Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Bored, frustrated, restless, frightened, politically enraged, homebound and free of all fancies this past year, I frequently headed into the strange, sinister badlands of self-improvement for something to do. And there was a lot. No matter which way you look at the whole self, there’s room for tweaking. Even sticking strictly to the physical form, the options were endless for me: An ab needed forging. A hamstring needed stretching. A pimple needed patching. But seeking to self-improve didn’t make me feel improved at all. At all! It just made me feel like I’d hired a snooping, pedantic consultant who kept providing me with an itemized case review of problem areas. Each item seemed kinda minor and one-off, just another little twig to spruce up and throw in the pile, which was in a world that’s on fire.

Self-improvement, by virtue of its inward-looking egotism, doesn’t seem to think much about the state of the world. In its register, everything seems as if it should be on a smooth, upward trajectory, forever and forever, into the sky. But fallow periods and plateaus and full-body falters are likely more than half the story. Reflecting on her body-building routine in a 1993 essay, Kathy Acker writes that the whole thing, the entire premise of her exercise practice is basically a courtship with constant defeat. In her project of amassing muscle, she finds herself slamming into the limits of her ability. She lifts weights until she and her muscles give up. She’s always confronting failure; and then always returning, to find that after resting and giving up, she’s able to bear even more weight. In this way, “Bodybuilding can be seen to be about nothing but failure.”

With a snake-eating-its-tail flourish, this theory seems both completely encouraging and totally demoralizing. But that’s the arrangement with fitness: there’s always a boom, a push, then retreat and collapse. This toil-then-flail principle is the whole thing. Acker was devoting herself to getting stronger and she endlessly confronted her own weakness in that project. It’s not all progress and can’t be.

Now, if there’s some element of your life that’s causing great distress, yeah, of course, obviously, attend to it. If accountability seems helpful to you, of course, obviously, seek away. But there’s a difference between taking care of yourself and constantly scanning  to spruce and polish and fix and strengthen and lengthen and tone. There’s maybe some value to just existing with a corporeal center that’s still made of unforged ab muscle. This pause can just be temporary. Get into that non-linearity!

This new life has been a lot. These past several months hit from a lot of different angles fast and hard, coming at us in ways expected and not. It’s been like fighting an unbeatable punching bag that will do nothing but wear us out, and then break from its chain to fall on top of us and explode. Assessing ourselves from underneath this collapse, proposing a case review that suggests different areas to self-improve seems… futile, unfair, and navel-gazing? Bringing in the consultant to determine our weak spots is: BAD TIMING BRO, HELP OUT OR GET OUT. We’ve got a weight on our chest, things on our mind, and doing whatever we please, doing whatever feels good and right is … maybe what’s good and right.

You can plateau. You can lighten up on things. You can run up the hill, you can roll down the hill, you can find a little cave on the hill and hibernate. Maybe it’s the winter light, maybe it’s that we know we still have fucking treachery to deal with ahead, but the impulse to store up your reserves can be tactical as well as comforting. Better and better and higher and higher is literally impossible, and if you go up the hill, you’re also going to go down the hill.