A couple grains short of a quinoa bowl.

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Back in March, I published a popular piece on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency parodying the worst extremes I’ve seen in wellness and life-hacking trends. The practices are familiar, but the details are ludicrous: when the narrator makes a green smoothie, it has 56 ingredients. Her most efficient workout? A single, 100-pound kettlebell swing. Her email strategy? So well batched and automated, she hasn’t responded personally in nine years.

I was overwhelmed by the response. Many people wrote to me to tell me they enjoyed the article, that it gave them permission to laugh at themselves. Far, far more people, however, did not understand that it was a joke. At first, I thought some of them were dragging out the joke, unsuccessfully – if there were ever a place for sarcasm to fail, it’s written communication between strangers – but much of the sincerity was unmistakable. I was offered contracts as a life coach, invited to contribute to wellness blogs, even asked to speak at events. At first, it was funny. Then it was scary.

I kept asking myself, why are these extremes so normal?

I found a post on a life-hacking forum evaluating some of my “suggestions.” The author specifically approved of using seven Vitamix blender pitchers throughout the week, washing them all on Sundays. Was he not put off by the money, kitchen space, and lack of olfactory nerve required to make that practical? Another reader only grew suspicious when he saw Irish Moss (carrageenan) among the 56 smoothie ingredients, as it is a “known gut irritant.”

You’ve figured me out. Only once I’ve irritated my competitors’ guts can I ascend to my rightful throne as queen of Pinstachatbook!

Sarcasm aside, many of the practices wellness gurus and life-hackers promote are genuinely good. I would never discourage anyone from meditating, journaling, preparing healthy meals, exercising efficiently, or batching tasks in whatever form and frequency suits them best. The problem is how these practices become undermined by attempts to monetize them. Old advice gets repackaged into a glut of content that both requires and promises ever more.

Should we seek to eliminate the superfluous to better focus on what matters most to us? Sure, but many life-hackers and wellness enthusiasts now consider any extra body fat or idle moment (not spent in meditation) to be superfluous.

You’re not a world traveling entrepreneur with a perfect body by 30? Why should we listen to you?

Life-hacking and lifestyle engineering are exciting because they’ve done away with mainstream expectations for our lives, but are these extremes that replaced them necessarily healthy? Somewhere, the narrative shifted from “your life doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s” to “your life should look like mine. Here, buy this, and validate me.”

A likely cause of these new extremes is sheer saturation. Wellness has gone mainstream; you can now find yoga pants and kombucha at Wal Mart. A friend’s grandmother in rural Tennessee is doing a raw vegan challenge with her knitting circle. Remote work, passive income, and lifestyle entrepreneurship aren’t the suburban sacrilege they used to be, either. Exponentially more people are becoming lifestyle bloggers and coaches, and it takes ever more to set them apart as innovators. “Tribes” of followers remain willing to try and buy. Their expectations of content have risen, but their tendency to question it has slackened. I imagine this is how I wound up scrolling through Amazon.com, thinking “I guess I have to buy some shilajit powder now,” while listening to an audiobook about eliminating the superfluous.

The wellness and life-hack industries are industries like any other; some sellers are out to create and exploit our insecurity. The holistic sheen of “wellness” makes this exploitation a deeper betrayal than the marketing of conventional, mainstream offerings. Of course the diet plan hawkers want me to feel fat. But wellness folks? I thought you wanted me to feel complete.

I consume a lot of these products and content. Sometimes I enjoy it. Often, I wonder whether I would do so at all if I didn’t feel so pressured toward thinness, purity, and achievement.

Of those who didn’t get the joke, a group of young lifestyle engineers from Silicon Valley stands out most. I hope that they didn’t read the article, but used some social media keyword trawler for lead generation to find me (is that even a thing?), because one of their members “has spent [his] entire life refining the fine art and science of bullshit detection.” Maybe the synchronized email, friend request, LinkedIn request, Twitter follow, and homing pigeon (heirloom breed – nice touch) were just automated flukes. Maybe not.

