triumph, will

May 12, 2009


I weigh 135 pounds. Actually, to be exact, I weighed 135.4 pounds at 7:30 this morning. I don’t know how much I weigh right now as I’m typing this, it could be more or less, I’m not sure. Your weight is always fluctuating, calories burned or stored depending on input and output and metabolism and other vague and mysterious functions of the body so you can never know exactly how much you weigh unless I guess maybe you had some sort of monitor plates in your shoes hooked up constantly via WiFi to an iPhone application, something like that Nike thing that measures how much and how fast you run and beatmatches based on your stride or whatever. The diet experts say you’re supposed to weigh yourself in the morning because that’s the most “accurate” measurement of your weight, whatever that means, “accurate.” I probably weighed several different weights today and who knows exactly what I weigh right now? Maybe my weight is shifting this very second, as I type this, maybe each word I type is some percentage of a calorie burned, small pieces of my insides being burned or stored in an instant as I add letters or delete them from this sentence, the input and the output.

(The current season of The Biggest Loser, the television weight loss competition, ends tonight. This depresses me for several reasons, the main reason being that The Biggest Loser is the best show on television. Other reasons this depresses me include: weird parasocial attachments I have to certain contestants on the show, the end of my ability to criticize the wardrobe person who frequently made the supposedly attractive host Allison Sweeney look worse than the obese, Lycra-clad contestants, being able to muse on whether the way said wardrobe person made the host look so ugly was unintentional or was a strategic attempt to help her blend in with the show’s contestants, the strange and complex guilt and shame I feel about nighttime snacking during a television show about weight loss, a lack of quality television on Tuesday nights now that Real Housewives of New York City is also ending, the fact that I am lame and stupid and don’t have a life.)


I think about my weight a lot, although I guess that’s kind of obvious from the previous paragraph. For the past couple of months, I’ve weighed 135 pounds almost every day. I run five miles six days a week and have been running comparable distances nearly every day for about three years and I do some curls and presses with small hand weights every other day (I don’t lift or use machines because of a health condition) and I try to do bicycle and ball crunches every day (although sometimes I forget because I hate abdominal workouts) and I walk my dog and I’ve just started swimming in the ocean now that it’s summer again and I’ve weighed 135 pounds for the past couple of months and will probably continue to do so for another month and another month and on into the future and this is if I’m lucky and don’t gain weight.  My weight is always fluctuating but never measurably changing, there’s never any real, actual difference that I can write down, the way as a child your parents mark your height on a door frame and every year you grow and the line gets higher, there’s no progress like that. I don’t know what I can do about my weight anymore since I exercise about as much as I can and I’m not good at keeping a strict diet and I love the simple pleasure of eating food too much to be anorexic but it troubles me nonetheless, this immutability of my mass, it feels somehow wrong to be so static in a world which is always moving and changing.

(One reason why The Biggest Loser is so good is how it deals with the concept of “change” vis a vis reality television.  Reality shows, at the most basic formal level, involve recording on video the life of a person or group of people for a period of time and then constructing an episodic television narrative from the recorded footage. Most reality shows are constructed around the idea of personal change, which makes sense, since change is the fundamental element of all narrative — without change, there is no story. The “change” that most reality narratives focus on is internal change, how the person or group of people “grows” or “develops” during the period that he/she/they are being filmed. This is true of narratives based in competition (i.e. The Amazing Race) as well narratives as based in depicting everyday life (i.e. Real Housewives). Even when, as often occurs, the change is manifested in some external way (the last two contestants on The Amazing Race winning a million dollars), in terms of the television narrative, that manifestation is usually depicted as a symbol of the much more important internal “growth” or “development” that the people have undergone during the period that we’ve observed them.)


