Monday, August 01, 2011

The Virtue Binge

Goose has been out of town on urgent Emily Dickinson-related business for nearly a week. Moose has been batching it, which used to mean she'd revert to grad school habits of having popcorn and beer for dinner while zoning out to really trashy movies on Lifetime. Good times, right, Moose?

Anyhoo, this week, aside from Wednesday night's decadent dinner at America Eats, in which Moose permitted herself the (now) shocking indulgence of a third glass of wine, she's been living like a freaking monk. It's been all yogurt and whole grains and farmer's market veggies. Not a beer in sight. Her big indulgence food-wise was to use half a cup of olive oil in some pesto she made. Half a cup! And pesto meant that she treated herself to pasta for dinner! Whole wheat, of course. Whoa, Moose. Way to ride the edge.

Then there's been the whole activity thing. The trips to the gym. The rides on the stationary bike in the basement when she felt too lazy to schlep to the gym. The Friday yoga class. The Saturday yoga workshop. Yes: Two and a half hours spent painstakingly refining plank and cobra poses. Srsly, kids, the fun just never stops around here, does it?

You leave town, and I go off on some kind of virtue binge, Moose quipped to Goose in a text message yesterday. The quip got her thinking, and -- Oh, heck, I think I'll just let her tell you. Being disembodied, I am less equipped, as it were, to talk about certain kinds of things these days. Take it away, Moose!

* * * 

(Photo Credit: Anon, Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop, 7/30/11)

You have to admit it's a funny line -- I go off on some kind of virtue binge -- but it's also a revealing one, loaded with assumptions and, perhaps, anxieties about bodies, behavior, discipline, moralism. It registers a certain pride, yes, but it also captures some of the discomfort I've experienced in recent months as I've tried to find ways to talk and write about losing weight without sounding sanctimonious or fat-shaming. (That discomfort is explored in this post.)

At this particular moment, the notion of a virtue binge also resonates with the political fiasco unfolding on Capitol Hill, as Republicans and Democrats battle, with nearly equal disingenuousness, to position their nearly indistinguishable plans for trimming the alleged fat off the nation's fiscal body as the morally correct one. (And how telling that the fiscal and governmental bodies are so frequently imaged, as in the cartoon anchored to this paragraph, as obese to a degree designed to elicit disgust.) The binge will end -- because binges always do -- the moment the deal is signed and there is no more political advantage to be gained by exaggerating one's own virtues and the vices of one's opponents. It will be resumed -- because binging generally is -- when new circumstances arise that once again make it expedient to demonize the opposing side as lacking in virtue. (Yes, darlings, I am well aware that one of our two major political parties is more in thrall than the other to a strategy of framing any kind of difference or disagreement as a world-threatening conflict between good and evil. I am lumping them together because everyone involved in the debt ceiling debacle has behaved so badly and because both the president and Senate majority leader Harry Reid strike me as guys whose lives have been one long virtue binge.)

Anyway: The virtue binge may be a uniquely and obnoxiously American phenomenon, a hangover of what one astute student of cultural history has described as The Puritan Origins of the American Self. That is a major source of the discomfort I feel with my own little quip. I am troubled to hear myself describe my weight loss and my recommitment to fitness in such terms because they suggest that I have internalized a set of value judgments about physical/moral fitness that I am deeply committed to contesting. (See, for example, the first two chapters of this book.) A quip is just a quip, of course, and I could take refuge in the idea that the joke mocks the tendency it names and therefore does contest the values that might motivate any kind of virtue binge. I was a firm believer in the salvific power of parody long before Stephen Colbert came on the scene.

All kidding aside, though, perhaps what really bothers me is the inadequacy of the language available for describing experiences like the one I have had over the past several months. How do we talk about weight and fitness -- especially as women, feminists, and queers -- without falling back on metaphors that equate physical health and "normal" size with moral virtue? I'm obviously a big fan of the Lifestyle Adjustment Program I used to lose weight, but I can't bear to read the "Success Stories" prominently featured on its website because they so relentlessly emphasize the virtues of being on track and in control. Success in these terms is a matter of reasserting discipline over a body defined as unruly, disorderly, and out of control.

"I feel like I've conquered the world," says my LAP's most famous current spokesperson, singer Jennifer Hudson, of her weight loss. Such language perpetuates a dualistic model of the relationship between mind and body that is both punitive and terroristic. I hate it -- even though I know full well that I had come to feel fairly out of control in relation to food, drink, and weight. Even though I admitted, right here in Roxie's World, that I had reached the point of feeling miserable in my body by January of this year and proudly offered an illustrated announcement just a few weeks ago of "what feeling better looks like." Careful and non-fat phobic as I have tried to be, my own language is as problematic as Hudson's, even without the cheesy metaphor of world domination.