They are well-coached in pitching themselves and writing SEO optimized copy. In their collective century, they’ve amassed a staggering volume of entrepreneurial experience. Just reading about them was exhausting. It’s cool to have given a TED talk, visited 70 countries, and trained with Ninjas by age 22.

It’s also not mandatory.

So, whether you’re a consumer of wellness content and orderer of dubious supplements (like myself) or a rising star entrepreneur with a viral e-book and booming life-coaching practice, please know that the point of that McSweeney’s piece was not to take a steaming dump on your interests or your industry, but to make you pause and make you laugh. See the big picture. Maybe enjoy some gluten.

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Sore Loser.

 

fitter happier

Just as actual fast-food hamburgers never quite resemble their fresh, appetizing TV commercial counterparts, none of us here in the locker room look like the toned, bronzed models glowering down at us from the posters. We are all a bit saggy, lumpy, and tired in our own ways, but at least we are here. This is Hard Candy Fitness, “Inspired by Madonna.” She, too, glowers at us from communist-dictator-sized portraits in which she bites a chain seductively or is bathed in mysterious soft focus and overlaid with nonsensical text. Flat screen TVs around the gym show nonstop footage of her concerts, and just watching them makes me tired. She truly has the arms of a rookie NFL quarterback.

I never planned on joining Hard Candy Fitness; I actually joined its lower-key predecessor and was able to keep my contract after the takeover. New membership prices doubled, but as far as I’m concerned, all that really changed was the color scheme, from “Barney and Friends” purple and green to “Radio Shack” black, red, and silver. The reason I noticed only this is that I don’t take any group fitness classes, and they are the core (pun intended) of Hard Candy’s concept. Normal offerings like “Pilates for Beginners” and “Advanced Step Aerobics” have all been replaced with trendy, bonkers mashups like “Ashtanga Power Street Dance featuring RHYTHMSTIX Weighted Sticks.” I took some group yoga classes in New York, but I can’t bring myself to do them here. A German person shouting at me? This happens often. Blaring EDM? I can deal with that. Both at the same time? No, thanks. I’m just going to sit here on this medicine ball and eat a protein bar that tastes like dust.

Even though I criticize my gym for its sexist fear-mongering and relentless, Ryanair-style marketing strategy (most surfaces are covered in promotional material), I should point out that I’m still very thankful that women’s gyms exist. As annoyed as I am by the ads for “Collagen Caviar” and low-calorie baking cookbooks (here, have some shortcake that tastes like a kitchen sponge), I prefer these things to being creeped on.

 

Several years ago, I belonged to the “McFit” in Kreuzberg. It’s as bad as it sounds. Their motto translates to “Just look good.” This McFit was packed with assholes, or at least with men who behaved like assholes in the presence of fitness equipment. I started wearing the baggiest, ugliest clothes I could find and made sure to take off all of my makeup before working out. Nonetheless, one evening, a guy who looked fifteen from the neck up and thirty five from the neck down (terrifying) came over and stood so that my face would have rammed right into his crotch if I had finished my stroke with the rowing machine. I stopped and waited for him to leave. He said nothing, but gestured with open hands toward his junk as if it were made of gold and glistening in a beam of sunlight. I got up and walked out. I could hear him and his friends laughing until I shut the door behind me. I know that women everywhere experience far, FAR worse harassment than this on a daily basis, but it annoyed me so much that I spent the next two hours at home doing made up Tae Bo/Karate moves while watching Kill Bill, Volume 2. That was actually a really fun workout. From then on, I only used the elliptical machines. With the machine’s rapidly swinging handles in front of me and a wall behind me, I felt safe.

The neighborhood gym that I joined next was an improvement, with just one lurking, heavy mouth-breather, but I still felt awkward having to weave in and out between beefy dudes to get to the dumbbells. Startling someone who’s holding 50 kilograms is probably a great way to break a foot.