Vanity is generally assumed to be a bad quality. There are a lot of quotes about vanity that you can find on the Internet. Most of them are by Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain, who apparently according to the Internet wrote or said most of the quotes ever in recorded history and who I won’t quote for this reason. Former Vogue editor Diane Vreeland once wrote, “I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity,” which is one of those quotes that says something that doesn’t really mean anything but sounds nice and clever anyway so people write it down and remember it and put it on quote websites on the Internet. George Sand once wrote that “vanity is the quicksand of reason,” although she wasn’t very good looking herself and so maybe she was just kind of sensitive about her body image and that’s why she would be so anti-vanity. Maybe what she wrote is true, though. I can understand why most people believe that vanity is a negative attribute and my own vanity causes certain problems for me in my life and I see how it causes certain problems in the lives of others.  I don’t think vanity isn’t necessarily all bad, though. In its shallowest incarnations, sure, I guess vanity is kind of banal and pointless — you will probably not learn much from navel gazing besides the state of your belly button . I wonder, though, if obsessive vanity can ever lead to understanding or revelation, and by “wonder” I mean I kind of think it can. A stupid quote I used to say to girls is that I was like a swimming pool, both shallow and deep, containing multitudes and all that. That quote, like many quotes on the Internet or otherwise, is certainly stupid, but I think there’s also maybe something to it, as if vanity can function as an entry point, the shallow end of yourself that you wade through to get to something deeper and truer further in. Is there a point where staring at yourself in the mirror is no longer vanity but meditation? Is staring at a reflection of yourself a form of self reflection, is being self-centered a way of centering yourself?

(The Biggest Loser takes the abstract idea of “change” in reality television and makes it concrete — it externalizes the internal. We don’t have to trust talking heads or weepy testimonials to believe in the change that the contestants are experiencing, we don’t have to interpret their cliched statements or divine meaning from their facial expressions, we can see the changes in their faces, in their skin, in their muscles, in their bones. They wear their change for everyone to see. As the weeks of the show go by and the contestants together drop hundreds and hundreds of pounds, burn up larger and larger pieces of their insides and mold and shape themselves, they seem to literally become new people, not in some metaphorical sense of fictional characters “resolving their internal conflicts” but by actually becoming new people, as if Hollywood special effects weren’t just illusions but were real, as if the sad fat blonde lady we see in the beginning of the movie actually does contain Gwyneth Paltrow inside of her and all she has to do is work hard enough to free this person, to carve into her skin like a sculptor with a chisel and release her inner beauty. As if inner beauty isn’t some metaphorical consolation prize for the ugly or sad but is a tangible thing that is hiding inside all of our bodies and waiting to be released if only we try hard enough.)


Without vanity, I think I would be dead, either literally or metaphorically. Not to get all “punk rock saved my life,” but without vanity, I never would’ have started exercising and if I didn’t start exercising, without the power of endorphins and adrenaline and the things they do to your body and mind and self image, I don’t know if I would have been able to get through the unhappiness of life. Even if it wasn’t so melodramatic as all that, I don’t think without exercise I would understand what it’s really and truly like to live inside my body. That probably sounds stupid, since living inside your body isn’t something you’re supposed to have to know, it’s just something you’re supposed to be able to do without thinking and this is just another example of me overthinking something, right?  But for me, exercise is the opposite of overthinking, it’s freedom from overthinking and that’s why it’s so valuable. Before I started running, I feel like I was living, with the occasional exception, this almost purely mental experience.  I didn’t feel connected to my body at all, it was just a tool, a conduit, and interface. Exercise changed that.  Like, breathing is the most natural, unconscious function of our bodies, something babies can do at the moment of birth, but the cool down period after some long distance running last year was the first time I really felt like I was breathing, that I could sense how many different levels of breathing there are and how simple and amazing it can be to take a really good breath and then another after it, how powerful it is. I know this sounds like such New Age bullshit and I’m sorry, it’s probably because I’m not a great writer or if I want to make excuses maybe because it’s such a physical, essential thing that it’s hard to render it in prose without it sounding like some New Age bullshit, that it’s beyond language. Even if the breathing thing is a self-centered faux-epiphany that I can’t truly share with anyone else, though, I still feel blessed to have had it and I had it because I was self conscious and vain about a few pounds I gained from too much fast food and beer my sophomore year of college.

(At the beginning of a season of The Biggest Loser, all of the contestants are sick. Forget the emotional issues of being fat in a society where that’s not the ideal, forget vanity and self consciousness and not fitting into attractive clothes, the people on The Biggest Loser are all so physically sick because of their obesity that many of them seem like they might soon die. In the first episode, one of the oldest contestants collapses on the floor of the gym, having chest pains and barely able to talk, and though the horror of this is of course heightened by repeated slow motion replays of the fall and synth-orchestra stings and cutaways to worried contestants, the sense that this is a person who is unwell is not debatable and is extremely disturbing.  During the first few episodes of the season, the simple act of moving through space seems like a profound challenge for many of the contestants. In one segment, they all disclose the medications they’re taking — pills for diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, the list goes on and on, some of them taking ten or fifteen or twenty pills every day. As the season progresses though, as they shed their pounds and burn up the bad parts of their insides, they go off all of their medication and begin to live completely under their own power and not only live but transcend, to reach heights of experience that were unimaginable to them in the weeks prior.  By sheer force of will and effort they seem to conquer death.)


