The world is four months into a global pandemic.
Japan is three weeks into (recommended) quarantine.
And I’m exactly two weeks and three days into a “5 Week Booty Challenge” by Youtube fitness guru Chloe Ting.
Six days a week, I have been writhing on the floor in my leggings, moving in sync with Chloe Ting as she yells out words of encouragement like, “I know it hurts!” or “My legs are on fire!” This is a good thing, because feeling like you’re on fire means you’re just one step closer to looking like Chloe Ting.
“It’s almost pornographic,” observes my boyfriend, as he stands behind me watching Chloe Ting in skin-tight purple leggings, pumping her glutes rapidly with the kind of fervor normally reserved for sex.
I’ve heard people say quarantine is like being in prison.
It’s not really like prison at all, unless your idea of prison is eating yogurt in bed and making sourdough starters. But if there’s any comparison to be drawn, it’s that the women around me are suddenly training at home with the dedication of prison inmates exacting revenge for their release.
It’s everywhere. Girls I follow on Instagram are posting sped-up videos of themselves doing squats. My friends are sending me recommendations for Youtube dance workouts. Even my mom sends emails of her weekly scheduled Zumba classes on Zoom. And then there’s that push-up challenge. What the fuck?
In a Zoom meeting with my entire company, we all give updates on what we’ve been up to. A notable number of women, many of whom don’t normally work out, comment that they’ve been working out a lot. Weight training. Running. Doing yoga. Have you guys tried the Nike Training App? It’s amazing.
In my head, I imagine coming back to an office with impossibly muscular employees. The image makes me laugh.
Today’s popular fitness influencers talk about exercising to “get stronger.” I’m not convinced.
In 2017, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a story for The New York Times about the changing language around weight loss and dieting. The “Control your eating! Lose ten pounds!” of yesterday has been replaced with, “Be your healthiest! GET STRONG!”
Diets and bikini bods are now considered anti-feminist. Eating clean and being strong, on the other hand, is apparently self-care.
But is it the same shit? Eat less crap. Work out more. Look better in leggings (but don’t admit you want to look good in leggings).
In her essay book “Trick Mirror,” Jia Tolentino speculates that this is all part of a bigger trend, one which she refers to as self-optimization. She writes, “instead of being counseled by mid-century magazines to spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we can now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves.”
We’re eating fifteen dollar salads and spending two-hundred dollars a month on fitness classes because we are self-optimizing (emphasis on the self). It’s still important to look bikini ready, but now you must also be “strong” (whatever that means), a small business owner, fluent in two languages, and doing it all for absolutely no one but yourself.
This anxiety to always be optimizing ourselves seems to be heightened in quarantine. And it’s not necessarily limited to fitness. I know I’m not the only one feeling the pressure to maximize my productivity during isolation. If I don’t write a novel, learn Spanish, and pick up woodworking now, when will I ever be able to?
My best friend Erika, who lives in London, is doing Chloe Ting’s fitness challenge with me. Every day, we take pictures of ourselves half-naked and sweaty, post-workout. They’re “progress pics”, and we send them to each other with religious commitment. Neither of us have ever been interested in fitness, so we have a sincere but most likely misplaced hope that progress happens in weeks.
Saturday night (Erika’s morning), Erika messages me, “I’m supposed to run today and do four videos. I want to die, I’m still in bed.”
I ask her what’s wrong. She’d mentioned she was feeling sick yesterday, too. She’s had a sore throat and painful stomach problems for the past few days. “I think I need a colostomy bag at this point,” she moans.
When I wake up in the morning, I have an unread message from Erika. It’s a progress picture.
Even if we only work out to look good naked, do our bodies know the difference? If the result is less stress and better health, that can’t be bad. We could all probably benefit by inviting a bit more movement into our lives. Especially in a time where we’re all a bit more stressed and sedentary than normal, a healthy dose of endorphins never hurt anyone. Many of the people who are encouraging exercise are simply trying to help.
But while looking for a good at-home workout, I stumble upon articles with headlines that almost read like satire.
“At-Home Workouts to Stay in Shape During the Coronavirus Outbreak”
“How to Transform Your Quarantine Belly Into 6-Pack Abs”
“The Best Workout Apps to Keep You Fit During the Coronavirus Lockdown”
An article in The New York Times about exercising during quarantine suggests that I should do heel raises while washing dishes, or side lunges when throwing my clothes in the dryer. Be productive while being productive. I wonder if during the Spanish Flu of 1918, people were at home doing push-ups and planks.
Physical activity is important. Yet, our obsession with staying fit during the time of corona feels a bit dystopian. It shows our culture of self-optimization at its most toxic: Even during a literal global pandemic, while thousands die and millions lose their jobs, we’re still here, worrying about whether we’re enough. We must always be striving to be the best versions of ourselves (and your best version doesn’t have love handles!). This pandemic is supposed to be treated like an opportunity, not a tragedy.
The world is sick, and it’s time for you to finally get the abs you’ve been wanting.
It’s common for priorities to change in the face of major life events. When I first started working a full-time job, my Tuesday night priorities changed from getting shitfaced with my friends to making sure I got enough sleep. And when I battled major stomach problems two years ago, my priorities shifted from eating an entire baguette in a sitting to finding a slower, more mindful way of eating.
The coronavirus would by all measures classify as a major event. Most of us have never seen anything like this. It’s had a huge toll on our everyday lives.
Yet, our priorities don’t seem to have changed much. The majority of us haven’t suddenly shifted from self-improvement to community improvement. If anything, our personal insecurities only seem to have gotten louder. I’m not even going anywhere for the next month at least, and yet here I am, spending equal parts time working out and frantically googling “Chloe Ting workout before and after.”
I start each morning by waking up, grabbing my phone from the other room (I leave it there for #DigitalDetox but clearly it hasn’t worked), and promptly returning to the warmth of my sheets to check the news about coronavirus. It’s a sickness.
The whole process takes about an hour. I begin by googling what’s happening in Japan. Then, I check up on Twitter to see what my favorite reporters are saying about it all. This is followed by my US podcast coverage: ten minutes of NPR’s “Up First” and twenty minutes of The New York Times “The Daily”. Sometimes, I spread the love by sending panicked messages to my friends and family about the worst news of the morning. I rinse and repeat this same routine throughout my day.
This routine may seem familiar to some of you. That is to stay: We are all very fucking stressed. We’re worried that our jobs might not exist tomorrow, that we may not be able to pay rent, that our parents may have inhaled respiratory droplets while grocery shopping. There’s a lot to worry about.
Do we need more stress for missing a workout or a day of running? If you don’t come out of this with a six-pack, so what? It’s enough just to come out of it with your health (and not the “health” that inexplicably involves posting pictures of yourself in your sports bra on Instagram). And if we want to talk about the broader pressure to be productive — maybe you’ll never get to building that shelving unit, either. That’s honestly fine and reasonable, because let’s be real, have you ever even built something before in your twenty six years of life? (Okay, this is more of a note to self.) Why do you need to start during a pandemic?
It’s okay not to optimize your body at all times. It’s okay to eat a million snacks and do nothing. It’s even okay to live by airport rules and drink a beer at 11 AM in sweatpants. It’s a pretty weird time to be alive, so cut yourself some slack.
Sometimes, you gotta live in the chaos of now.