Rant 7 January 2003: The lady protests too much

On Jan 8, columnist Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail had a column about what she termed “Healthism”. To illustrate this, she used the example of Jean’s Marines, a group of women attempting to run the Marine Corps marathon in 2003. Allow me an extended quote:

Yet as I sat in my PJs cataloguing my sins, it occurred to me (not for the first time) that Healthism has become our new religion. How else can you explain a mass desire to run and run until you use up all your electrolytes and throw up? And yet, the dogmas of Healthism are unquestioned. We have all internalized them. Our leaders preach them from their pulpits and our media faithfully report their message. Instead of being photographed in church, our leaders are now photographed practising good health habits to demonstrate their piety and civic virtue. Health Minister Anne McLellan has announced that she’s starting an exercise program in order to lose weight. When are you?… For the most devout, there are special retreats, called spas. Nowadays, a spa is not a place that pampers you. Instead, it charges thousands of dollars a week to make you go on forced marches through the desert and survive on carrot juice. The less food you get, the more expensive it is. Don’t bother calling; they’re all booked solid this time of year… Have we all gone crazy? What’s so wrong with drinking beer? Whatever happened to the pleasure principle? And how did the most hedonistic generation on Earth turn into a bunch of self-righteous, guilt-ridden self-deniers?

Along with the smug screw-you defiance, masquerading as self-pity, of a narcissistic boomer, this article contains a supersized dose of poor argumentation. Wente sets up a straw person, that of marathon runners or wannabe runners (hey, all her middle-aged yuppie friends are into it, so this must be a mass social phenomenon), as representative of all things healthy. In fact, she suggests, interest in health and exercise is like unto a cult. Ruh roh, someone is starting an exercise program, next it’ll be chats with Xenu the Omnipotent.

This attitude would be less annoying if it weren’t masquerading as common sense. According to this rhetoric, people who exercise and take care of their bodies are all insane, since they have been deluded by the preachings of health gurus and those bad, bad doctors who are doing their mean studies to show that mommy’s ciggies will chew holes in her trachea, and that we should eat yucky vegetables instead of Doritos (hey, carrots are orange, Doritos are orange, what’s the problem?). Exercisers are accorded the archetype of the marathon runner, who Wente feels is someone who engages in ascetic self-denial in order to complete an extreme achievement.

Now, I have nothing against marathoners besides poking good-natured fun at them occasionally for looking like dried string beans, but get real: they don’t represent the 99% of the population who prefers one of the zillion other physical activities in the world, nor do they represent most of the people who do like running for exercise. Essentially this is like suggesting that the millions of religiously observant people in the world are not only all Christian, but rabid abortion-doctor-offing Jesus freaks. And, after glancing at the Jean’s Marines website [no longer available], these marathoners are right-on folks; no hint of extremism or pump-till-you-puke mentality, just an interest in achieving goals and having fun (hell, some bodybuilders could learn a thing or two from them).

It also suggests that good nutrition and activity are a fad or an affectation of particular groups of people, rather than a sensible lifestyle choice for good health and quality of life. Anyone who’s ever experienced both sedentary and active lifestyles will tell you that they feel better when they are active and treating their bodies well. In addition, most active and health-conscious folks avoid junk food in large amounts because it makes us feel like shit; once you start eating better you tend to notice just how disgusting the chemical-laden swill that passes for snack food really is. This isn’t to say we don’t all enjoy a nice cookie or glass of wine occasionally. We just don’t stuff our head into the Mr. Christie bag and pretend we’re being revolutionaries who are standing up against the oppression of the People’s Army of Nutritionists. And by the way, has Wente been to an inner-city Y? Sure, there are some suits, but you’ll find a whole lot more plain working people, old, young, with families, all different colours and backgrounds, trying to do something that makes them feel good. I get email from all over the globe, from average people with jobs and kids and various responsibilities and less than perfect lives, who are discovering that exercise and good nutrition improves their quality of life tremendously. But most importantly, it doesn’t have to be extreme, it doesn’t need to involve a spa or a marathon, and it doesn’t have to be associated with morality.

