‘The 2012 D-Crit Conference’ Thesis Extracts: Tara Gupta

May 1, 2012

For the second installment of our series leading up to Eventually Everything: The 2012 D-Crit Conference on May 2, SVA Close Up offers an extract from Tara Gupta’s thesis Honed/Toned: A Critique of Fitness Culture:

“You’re so good.” “I haven’t been to the gym in ages!” “I can’t feel my legs; my workout yesterday was INSANE.” With a towel and sports bottle in hand, I have dutifully walked into this cloud of conversation at a health club, time and again over the past five years. Vigorously peddling, running and rowing, I have watched the minutes and calories accumulate, wishing for this tally to signify a better version of myself. Years later, heading to the locker room in a new club, and clasping a black matte “LookBetterNaked” promotional pamphlet,1 I realized the connection to the notion of “looking better naked” and my actual body lies in the designed promise of the health club space.

The designed conventions that define the health club disappear into our culture’s collective unconscious. Culturally we have consensus on what a health club should include, such as locker rooms, fitness equipment crammed in rooms, racks of bleached white towels. Like 45.6 million other American health club members,2 I found the health club to be a moral powerhouse. Through design, health clubs lure us in with the promises of “harder better faster stronger,” 3 a nod to physical and moral subjugation. By invoking discipline, we’ve intertwined physical strength and restraint with moral awareness. Theorist Michel Foucault writes, “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in terms of obedience).” 4 By increasing our strength we also decrease the aptitude for disobedience. We’re stronger but more controlled.

We pursue the health club and the machines within them to reform our bodies. The very vehicles with which we navigate our lives are entrusted to intricately designed machines. We now design machines programmed to re-design us. Our machines reflect little of the natural world but demonstrate the cultural preoccupation with technology as the symbol of advancement. Within the confines of the health club we have an opportunity to transform our bodies, a production process “manufacturing” the body as a product within mirrored walls. Our reliance on designed environments and machinery to expand and control our physical capabilities steadily increases. Are we addicted to machines? These fitness machines propel and strengthen us much faster than we could on our own. Perhaps we now expect our bodies to feel like the machines that we power and that we choose to power us—ever efficient and unbreakable.

Fitness culture accepts the health club as the conventional norm. We accept the market research, new technologies, sensors and a litany of arrows pointing in many directions to provide information on what our bodies need. However, as Dr. Carolyn de La Pena writes, “Until we combine the theories of experts with the physical experience of laypersons, we will not create a complete picture of how modern energies reshaped modern bodies.” 5

Honed/Toned: A Critique of Fitness Culture seeks to illuminate the themes that permeate the design of the machinery and health club. The conversation encompassing performance, our machine-mediated relationships and the design decisions influencing our experience of the body within this man-made environment must begin. I hope we can develop a conscious awareness of how our bodies are designed to move in the environments they occupy.

1 DavidBartonGym, “DavidBartonGym.” Last modified November 2, 2011.
2 International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, “Top 10 Global Markets: Numbers of Members in Millions,” 2011 IHRSA Global Report: The State of Health Club Industry (2011), 7.
3 Harder Better Faster Stronger,” Discovery, performed by Daft Punk, compact disc.
4 Michel Foucault, Discipline (New York: Vintage, 1995), 26.
5 Carolyn De La Pena, The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 13.

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