Origins of the Fitness Culture

What does it mean to be fit? How healthy are you? In what ways does a hard, athletic body appeal to you? How many hours a week do you spend working out? What's your cholesterol level? Your resting pulse? Your VO2 max?

Questions like these bombard the contemporary athletic consumer. Visions of lean, golden-tanned bodies sweating in exercise accost us from all media. Yet, these dreams (or nightmares) of idyllic exercise have only recently held popular sway. As late as the 1950s, American consumers rested easy in their self-conceptions of health. But even by that time, the subtle messages that make up popular notions of health began to undergo transformation. Howell (1991) cites the post-WW2 years as the time during which the massive growth of state apparatus came to define precisely the term "quality of life." The concept of leisure came to represent, writes Gruneau (1984), the happiness and success of postwar social democracy. In turn, leisure became a sign of broader political and cultural advances in American life.

Ingham, Katz, and Cole all place the germ of the fitness culture within the late 1970s and early 1980s. Writing in perhaps the seminal work of fitness anthropology, Ingham (1985) frames the preoccupation with the body in terms of a contradiction between the welfare state and consumer culture. As the American state assumed more and more responsibility for its poor, many citizens viewed welfare as morally repugnant. Conservatives saw the admission of moral weakness in placing a demand on the state to take care of one's body. In contrast, liberals thought the poor stigmatized for not being able to perform the role of "body-consumer." That is, the individual who purchases goods and services based upon their exercise efficacy. Without delving into a discussion of the morality of the welfare state, it should be noted that both points of view deal exclusively with the body. Ingham cites Bauman:

The care of the body [is] the crucial time and money-consuming activity of the denizens of consumer society. The body is charged with the responsibility for success and failure in earthly endeavors, and the urge 'to do something about my life' is most eagerly translated into a precept 'to do something about my body.'"

As the First Running Boom took off in the late 70s, the idea of exercise and game-playing ceased being something Americans did for fun. Instead, "one ran for long life, health, or for a toned body suitable to the imminent halter-topped, and stretch-panted aesthetic" (Katz, 1994:65-66). Working on the body became a means of taking control of and displaying one's self. It gave the individual an iconographic representation of who they were in relation to everyone else.

How could this not appeal to the Yuppie generation? The allure was sexless, promised empowerment, status, and long life (Park, 1994: 62). The working out Yuppie defined himself by a "self-betterment ethos" and a quality of life dependent upon the popular culture. Driven by market persuasion and a design aesthetic that included bodies created by technology, the Baby Boom generation measured the quality of life by the body (Howell, 1991: 262-263).

Cole (1995) concurs with the idea of the body as a manifestation of consumer identity:

The images disseminated by promotional culture routinely and repetitiously solicit the hard body, the deep self, and free will (which aroused the desire to do work on the body and consume commodities in order to maintain the body and stabilize the identity.

And in their 1997 essay on soccer's racial and class divisions in suburban American, Andrews et. al. perhaps most succinctly summarize the culture of the fit body: "the body [is metamorphisized]into a corporeal commodity through which self-worth is expressed."

Nike and the Sanctification of Sport

There can be little argument over the rise of sport or its continued domination in the minds of the American people. Katz (1994:25) believes sport "surpassed popular music as the captivating medium most essential to being perceived as young and alive." The preceding discussion of fitness culture and the myriad TV, radio, and internet advertisements for everything from home gyms to running shoes to season tickets at the ballpark speak to the overarching desire for and subjugation to the gods of Sport. Corporations, reading groups, mailing lists, local clubs, national organizations, and high school teams have all sprung up like mushrooms around the monolithic structure of Sport.

If Nike didn't spawn the fitness revolution, "we were at least right there. And we sure rode it for one hell of a ride." --Nike President and CEO Phil Knight, as quoted by Katz (1994)

While Nike may or may not have begun the fitness boom, the company certainly capitalized on it and inserted itself into the cultural fabric by its incisively clever marketing and promotional tools. What then, does Nike's advertising impart? What images and significance do people assign to Nike?

According to the words of Nike's founder, a sense of mythology and mystery surrounds sport. Knight believes "superior athletic ability speaks to everyone's belief in some primordial capacity for a kind of true greatness that has been obscured over time by...the general clutter of contemporary life" (Katz, 1994: 6). Through Nike's vision, the American public has been privy to a conception of athletes as gods, games as ritual life, and the entire galaxy of sport as an Elysian Field, promising sound minds in sound bodies. Inside Nike, athletics are seen as Man's highest plane of being. Nike wants to package this idea, get it into the minds of the consumers, and keep it there until the time comes to buy sport apparel.

By all accounts, this approach has been wildly successful. (See Nike History and Timeline.) If religion speaks to the most elevated part of Man's nature and holds the greatest influence over Him, Nike's recasting of Sport as sacred virtually ensures a buying public wedded to the notions of athletes as ultra-human and exercise as a means to that uber-humanity. Nike's products stand as the bridge between the ideological apotheosis of Sport and the common man. Anyone with the right amount of money, Nike seems to imply, can outfit themselves in the garments of their gods. Sport and religion become intertwined and interchangeable, as Howell (1991) writes of "secular cathedrals full of technological devices with which to develop the bronzed muscular Adonis-like body." Runner-philosopher George Sheehan wrote, "When I run the roads, I am a saint...I am Thoreau , the solitary seeking union with the world around him." Katz offers: "Physical self-improvement and health became the basis of the new secular religion, and Nikes became the chalices and rosaries of choice" (1994:66). Cole has Nike directing "our gaze from bodily surfaces to depth, to the qualities of the essential self" (1995: 352). The active body equates to a sacred object, exercise represents the ritual of religion, and athletes look like gods. Sport has defined a new pantheon of deities and presented new roads to redemption. Nike, for its part, has played a crucial role in that shift and made a mint in the process.

Cole's analysis of Nike's part in the fitness culture depicts a more psychological focus, though still tinged with aspects of religiosity. The appeal of Nike comes from its insistence on the natural self, the body unimpeded by modern conceptions of beauty and unencumbered by the psychic weight of "beauty" practices. "Nike (as metonym for exercise) situates itself as a better version of beauty practices through its apparent recognition and affirmation of an inner and more authentic self" (Cole, 1995: 32). Placing Nike's rise to market hegemony in terms of cultural realignments, Cole writes:

It is not a coincidence that Nike became Nike during the decades marked by significant economic and political shifts, whose corresponding cultural emphases were on fitness, health, addiction, and individual responsibility. (1995: 355)

Fitness culture and Nike were contemporaneous partners in the promulgation of the hard-bodied aesthetic. Neither entity can claim parentage of the other, and both owe their continued existence to the well-being of the other. Through a complex web of political and social changes, Americans' value systems after the Second World War began to include fitness as a morally upstanding activity because of its sacred connotations and self-bettering ethos. In this new system, athletes stand as gods and their apparel offers the promise of increased performance and godhood by proxy. Likewise, sport appealed to Baby Boomers as it proffered the means to display market savvy, technological "hipness," and a fully realized self. Nike understands very well the pull of sport in popular culture. Its vision telegraphs a desire to "create covenants between customers and a special company cast as a haven for people who identify completely with athletes and sports" (Katz, 1994: 24). This statement from Phil Knight exemplifies the religiosity, interconnectivity, and economics of the fitness culture and Nike's unique relation thereto.


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