In fact, the most successful exercise and diet programs incorporate a good amount of reality. I love weight training but no way am I going to leave my nice warm bed at 5 am to do it. I also know that if I don’t put my gym clothes into my work bag, so that I go to the gym on the way home from the office, I’m much less likely to go. I don’t subsist on bizarrely complicated diets that include drinking seaweed sludge. I just try to get some activity every day, eat my veggies, try to treat my body like it’s an important possession of mine, and let the rest work itself out.

If Wente likes to erode an ass groove in her La-Z-Boy, it doesn’t matter to me. But please, quit trying to self-justify with rhetoric about exercise cults, and get a clue about what the average person does for exercise. Hint: it does not involve thousands of dollars for a spa.

Well, it seems as if the not-so-ladylike ladies of Jean’s Marines have struck back! These sound like my kind of women! Wente’s column was met with this rebuttal a couple of days later:

We will not be denied

By Jean Marmoreo and Bob Ramsay

Friday, January 10, 2003 – Globe and Mail print edition, page A11

Dear Margaret Wente:

We hope you enjoyed the six-pack of beer we sent over.

Even though you declined our invitation to join the 150 women who have signed on with JeansMarines to train for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington in October, we thought sending anything obviously healthy would violate our own principles. You may be surprised to learn that they do not include self-denial, piety, starvation, purging, or even detoxification, all building blocks of the creeping Healthism that tormented you to ask in your Tuesday column: “How did the most hedonistic generation on Earth turn into a bunch of self-righteous, guilt-ridden self-deniers?” The answer is: We didn’t.

We and the 85 others who became JeansMarines last year did so not in order to deny ourselves anything, but to deny ourselves nothing: After a 15-kilometre warm-up run, we would pile into the nearest greasy spoon, gorging on fried eggs, blackened sausage, peanut butter and “double-double” coffee. Belching contests from Bay Street lawyers gave way to delicate fight songs that began: “We’re JeansMarines . . . We take no crap . . .” and descended from there. We’d invade the local running store, buying hundreds of dollars of gear at a time, maxing our gold cards, insisting that only the most fashionable tights could properly wick the sweat from our ever-shrinking bodies.

Getting up so early so often to “run with the girls” meant we frequently abandoned our mates and children, forcing them to make their own breakfast, telling them to run a bath for us, claiming we were too tired to do the shopping — then asking them to join us on the route next weekend — as waterboys. This doesn’t sound like denial to us; it sounds like having it all — that elusive and discredited goal of women everywhere, as in “You can’t have it all, all the time.”

But one of the direct effects of carving out an hour every other day for yourself to run or walk or walk-run, is that you get to treat yourself to one of two very real gifts:

1. Time alone. Just you, huffing and wheezing down the road, where no one can reach you, put demands on you, drag you off to a meeting. When was the last time you had four separate occasions like this each week just to yourself?

2. Time together. What made it possible for all these women to move from the couch in Toronto to the start-line in Washington wasn’t the trainers or the program, but each other. Forcing yourself out of bed because you know a pack of other women is waiting for you sounds like impending self-denial. But sharing the stories of their days and lives, making new friends when you thought you had time for absolutely no more, this is a feast no one should deny herself.

Barbara Hall, a JeansMarine and now svelte candidate for mayor of Toronto, would wake up at 5 for a run, and after a gruelling day of meetings, meals and receptions, she’d find herself dancing at midnight. Why? Because she can.

That said, training to run a 42-kilometre footrace will frequently take your breath away. But for us, because we denied ourselves nothing in the nine-month process, the benefit of putting one foot in front the other was also something many readers of your column may feel — mistakenly — they have to deny in their own lives.

And that is? Rollicking. Breathtaking. Fun.

So please: Give your self-indulgence a second chance and join us this year.

Dr. Jean Marmoreo is the founder of JeansMarines. Her husband, writer Bob Ramsay, is its propagandist-in-chief and president of the Gentlemen’s Auxiliary.