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Body shame: Historian Jürgen Martschukat on fitness culture

INTERVIEW! Already slacking on your New Year's gym resolution? We speak to historian Jürgen Martschukat whose latest book questions why we think it's important to work out, how body shame relates to capitalism and fitness as a moral business.

Image for Body shame: Historian Jürgen Martschukat on fitness culture

Photo by Damir Spanic / Unsplash. Jürgen Martschukat on why the fitness discourse is so obnoxiously moralising.

Each New Year, the resolve to start exercising and get in shape tops the modern adult’s must-do list. And, as the proliferation of workout studios and boutique gyms attest, Berlin hasn’t escaped the worldwide fitness boom. But why do we work out the way we do – and why do we feel so guilty if we don’t? This is the topic of Das Zeitalter der Fitness (“The Age of Fitness”), a critical exploration of fitness culture published in September by the historian Jürgen Martschukat.

You’re a passionate cyclist and a fit, successful per­son. What brought you to write a critical history of fitness?

In 2012 I worked on a project on the his­tory of fat, and how its meaning has changed in mod­ern history – mostly the last 50 years – from being an indicator of wealth and success, to becoming increasingly associated with failure, poverty and wrong choices. And I got interested in the complementary side of fatness, which is fitness. And I found that the two are actually two sides of the same coin – and that society revolves around the idea of an autonomous self, which the body is supposed to express.

Do you think that in our society and time, not working out is something that reflects badly on you as a person?

Yes. My point is that the body, and especially body shape, is taken as a representation of our ability to live up to the requirements of being a successful and autonomous self; someone who has everything under control. And these requirements are much more than just eating right or going to exercise. This discourse is highly moralising, and the fat body is very often taken as representation of individual and moral failure. Guilt is a very important issue in that context.

Is there a moral imperative to be fit and slim? Can one person’s fitness somehow be everyone else’s moral business?

It’s a paradox, but I would argue that the idea of liberal society mostly hinges on individual autonomy and one’s own freedom. Yet at the same time, the wealth and success of the collective does depend on individual choices, on the strength of individuals and whether they take good care of themselves. So even though it’s a highly individualised process – and the responsibility given to the individual for their own health and fitness is really strong – there is always a collective notion to it.

But real-life fatness is affected by many things you’re not in control of. It doesn’t necessarily reflect your choices in life, right?

Definitely. If you look at it closely, the self is never autonomous but always embedded within a number of forces. These depend on where you live, how much income you have, your genetics and also many other factors like even running shoes, regional differences and so on. So the idea of the body as an expression of your au­tonomous self is very misleading from the very beginning. There is also an intense debate in research about stigma in society. At the heart of the fitness discourse is the idea that fat people are less able and so they find it more difficult to succeed in society. But stigma research has shown that it’s often the other way around, that it’s discrimination because of fatness that means people face difficulties succeeding in the education system or the job market.

Image for Body shame: Historian Jürgen Martschukat on fitness culture

Photo courtesy of Universität Erfurk. Jürgen Martschukat’s book Das Zeitalter der Fitness was published in September.

You write that the “age of fitness” began in the 1970s. Can you explain what happened?

Actually, I sometimes look back to the 18th century, to the Enlightenment idea of the “pursuit of happiness” – which is not only a promise but also an obligation. I also follow Darwinism and survival of the fittest into the present. Those ideas about competi­tion, fitness and struggle are a very important factor in our society. The 1970s is when neoliberalism really kicked in in the USA. Back then, the response to the economic crisis was a stronger focus on individual responsibility and the power of the market rather than looking to the state. This coin­cided with a counter-culture that focused on individualism and self-fulfilment – on trying to find happiness in practices that worship the body. The first runners were hippies! In the 1970s we had a huge running boom, and suddenly everyone started to search for the inner self and fitness became a powerful part of the mainstream – which it remains to this day.

Do you think it’s any different in Germany?

I would say that in Germany it’s differ­ent in degree. In the US, the dynamics of this fitness movement were stronger initially, and Germany took a while – basically until the very late 20th and early 21st century – to catch up from a social system that trusted the state to take care of us to one that prompts the individual to learn how to take care of themselves. And that’s exactly the idea of fitness: to learn to take care of yourself.

One interesting theme in the book is empowerment. You talk about how fitness has empowered American people of colour and women at dif­ferent points in their fight for emancipation.

Fitness contributes to inclusion and exclusion. This is what makes it so political. Historically, for a long time, fitness was seen as a white male privilege. If you look at the women’s movement of the late 19th century, for instance, many members clearly saw fitness as significant for their struggle to achieve equal rights. There is a book I love by Francis Willard, a late 19th-century feminist, on how she learned to ride a bicycle, and how that was a deeply political practice. Because she learned to use her body and became more self-reliant. And similarly, in the 1970s, aerobics was deeply embedded in the feminist movement with Jane Fonda as its icon. But aerobics also shows the normative power of fitness, because it produced highly sexualised body norms. So there is ambivalence.

Is it in the nature of modern capitalism to make you feel guilty until you buy things?

To turn you into a docile consumer! Of course! The market is huge, and it’s always connected to a promise. Here it is the promise of health, and the success that comes along with buying the most beauti­ful and efficient fitness wear. I find the fashion thing really interesting. You can tell how powerful fitness is by looking at what people wear. I would love to write a history of Span­dex – it shows everything, not just your muscles but every gram of fat.

In Berlin you can see boutique gyms popping up everywhere and there is also this yoga-HeilpraktikerBiomarkt lifestyle – are they all just parallel ways of consuming the moral high ground?

Organic food stores are part of a powerful movement that sort of strives for the same aims as fitness, which is to live a responsible life – re­sponsible with regard to yourself and your body, but also to the environment and nature. At the same time, it’s a major indication of gentrification. That’s what makes it all so hard to come to terms with, because it’s like with fitness – who wouldn’t want to be healthy?

There are so many norms and ideals and judgement food is an exercise in discipline, sex is performance, you time yourself on the treadmill rather than play­ing team sports. How can you resist?

Maybe one form of resistance is to enjoy pleasure without the feeling of guilt. Perhaps we can just leave the urge for constant self-improve­ment behind and spend a lazy day with cake and red wine, for the sheer pleasure of it, without any purpose. Maybe that’s a kind of resistance against the power of fitness.