We live in the middle of a health wave that has spread through the western world since the 80's. We are constantly concerned with self-representation, which has made us more aware of our own body and how we appear. Exercise fanaticism is taking an ever-increasing place in society. Articles about diet and exercise have been given just as important a place in online newspapers as world news. How is it that we have become so preoccupied with exercising and eating right?
According to Jürgen Martschukat, the author behind The Age of Fitness, our actions are based on our desire to feel a sense of belonging to society built on self-realization and prosperity. The body – race, gender and physique – defines our place and status in society. Until the early 80s, almost all sports – tennis, weightlifting, cycling, golf and jogging – were portrayed in the American media as activities exclusively for white men. The average woman was not included in the training wave until activist Jane Fonda invented a new genre with her training videos. She sold 17 million VHS tapes of aerobics worldwide. These videos became important for women's self-realization through being sporty and active. At the same time, they contributed to a greater body pressure among young women – the ideal body should be slim, supple and sexy, wearing tight sportswear.
Survival of the fittest
From the beginning of capitalism, a direct relationship has been drawn between being in good physical shape and being able to perform to the maximum working with high productivity. The Age of Fitness is written with a historical perspective to explain how being in shape has become increasingly important in the age of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a resurrection of classical liberalism that originated in the late 19th century. The idea was based on the biological concept of evolution and survival of the fittest and was used in a social context where competition between citizens should promote the best in us. We associate neoliberalism with heads of state such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but this type of policy has played a dominant role in Norway since the 90s.
The discovery of the Viagra pill secured the pharmaceutical company Pfizer a dominant position among the global players.
Neoliberalism paves the way for self-employment and entrepreneurship, which in turn requires self-discipline and motivation. It is the individual who is responsible for improving himself, staying fit and maintaining his own productivity. It also means that you work consciously to postpone natural old age, as the barrier to social participation generally increases with age – especially in a country like Norway. Pharmaceutical companies have significantly increased their share of the consumer market by investing in preventative medicines and dietary supplements that will help keep us fit, young and slim. It was in fact the accidental discovery of the Viagra pill that secured the pharmaceutical company Pfizer a dominant position among the global players.
It is also about constant optimization. It is not just goods and work processes that need to be optimized. People must also be improved and adjusted at all times – which means that we never really reach the goal, that we are constantly chasing a better version of ourselves. Smartwatches and phones promise to give us better control through apps that measure heart rate, steps and sleep quality, so we can train even more efficiently. Wearing a training watch is a status symbol in itself, it signals that you are concerned about your own health and keeping fit.
Current in Norway
We read almost daily in the newspapers about the pressure to perform at school, about how difficult it is to find a job after graduating, and how impossible it is to enter the housing market. The media constantly reminds readers and young people of the competition out there. The hero of the stories we are presented with is the entrepreneur who started with two empty hands and worked his way up to wealth and recognition. Or someone who was hit by a tragic accident, but who against all odds trained back to a strong body. It is emphasized how important it is to be goal-oriented and to have an inner drive, high work capacity and ability to implement. The stories are about structure, discipline and self-control. Maybe it's time to present alternative characters to the young people?
Jürgen Martschukat's book is based on his research work in Germany and the United States on food and exercise culture and their relationship to social structures. Since we have adopted many of the American social norms, as well as the American food culture, are The Age of Fitness very relevant for readers in Norway as well. The book is fun and at the same time intelligently written. It will not make you take off your Fitbit watch, but it will be able to give you a better understanding of why you feel this recurring pressure to train more and get in shape.