. Compulsive exercisers will let exercise dictate social life to the extent they will turn down social events so as not miss a scheduled workout, exercise alone to maximize the intensity of their workouts, and even exercise when injured or ill. Most sadly, self-satisfaction completely hinges on whether or not that person had a “good” workout.
Not surprisingly, compulsive exercising is often intertwined with eating disorders, which 10 million Americans struggle with today. According to eating disorder specialist Brenda Woods, many people struggling with eating disorders choose exercise as a form of purging because “it is more socially acceptable.” Exercise becomes “penance for eating too much”; and the equipment screen that gauges “calories burned” installs itself in this exerciser’s mind as a 24-7 measure of shame, monitoring that person’s every activity or meal so the calories burned from an earlier workout were not a waste.
It should not come as any surprise by now that, according to one study, more than half of American women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would prefer to be run over by a truck or die young than be fat, and more than two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid.
In such a society where “diet and fitness information are everywhere,” but “messages of wellness and authentic health are nowhere” (29), have we arrived at a point where it is impossible to distinguish the difference between the two?
I think this issue is especially relevant to students on our campus for two reasons. First, many experts agree that exercise addiction is most prevalent on college campuses. It’s no surprise that author Courtney E. Martin deems the college years as “body obsession boot camp.” When students first arrive to college— “fresh and clean, and totally, completely freaked out” (215) — they plunge into a sea of insecurity in which everyone is clamoring for attention and acceptance from each other. A student’s intense need to be accepted, combined with high-stress academic lifestyle, leaves physical exercise quite an attractive coping mechanism. Exercise becomes an outlet for stress and a method of control over weight, which becomes an illusion of control over what feels like a destabilized life. The other reason I believe this issue pertains to students on our campus is because Christians can especially fall prey to equating fitness with virtue. I can’t help but think that the religious word used earlier—“penance”— operates for Christians, to varying degrees, in the area of exercise. The Christian logic that we must be “good stewards” of our bodies is fragile and often misinterpreted, becoming an easy way to augment guilt at not working out or to justify exercise routines that are more spiritually destructive than physically beneficial. Also, the idea of perfection can too easily intertwine with the idea of sanctification in the Christian’s life; Christians often become overwhelmed with a sense of having to perfect every area of their life as an attestation to their spiritual progress, and body becomes an easy, tangible target for perfection.
In Scripture, Jesus pinpoints a human tendency to which we will always be susceptible—the tendency to so uphold rules and regulations that we miss the point of them. A Christian’s understanding of bodily stewardship is not exempt from this blunder. I can’t help but think of Mark 2:27, when Jesus tells the Pharisees, after they scorn Him for picking grain in the fields, that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Here Christ gives us simple but profound wisdom: humans must not reduce God’s prescriptions to arbitrary maxims. The Pharisees undermined the purpose of rest by being so uptight about something as basic as gathering food. And Christ’s underpinning logic remains the same in the case of physical fitness: we must not exploit something as beneficial as physical exercise to the point that we undermine both enjoyment and purpose of it.
If Christ is to showcase His redemptive power through His people, if “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) are to overflow out of the church into a world parched for Truth, our priorities and behavior must radically deviate from the world’s norms. Paul’s exerts us in Roman’s 12:2, “do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Only once we recognize where we do conform can we start to eradicate the lies and prejudices that dictate such conformity. Perhaps Christians must, as one author articulates, put “our society on the scales” so we will see “the fatness of our prejudices, the fitness of our norms, and the thinness of our tolerance.” If we as Christians consistently allow Scripture and prayer to saturate our minds, we can eradicate lies that distort the idea of self-worth. By instead digging into what it means to have our worth rooted in Christ and not appearance, we can compensate for the damage that has been caused by emphasis on bodily value and cultivate a gentle understanding toward un-believers or brothers or sisters in Christ who struggle with body image pressure or exercise addiction. The counselors at CU counseling services desire to help anyone struggling with these pressures, and they have already helped many students here on campus let go of unhealthy eating and exercise habits by consistently speaking truth to them.
When we do engage in physical exercise, we can do so in a way that welcomes community and emanates genuine enjoyment that is free from any kind of expectations or unrealistic standards. Then we can be the “fragrance” of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), dispelling the odor of desperate maintenance, constant comparison, and secret shame that often surrounds the high priority of fitness.
Exercise can be a wonderful thing, and our infinite variety of physical activities reflects the creativity that God endowed us with. It is lovely to be able relish a jog in the morning or bike ride in the evening, to get caught up in a game of basketball with friends, or to coordinate your bike pedaling to the beat of the music in spin class. Creativity should lead to beauty and enjoyment, not captivity. 1Timothy 4:8 says, “For the training of the body has some benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Here God does not negate the benefit of exercise; He recognizes it but at the same time subordinates it to the cultivation of a healthy spiritual life. When we as Christians make an effort to exercise our minds as Paul advises in Romans 12:2, reevaluating our motives in every practical pursuit, then we harness fitness toward its original purpose, which Puritan Richard Sibbes says well: “This is a sign of man’s victory over himself, when he loves health and peace of body and mind... chiefly for this end, that he may with freedom of spirit serve God in doing good to others.”