Every day I run five miles on this path by the beach where I live. It’s hot now so I don’t wear a shirt, even though that makes me feel uncomfortable to not wear a shirt. I feel uncomfortable not wearing a shirt because I feel uncomfortable with the way my upper body looks, but if I wear a shirt then I’m too hot to do my miles at the speed I want and also I get really awful tan lines on the back of my neck and so I don’t wear a shirt when I run. On the beach path, which is hard packed sand that’s only five or six feet wide, I’m constantly running into and past and around other people who are also running or walking on the path. On the beach path, which runs through a public park and along a string of hotels and condo towers, there are all sorts of people. Fat people, skinny people, medium sized people; pale people, tan people; white people, black people, Hispanic people, Asian people. There are Orthodox girls power-walking in long skirts and headscarves and musclebound lifeguards in red trunks and old men in polyester shirts and straw hats and mothers and babies and dogs and you know, the soup of humanity or whatever. All of those people are there when I’m running but I don’t see them. I’m so tranced out when I’m running that I don’t really tend to see individual people as anything more than blurs — this is a function of chemistry and motion and the fact that without my glasses on I don’t have very good vision.

I do see some people, though.  I noticed this noticing the other day.  The people I see are the mid-sized, middle aged guys, the ones running with their shirts off in their little running shorts, the same kind I’m wearing when I’m running with my shirt off. These guys aren’t fat but they aren’t exactly thin either, they aren’t muscular but they do have muscles, hints of things under skin, they aren’t good looking but they aren’t ugly, either, they’re just average, like me. As I pass one of these guys on the path, both of us going opposite directions, bare chested in our little running shorts, I look at him and he looks at me. I look at him and I feel like I’m looking into the future which I know is so blatantly metaphorical that it’s probably ridiculous for you to read it, that you’re laughing now, and I know this but it happens to me almost every day and I look at him and it scares me, this vision of the future scares me, because I feel like after twenty years of running as hard as I can every day, I’ll be that guy, that that guy is contained in me already, that there is no change, that I’ll never reach the peaks of Olympian perfection that I see on movies or in magazines, that I’ll never see any of the amazing change that I watch on the Biggest Loser or see in ads for weight loss shakes and protein supplements, that I’ll continue to work every day and it won’t register at all, I’ll just continue to maintain, to be static, as if on some perpetual treadmill, an infinite loop, input equaling output, stasis. I look at the guy and I see all of that and he looks at me and I wonder what he’s thinking, whether he’s happy with his life and he’s just enjoying running and being inside his body or if he’s having all these thoughts like me, but then soon enough we’re both past each other and he’s gone off in his direction and I’ve gone off in mine and we’re moving and there are still miles to do and time to do them in.

(The change that the contestants (and the viewers, by proxy) experience during The Biggest Loser is, finally, existential. In this season’s penultimate challenge, the last five contestants were driven into the desert and dropped off at the bottom of a road several miles long, a road which wound through sand dunes and craggy rock peaks and concluded on the edge of a cliff face overlooking a canyon. Their task was to carry all of the weight that they’d each individually lost since the beginning of the season throughout the course with them. The amount of weight ranged from 80 to over 150 pounds, bags of weight that they had to drag behind them or heft onto their backs in order to progress. When the challenge started, the contestants could barely move, their newly thin and muscled bodies straining against the weight that they had carried around every second of every day before they begun the The Biggest Loser, before they had begun to “change.” Along the road there were stations, each one representing a week that the contestants had spent on the show, the first week and the second week and the third week, one after the other. At each station, the contestants were allowed to drop the amount of weight that they had lost in that week of the show, five or eight or fifteen pounds, whatever, the journey symbolically mirroring their journey through weight loss, the progress in their personal narratives. At the finish line of the challenge, standing above the canyon, they threw the bags containing the last of their weight over edge of the cliff, dead weight that didn’t belong to them, part of some story which was no longer theirs. Through this metaphorical exercise, they signified that they had truly “changed” and “grown” and “developed,” they showed that they had left behind the people they were before and had been “reborn,” body and soul. It was as if the myth of Sisyphus had a happy ending, as if instead of continuing to go up and down the hill every day he had somehow broken his chains and his narrative and went to live off happily ever after, as if change were that easy to effect. As if, as if, as if.)


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