It's difficult to avoid the idea that the self is a project to be worked on. People speak of being on a journey. TV shows feature mind and body makeovers where unhappy individuals are encouraged to confess their sins before being remade as virtuous modern individuals having achieved their potential and freed their selves from unhealthy eating habits and negative thoughts by a panel of experts.
Nowhere is the myth of self-creation peddled than in the fitness industry which has become a mainstream secular religious cult. The Christian commandment of 'thou shall not judge' has become thou shall not compare your body to others while we bombard you with images of success stories and glamour models. The contradiction is explained by autonomy. If we wish to become truly autonomous, we must free ourselves from outside influences and become 'ourselves'. In this post, I will talk about Michel Foucault theory of power and knowledge in relation to the fitness industry.
Power and Knowledge
We normally think of power as being imposed by a government on the masses. European liberal thought from the Enlightenment onward was concerned with neutralizing this top-down power through knowledge. It is through knowledge (self-reflection, the power of reason etc) that we free ourselves from the workings of external power and achieve autonomy. Hence the famous phrase 'knowledge is power'.
Foucault disagreed with this strand of liberal thought which assumes there is a true self to be freed from the external workings of power. Power according to Foucault works through establishing truths about the world which then become viewed as axiomatically obvious and self-evident. These truths reinforce each other controlling how we think and the language we use to communicate. Knowledge then is not simply a set of facts, but a system of discourses, verbal and non-verbal ways of organizing and thinking about the world. Knowledge is inevitability interlinked with power.
Foucault argues that the West over the last 150 years or so has seen a gradual shift in the uses and forms of power. He argues that we have seen a move from juridical or lawlike power, which uses the language of rights ad obligations, to forms of normalizing or regulatory power which uses the language of health self-fulfillment and normality. If juridical power says 'obey me or you will be punished', regulatory power says 'obey so that you can be happy, healthy and fulfilled'.*
Juridical power is imposed from above through political institutions over which we have little direct control while regulatory power is imposed through social networks which grant the illusion of self-choice. Power, Foucault warned, is at it's strongest when it's unnoticed and offers pleasure and happiness and yet controls how we think and act through systems of knowledge.
One of the ways in which power works is through the creation of categories in which we come to understand ourselves. Foucault used the example of the homosexual category which only appeared in the late 19th century. Before that, same-sex activity was just an forbidden act, a crime that people committed. But during the 19th century, same-sex activity became a separate category of a human, a different type of life. So through the act of describing same-sex activity, the categories of 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' were created out of a broader interest in sexuality and then became fixed in public discourse and individual identity. We can not avoid them.
This is what Foucault termed subjectivation: people became subjects tied to specific identities and a set of rules and norms subjected to those identities. Like homo and hetero sexual, once a specific identify is created through description in popular discourse we begin to think of them as obvious and accepted truth.
Western thought is still concerned with maintaining autonomy through rejecting external power imposed from above. The shift away from juridical power towards regulatory power is under appreciated. Regulatory power manifests itself through subjectivation of the self by experts and becomes spread and accepted throughout the wider cultural network.
Regulatory power and the gym culture.
Gym culture, while stressing autonomy and self-creation, actually ties us more closely to this working of power. It depends upon us accepting a normative judgement of what we are and what we could become by following the advice of experts and management of the self. We are simultaneously instructed not to judge other people for what they eat while being instructed on exactly what to eat to provide happiness and zest for life. We are warned not not to compare ourselves to fitness models while simultaneously being offered posters of fitness model as motivation to follow our dreams. We are told we must sleep eight hours a day, eat five healthy portions of food, exercise at least 30 minutes a day and think happy thoughts. If we manage to achieve that, we earn the right to feel good.
If a government or religion tried to impose this regime upon us, we would have a mass uprising within six months. Yet we freely accept it as truth and pay our gym memberships, hire our personal trainers and closely regulate our desires and thoughts.
In Foucault terms the entire fitness industry is an example of power, identity and knowledge combining to regulate and control us even while we speak of achieving autonomy. Categories are created by fitness experts which we then happily adapt. Body shapes are 'fat skinny', 'stocky broad'. A body builder may be a 'hard gainer'. A person who runs for fitness may consider him/herself a 'runner'. These categories now come with a range of social norms and rules. A body builders diet will be different from a runners. Even the clothes they may wear is different.
But where is the harm?
We all need to exercise and we can all benefit from a healthier diet. But those two very simple ideas have been pushed too far by the multi-billion health industry which peddles the idea of an autonomous self capable of achieving freedom through self-actualizing and exercising the correct choice of food and regulating thought. Fitness and body shape has become an axis around which behavior can be judged and normalized, even while speaking of individual freedom.
This concept is completely contradictory to the reality of the society in which we live. Frankly, I find it galling.
* Identity by Steph Lawler