 

***

 

I say that we’re all lumpier than advertised here in this locker room, but that’s not quite true. There’s one girl who I see nearly every time who is equal parts inspiring and annoying. I alternately refer to her as “Lululemon” and “The VIXEN.” This girl is in shape. Her headless selfies could be all over Pinterest. She works out at great length and is never far from the mirror. Because I don’t actually know her as a person, my mind fills in the gaps with all kinds of unflattering details. She doesn’t have any cellulite? Well, maybe she doesn’t have any friends, either. Perhaps she has some dreadfully boring job where all she gets to do is stand there and look pretty. Because, you know, she can’t be pretty and smart. I stop myself. Not only am I feeling fat and slow, I’m also being a complete bitch.

Chances are, if I ever looked the way I thought I was supposed to and felt genuinely comfortable in my own body, I would also spend a lot of time moving around in front of mirrors. I suppose that that’s what I actually envy- the comfort and satisfaction. Ironically, plenty of people would probably be over the moon to have my body: my organs work great; everything is symmetrical; I can walk; I have a completely normal body mass index. Instead of reveling in gratitude, I slip down into a familiar guilt, just to make sure I spend enough time each day cocooned in unnecessary misery.

 

How should I make myself feel better, anyway? Say something nice to the VIXEN? Do some visualization exercises in the sauna? Sign up for “Ashtanga Power Street Dance featuring RHYTHMSTIX Weighted Sticks?”

 

 

One thing I will NOT do is buy a post-workout protein shake.

 

The gym sells Hech brand protein shakes. It’s an appropriate name, because it’s the sound a native German speaker would make after spitting out something foul. The cups are emblazoned with the quote, “Your body is your only true luxury.” The first time I saw this, I thought it was so vapid that I rolled my eyes. The only luxury, really? What about flying business class, or eating a croissant in Paris? What about wine tastings, or foot massages? Or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow does as a nighttime ritual?

As I went through my mental list of other luxuries, I realized something: the version of myself that I pictured enjoying these activities was, indeed, a little bit thinner and a lot more refined. Your body is not your only luxury, but if you feel genuinely miserable in your own skin, it’s much harder to enjoy things.

 

By the way, these shakes are so indigestible from their combination of artificial sweetener, lactose, AND soy that if you stood still on a skateboard, you could fart yourself home. Spare no intestine, Hech.

 

***

They say that to become an expert at something requires ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. I am proud of many of my skills, but when I take an honest look at my life, all the way back to my childhood, the only thing that I could truly be considered an expert at is failing to diet. I’ve been trying to lose the same “ten pounds” (my rough estimate of the difference between myself and the “ideal”) since I was in the sixth grade. This is bad enough, but it’s even worse to I realize that if I hadn’t cared about that, if I had invested my time and energy into a hobby instead, I could theoretically be a world class practitioner of it by now.

 

Then, there’s the money. If I could be reimbursed for every magazine, every sketchy vitamin supplement, juice cleanse, or other piece of ludicrous diet paraphernalia, how much would it be? If I had saved and invested that money, what could I do with it now?

I downloaded Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth on my Amazon Kindle, but I can’t bring myself to start reading it.

***

Question: if you had the perfect body and would have it forever, regardless of how you ate or behaved, what would you do? I am on the treadmill, ruminating on this, and also wondering how the light in the window can be so flattering, while the light in the mirror makes me look like a cheese ball served at a 1960s cocktail party.

The fact that it actually takes me a few minutes to answer that question disturbs me. Once I figure it out, I make a pledge to myself: write it down, and spend AT LEAST as much time on the answer as I do on these machines.

What do I actually want? I gag thinking about back dimples or thigh gaps. Those things are arbitrary. I’m a pretty girl. I’d have been a knockout in the 1890s.  If I could have anything I wanted, though, I would just be free. I would be 100% certain at all times that my worth did not depend on my appearance. I would delete that layer from my reality and get to experience everything else more deeply.

For a moment, I get angry, thinking men get to feel this way. My jealously is fleeting, of course, because I instantly picture male friends and former boyfriends drinking their own putrid protein shakes, waxing their chests, tweezing their eyebrows, fearfully googling hair loss remedies, spitting into cups before wrestling weigh-ins, exacerbating their carpal tunnel syndrome with ludicrous daily push-up goals, and making unkind remarks about whatever the VIXEN’s male counterpart is called. The MEATHEAD? We’re all in this together (don’t I know that by now?), but we don’t offer each other very much support.