I want another way to narrate this story, some alternative to the plots of conquest or redemption that have done so much damage in American culture and the world. I don't want to see what I am doing these days as either a virtue or a binge, because virtue is boring and binges are transient. I want to say to the friends and the sisters who are looking to me for advice and inspiration in their own efforts to take off weight that mind and body are one and we have to let go of self-loathing. We need to find ways to relate to our bodies, ourselves with love and compassion, whatever our size and shape. And we need to find ways to talk about the disciplines of self-care not as regimens of self-punishment and sacrifice but as forms of pleasure and play. You hear some of this rhetoric in the wellness industry's "this is not a diet" mantra, but my LAP's emphasis on tracking and control still sounds more anxious and paranoid than I would like.

The most satisfying language I've come up with so far is one that emphasizes mindfulness in relation to eating and activity. I put on weight over the course of several years because I stopped paying attention to how much I was eating and let go of a commitment I had maintained for most of my adult life to regular, vigorous exercise. In cultivating mindfulness, I've discovered new pleasure in food, which tastes better and is more satisfying when you pay attention to every bite, no matter how simply or sensibly it's prepared. And I've reconnected with the deep pleasures of working/playing in and with my body to learn new skills or to revel in the joy of movement for its own sake. Yes, I spent two and a half hours on Saturday afternoon working strenuously to improve my ability to perform what are basically glorified push-ups -- and walked out in a state of endorphin-produced bliss as glorious as anything I've felt in years. My posture was impressive, too. I don't want to underestimate the challenge of getting into shape after years of being mostly sedentary. It's been hard and humbling, but it has also been enormously satisfying and in a lot of moments just plain fun.

Perhaps what I am getting at is a model of bodily discipline or practice similar to what Foucault describes in The Use of Pleasure as "the arts of existence": "those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria" (10-11). I like the emphasis here on both intentionality and artfulness as aspects of self-making. Or perhaps I'm thinking of the vulnerable, imperfect, necessary body Adrienne Rich tenderly claims in her "Contradictions: Tracking Poems (18)":
The best world is the body's world
filled with creatures     filled with dread
misshapen so     yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries     never counting the cost
The best world is the body's world: Amen. This ain't no binge, friends. It's a way of life. Peace out.

(Photo Credit: Anon, Self-Portrait After Plank Workshop [2], 7/30/11)


  1. Anonymous12:23 PM EDT

    Achieving a satisfactory plank position is no small accomplishment! The gorgeous thing about yoga is that it's never perfect; it's only good enough for that moment. But, when you go home, with those endorphins blasting through your body and brain, you look at yourself and celebrate that moment of weightlessness in a simple yoga class because you made a small adjustment this time (even after 10 years of practice) and it felt great, ethereal even.

    I wish life were like this more -- all about the small adjustments.

    So, my congratulations to you on the plank and the metaphor of plank!

  2. (1) While I'm in the minority, I consider "bacheing it" the preferred orthography.

    (2) Ripped arm, FTW!

  3. @triproftri: Thanks for the encouragement and the incredibly eloquent description of what good enough means in the context of yoga -- and life! Small adjustments, indeed. Another very useful metaphor.

    @CPP: We defer to Urban Dictionary on the spelling of "batching it," but we did wrestle with the problem for quite some time. And that arm is ripped, isn't it? I wonder who this mysterious "Anon" might be. ;-)

  4. Allowing all to have pleasure in their/our bodies -- taking it out of the "moral" arenas, putting it all into the processes of worlding: how we inhabit our ecologies, one dearly important one is what we think of as "our" body -- a bit of an illusion there too since we really don't end with that connective interface with our worlds we call "skin."

  5. Very inspiring--and on a rather bleak day, otherwise. The connection to US politics is genius....

  6. I ate a cookie while reading your excellent post.

  7. GlassPen8:33 AM EDT

    "Virtue binge" = good one! Will put it in my lexicon, alongside "spiritual materialism".

    Excellent post. Also struggle with the "on track and "in control" language of LAP, especially to the extent that it becomes an end in itself...and seems inexorably to lead not only to self-criticism when (self) errs, but to a more judgmental view of others who may not demonstrate control, at least in the way (self) thinks they should. You can relate that to current politics, too.

    Liked very much the emphasis on mindfulness...this is a helpful approach for me, and gentler to both (self) and the world.

    Please keep up this thread, as you feel so moved. Call me "hungry for more."

  8. I am waiting for CPP to help us all out by publishing a guide to spellynge that will for once and for all nail the 'e' issue.


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