4. Going to the Gym


One idea that came up a lot around the time I was in college was that some ideas or opinions were social constructions. So, for instance, if you could show that ideals of female beauty were something that society had created, then you could also show that these ideals aren’t something that people naturally feel, but rather they’re a brainwashing tool created by society—in this case to perpetuate the patriarchal hegemony.

Another example of this: I read a book a little while ago which made the point that while we worry a lot about status, maybe we shouldn’t, since after all, the things that are associated with status in our society aren’t associated with status in other societies right now, and weren’t associated with status historically in other societies, so really it’s all arbitrary. Today, being thin and having strong analytic skills are valued, whereas in another society being a fast runner would have been important, or in another one, obesity was a sign of status. The author sort of concludes, Why worry?

But all that stuff’s crazy! Just because something’s socially constructed, doesn’t mean it’s not real. I mean, we can show that every society has a different set of standards for feminine beauty, and that every society has different sets of standards for status, but it’s equally remarkable that every society does have standards for feminine beauty, and does have standards for status. We’re humans. We exist in societies. We create cultures. And these cultures may be different from each other, with different beliefs, but they’re who we are. There’s not something more “real” to discover about us if you take all that away. A human who doesn’t exist in a culture isn’t somehow more true. In fact, I think a human who doesn’t exist in a culture—that’s not what a human is. I exist in the culture that I exist in, and I can know that other cultures see status in different ways, but I will be swayed by the ideas of status that affect mine. I can know that other cultures have different standards of feminine beauty and still be attracted by the standards of feminine beauty that exist in mine.

This doesn’t seem any more shocking to me than finding a passage of literature written in English beautiful but not a passage written in a language I can’t read. I don’t feel like my impression of beauty in the English passage is destroyed by someone pointing out that the correlation between these words and the objects they describe isn’t actually real—that other societies use different words for the same things, and that the use of one symbol to represent a certain object or sound is at base somewhat arbitrary. I’m okay with that.

I went to the gym pretty regularly for a long time, and it always felt so crazy to me. The gym is like the meeting point of all these different things that are emblematic of our time. It looks like the shopping mall and the factory, and it’s where our crazy desire to exert ourselves and work hard meets our crazy desire to be young forever, along with our crazy confusion about our appetites, and our imagining that we can subject everything to rational, super-mechanistic processes. Fifty years from now, if you wanted to pick something that encapsulates the old days of the early twenty-first century, you’d show the gym.

For a while I was kind of embarrassed to be a part of what seems like a huge fad of our day, but then I figured: Fuck it. I am of our day. I don’t have to see through everything. Or I can even see through things a little bit, but I’m still a part of them.