This morning I had a single line from an article in the New York Times by Frank Bruni surprise me by its complete and total truth:
"There’s a bullying strain to the modern fitness ethos, a blurred line between cheerleading and hectoring."
It's from the article "The Ripped and the Righteous," published on January 29, 2011, regarding the life, death, and legacy of Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru who spread the gospel of physical fitness to the masses. Mr. LaLanne passed away recently at the age of 96.
I don't know why this line should get to me so much this morning. Goodness knows I could have articulated it quite clearly myself by the time I was in grade school, which was during the aerobics craze of the mid to late '70s. I have horrible memories of doing aerobics to "The Hustle" and the BeeGees, and suffering through the humiliation of the annual Field Days where we competed for ribbons in various physical activities. The theme song of that event? A delightful ditty called "Chicken Fat." I was an overweight, unathletic kid. Guess what my nickname was in gym class for several years? And that was one of the nicer names I was called.
Nothing has changed over the course of my lifetime. Fitness is still a religion in the United States, and a reliable indicator of moral superiority to hear many people talk about it, especially in the media. Now, not everyone is a self-satisfied, judgmental jerk about fitness. In fact, most people aren't. I have many friends enjoying healthy lifestyles with regular exercise who don't rub it in anyone's face and are wonderful people to be around. But, in the visual media, that's NOT the norm. For them, Beauty is God, Fitness is King, Health is a moral mandate, and if you fail to measure up to those ideals, you must be defective, lazy, stupid, or all of the above. You don't have to look any farther than the show "The Biggest Loser" to see the tip of the iceberg.
I don't have permission to quote extensively from Mr. Bruni's article, so please go read it for yourself. Our culture of extremes has taken Mr. LaLanne's good advice on healthy living and twisted it into something insidiously demeaning to both body and soul. Mr. LaLanne himself was not innocent in all this, either, but I find it hard to believe that he would have condoned the wholesale bullying and character assassination that has haunted several generations of American culture by now.
So, thank you, Mr. Bruni, for articulating so clearly what is imbalanced in our American pursuit of physical perfection. I hope that where I have good health habits, I can share them without self-righteousness, and I'm happy to be encouraged by friends whose self-discipline has allowed them to meet amazing fitness goals. I'm sure the Lord likes to see us physically healthy where we have the ability to pursue that goal. Let's leave room for mercy at the gym - it's the best exercise of all.