***

 When I’m so sore that I can’t move, I ask myself: who am I doing this for? Is it just for me, or am I still trying to prove something? I know, intellectually, that any fitness goal or lifestyle change has to be for yourself. Otherwise, it’s a lose-lose situation. If the person you’re losing weight for doesn’t think it’s necessary, they may not appreciate or acknowledge your efforts. If that person does think it’s necessary, any resistance or difficulty you experience will fuel a resentment that burns like a tire fire: stinky, pervasive, and hard to extinguish.

I was once in a relationship with a man who, nine months in, made it known that he would find me most attractive at 95 pounds and that I shouldn’t gain any weight from thereon out. At 5’1”, I was a healthy 115. To prove a point, I ate almost exclusively raw foods and spent hours a day running and doing “power yoga”. When I dropped below 100 pounds, I scared him, but the only thing that changed was that for a short time, he stopped eating off of my plate before I was done with my meals. Since 1100 daily calories of roughage can only sustain a two-month old sheep embryo, I gained most of the weight back, and we sunk even deeper past our previous misery. Moral of the story: pick partners who are attracted to you just the way you are, right now. If someone makes unrealistic weight-loss a condition of your relationship, run for the door.

Running for the door can burn up to 30 calories!

Thanks to this episode and multiple others, I ought to know by now that achieving an arbitrary weight is not going to fill the underlying gaps in my self-worth. At the times in my life when I’ve genuinely been happiest, I was taking great care of myself.  At the times when I was the lightest, I was abusing myself. I was my thinnest and most far gone as a senior in high school. I have a picture from a dear friend’s 18th birthday party that I used to refer to for “inspiration.” I am wearing a size 00 dress. My cheekbones are sharp, my arms are lean, and my breastbone is knobby. I remember that party well for two reasons- it was one of a few moments that year when I did not feel lonely, and all I had to eat that day were two miniature snickers bars. Not fun-size, but bite-size.

If we are what we eat, please, God, let me be something that is real, fresh, simple, and nourishing.

Not two miniature snickers.

***

This being a blog post, I wish I could end it with THE TRICK. HOW I DID IT. How I finally lost the weight and started living the badass, instagrammable life of my dreams, and how YOU can do it, too: download my e-book for 9.99! (I have not written an e-book.)

There is no trick. If there were, I would have found it by now. Goodness knows I’ve spent enough time looking.

I would say that I want the VIXEN’s confidence and satisfaction, but I honestly can’t be sure that she has either. For all I know, she could be running on the fumes of her own miniature snickers diet.

I suppose that’s one good thing to come out of all of this seemingly senseless struggle: when I recognize it in others, I have a deep sympathy for it: the girl ahead of me in line at the grocery store, buying only sugar free Jello packets; the fifty-year-old writing to SELF magazine about not being willing to wear a bathing suit in public; preteens instagramming their concave abdomens; a college classmate eating a sad desk lunch of a boiled egg and a clementine.

Another good thing is that I have finally found physical activities that I actually enjoy, namely non-Madonnified yoga, bike rides, and occasional weight lifting. It makes all the difference in the world to do something out of enjoyment rather than out of fear or resentment. If you unleash a hungry beast, a man will run. Do you know who else will run? Someone who fucking loves running.

At the end of the day, I think the only thing left to do is to recognize the silliness and idiocy of the beauty-industrial complex, while still acknowledging the sincerity of our needs: everyone wants to feel worthy, accepted, and sufficient. It’s not wrong to want to be fit or beautiful. It is wrong to stop nourishing yourself physically and emotionally.

So, here’s to happier desk lunches, harassment-free use of rowing machines, judgment-free dressing rooms, and physical activity simply for the sake of fun.

If you do discover some miraculous weight loss secret, though, blog about it (or, you know, e-book it), because I will definitely, definitely find it.