Exercise in the Age of Injectable Skinniness

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In the summer of 2015, one of my best friends died at work. Shannon was 38, childless, single and thriving, and working as an executive at a global public-relations firm, where she handled a major client. She was set to take a family vacation—treating her nephews to a Disney trip or some such—when her boss sent down an edict that no one on her account was allowed to take time off. Saying no to your boss is hard, but disappointing your nephews is even harder, so Shannon stood her ground and refused to cancel her trip.

She then proceeded—in a conference room—to have a panic attack about how the decision might affect her career. The panic attack triggered a heart attack; the heart attack revealed a preexisting tear in a heart valve; the tear led to internal bleeding that, after a two-week-long coma, led to her death. You can see why, though it isn’t technically true, I say that Shannon “died at work.” You can also see how my 36-year-old self—also single, also childless, also stuck in a successful but frustrating career and in need of some time off—–was very messed up by this. Everyone who knew Shannon was. As the bench in Prospect Park we dedicated to our friend says: Shannon, she gave a lovely light.

It was in this state of despair that I reluctantly accompanied a friend to SoulCycle. I’m allergic to exercise-guru talk and pseudo-spirituality, but in the dark of that studio with the music enveloping me, forcing my heart to push itself in the way that Shannon’s could no longer do, something dislodged the deepest layers of my grief. I sat, pedaling as hard as I could, sobbing with abandon, knowing the black of the room and the sound of the music and the whirring of the bikes were giving me cover.

I kept returning, booking a bike in the back and letting the sweat and tears wash down my face. I did this for weeks until one day, I realized I hadn’t cried. And another day, I realized I was smiling.

In the time that I was, as my friends would tease me, in the “Cult of Soul”—I dispute this, for what it’s worth; I never bought any merch—I transformed my life. Eventually I got up the guts to pursue what I had really always wanted to do, which was to write books. Unfortunately, because time is finite, I had to do it in the mornings before work and on the weekends—all of the times when I used to be on the bike.

Fitness can be a complicated thing. For some, the motivation is health, and for others it’s pure enjoyment of the sport or physical activity. But for many—especially the Gen Xers among us, who, if we weren’t given an eating disorder by our Boomer moms, picked one up at college or from our Cosmopolitan and Vogue magazines—the real point is weight loss. Yes, exercise has health benefits, but those are side effects of the aesthetic goal.

This was how I had always approached exercise. I worked out because of eating issues and body-image challenges cultivated early in my life. Drawn by my grief to SoulCycle, I’d seen a different side of exercise and of what it could mean to me. But after a lifetime of other messages, the lesson didn’t stick. I still thought that I worked out in order to not gain weight.

And at the same time, I felt bad about this. Against the backdrop of the body-positivity movement, I was suspicious of my devotion to physical fitness. I needed to write; was my fear of my own fat worth the time taken away from the work required to change my life? Couldn’t I simply love myself as I was?

For a long time, I did very little exercise. I was obsessed with my art and my project. Other things took precedence over fitness—or rather, as I saw it, over my own vanity.

And then something shifted. Well, two things.

First, a series of back injuries left me barely able to walk without pain and took a year of care to recover from. I yearned for movement, and my doctor recommended regular pilates classes.

Then, at the beginning of this year, the Netflix algorithm fed me the documentary Stutz, directed by Jonah Hill.

The film is about the life and work of Hill’s therapist, Phil Stutz, whom Hill credits with making his life “immeasurably better.” Stutz helps his patients develop what he calls their “life force”—the part of you that can guide you when you are most lost. Stutz describes the life force as a pyramid. At its base is your relationship with your physical body, meaning we need physical movement combined with quality sleep and diet. In the middle of the pyramid are our relationships with other people, meaning we need them. And at the top is our relationship with ourselves.  

Interestingly, Hill—not a Gen X woman—had a similar psychic relationship with exercise as I did. In the film, he discusses having been scarred as a child by being told he was fat, and how fitness was always seen as a punishment to fix the crime of being overweight. It was only when he viewed working out as a component of caring for his mental happiness—something that he could control, something that could increase the amount of joy he might be capable of feeling—that his perspective shifted.

Hearing him say that, it suddenly clicked for me too: Exercise can be an act not of vanity, but of psychological self-care. Many wars are being waged against women—against our bodies, our rights, our sizes, our images of ourselves, and who is and isn’t allowed to claim this identity. For a long time, I felt that by rejecting movement, I was rejecting an idealized and impossible body image, that I was learning “self-acceptance.” But really I was just sabotaging my own mental health.

This is not an anti-fat or anti-body-positivity message. I love that younger women are being raised without the internalized self-hatred I was steeped in. I really love that young women of color are spurning the notions of “good bodies” that are rooted in a beauty standard that excludes our communities. If anything, I’m finally personally connecting the dots that the fat-activist and body-positivity communities have been railing about for some time: Fatphobia in the fitness industry is harmful. It alienates many people from movement.

But in the Age of Ozempic, the idea that we work out to get thin may be even more dangerous than ever, no matter your size.

Ozempic now offers injectable skinniness to the same monied Alo- and Lululemon-wearing men and women who have been filling up fitness classes and gyms for years, all of them there to chase the elusive goal of “thinner,” or, if they’ve caught it, to keep that slim frame in their clutches. But at the same time, all of them have been benefiting from the side effects of endorphins and rising heart rates, the pleasure of experiencing the vitality of their own blood-pumping bodies.

If they can now stay skinny with just an injection and a few picked-over meals, will they abandon fitness? What is a life where you don’t need to move your body and you don’t need to eat, but you know you look good in designer clothes? What is real living if you are doing it for the ’gram?

A few weeks ago, I went to California for a book talk and signing. I’ve probably signed thousands of books, but for the first time ever, I was asked to dedicate a book to a Shannon. I immediately felt my eyes burn hot and my throat close up. My Shannon was the type of person who got off on her friends doing well, and I’ve often imagined how pumped she would be to see me now. But the truth is, I was able to make these changes because of her, because her death made me reassess my life and what being alive means.

And it also led me into that very dark spin studio where, class after class, I went from drowning in sadness to feeling that my crazy dreams might be achievable. It was easy for Stutz to convert me to his philosophy, because I already knew that what he was saying was true. I just hadn’t made the connection before. Did it need to come in the form of a luxury fitness class? No. But did being next to the other bodies help? Absolutely. Because people: We need them.

Since I watched that documentary, not a day has passed without me forcing myself, in some way, to move. Ideally, with somebody else—even if that somebody else is just my dog running up a hill with me. I even went back to a SoulCycle class for the first time in years. Not to be thinner or stronger, but to control the volume of my own happiness.