Monday, March 5, 2012

SPECIAL : Pant, Wheeze, Pant and Keep Jogging -- An Ethnography Delving into the Subtext of the Workout World


Come run away with me into the world of jogging. Peer, with me, into the Berkeley track where Fernwald Road and Dwight Way meet, surrounded by the towering hills of Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. This feeling of being enclosed within the encompassing fence and the rolling hills, the sky domed like a Renaissance painting above, makes you feel like you are in a snow globe. It takes you out of the normal, everyday hubbub of Berkeley, and into another world. And—inhale—it smells like eucalyptus trees and dirt. A certain taste forms in the mouth… for you sedentary folk, pleased by simply sitting and watching the joggers, the air tastes fresh, sweet. For you exercise junkies, the taste is that of sweat. 
Keep envisioning this, and wonder: why do people want to come here, really? If I had avoided the earlier descriptions and simply told you “imagine you are standing at a track,” wouldn’t your answer be different? When I described it as being so beautiful, however, other reasons for going to a track besides exercise come to mind—site seeing, being in nature, watching… So, what is the purpose of our track?
Forms of exercise continue to vary among different generations and time periods. This ethnography focuses on the modern approach to outdoor jogging on a track, specifically in Northern America. Once, the only way humans were able to move about was restricted to their body (no cars, bicycles, or external devices to expedite moving). Some still only use their body, not believing in external forces or not having the means to purchase them. For example, the Pueblos, a tribe of American Indians, are accustomed to daily acts of physical activity, not aided by machines. Because of this, running is second nature to the Pueblos; their bodies are vessels to get them places. People living in the US, however, now depend on vehicles such as cars and bicycles, to move about. Running is not an everyday occurrence, so it is seen as extra effort for staying fit. It is also a choice, not an expected way of life.
Favored methods and types of exercise change depending on the generation. For instance, the treadmill is now a commonly used form of exercise, allowing people to stay indoors rather than having to resort to outdoor activities. One of the first uses of the treadmill, then called a treadwheel, was in English prisons. Prisoners would have to exercise on treadwheels, “purifying themselves” by excreting their sins in their sweat (“No. 374: Prison Treadmills”). This same device is now used in modern day gyms and households. What happened to: “the body is man’s first and most natural instrument (Mauss 83)"?

Well, in this age of sweat-drenched machines, like me, many still jog outside. Which brings us back to examining the modern day track with its many different purposes layered together. The first layer, the most obvious, is that of exercise. Then come the more obscure layers… At this scenic track, many gather to simply observe from the sidelines, watching the view, as well as the joggers. For instance, a policeman pulled up in a patrol car once, and parked on a patch of grass for half an hour, watching the joggers and the scenery about him while eating lunch. Other people, namely the elderly sit or walk slowly about the track, watching as the policeman did. In this way, the track becomes a theater arena of sorts—have we morphed our entertainment sources from the bloody Coliseum to the sweaty track? The joggers, in turn, become performers. The greater the audience, the more effort the jogger puts into running. This all develops into a community.

Many joggers I observed wore North Face items, running to the beat of their I-pods. All of these accessories are expensive. The wealthier one is, the more time one may have for activities such as jogging. Unfortunately, this leads to lower health standards in less wealthy communities, as they have less time to concentrate on their bodies. Many argue, “If you really want to run, you will find time to run.” Those who have multiple jobs, live in dangerous areas, or those with little support while bringing up their children, cannot afford to use up an hour to go jogging. Rather than having the luxury to view their bodies as “temples” to care for, they work their bodies like a workhorse.

Who jogs then? Namely the younger generation. In our society, it is believed that, as people age, beauty and fitness fades. Much of the older generation let go of this perfect-body goal, resigning themselves to their increasing frailty. The newer generations, however, are constantly working towards a goal of some sort. Our youth develop these ambitions, almost as a distraction from the inevitable decay of the body (leading to death). People crave a purpose. For some, jogging, staying healthy and keeping a ‘beautiful’ body gives purpose. When the body does begin to wither and lacks the stamina and drive to pursue such goals, distractions no longer work to fight off age and death. At this point, instead of running towards a goal, most visit the past and what is comfortable, relinquishing rituals such as jogging. So, the goals of the elderly are modified by their physical limits and experience.
For those who care about their physical health… You have a brand new car,” a friend once told me, “This car is the only car you’re allowed to drive for the rest of your life. So, what do you do? You take care of it. You only have one body. So, you take care of it!

Due to Victoria’s Secret, Ken Barbies and other ploys of the modern media, there is a constant pressure to have the ideal body image, however unrealistic. I say unrealistic, because try naming the last time you saw someone with a body like Candice Swanepoel without some serious Photoshop work… you can’t. Women, now dissatisfied with their own image, feel anxious to shed weight and maintain flat stomachs, thin limbs, and large breasts. Ironically, this expectation is contradictory considering breasts are largely composed of fat. Women who work out, hoping to meet the media’s standards, end up losing much of their breast fat before gaining the flat stomach and thin legs. Often when women do work out in order to become thinner, their muscles bulk up, no longer appearing long and thin. Pilates is one of the only forms of exercise that yields the lean muscles women desire—but, only doing Pilates is often not seen as enough. The media’s target audience (the new generations) feel this pressure, with the lure of the “ the perfect body image will bring you a perfect life.” John Doe, an 18-year-old male I interviewed at the track, claimed that Matt Daemon’s “ripped” body was a perfect specimen of a male body, choosing a famous, successful, attractive actor as his role model. John told me that he worked out to be a little more like Daemon.
In addition to the lure of media-shaped perfection, there is natural attraction to add to the pressure. Males tend to be drawn towards females with larger breasts, perhaps associating them with more successful fertility, and women are attracted to men with larger muscles, possibly equating this with “better swimmers” and the ability to protect offspring. For many, jogging is a response to the pressures society has created, striving for that perfect body, a body that satisfies both our biological instincts and the media’s idea of the ‘perfect’ body.
Our bodies, of course, still need exercise, but why not incorporate exercise into the daily lifestyle experience, as our ancestors did centuries ago. Long ago, in the pre-industrial time, extremely hard work, like farming, was the daily norm for people. Such laborious daily exercises are more than equivalent to the calories you lose and muscles you build while jogging. With our modern technologies, the need to perform manual labor has greatly diminished, and we must maintain our bodies by other means. We run about a track, always in the same direction, like hamsters in a wheel. We sweat and we are flushed. We push ourselves to huff and puff so that regaining our breath seems impossible. It is a process that sounds ridiculously repulsive, but because our society is less than active, it must resort to such displays to work off the lazy.

For others, however, jogging is an experience from which they simply “feel good”; it is the internal pace that moves these joggers, and internal satisfaction that leaves them smiling. Endorphins are released, and in my opinion, it’s the best high anyone could muster. For others, the process is much more external. As pointed out to by interviewed male joggers, many joggers come to the track to exude their masculinity and ‘show off’. For instance, a filming crew was present at the track one day and a young man, athletic in build, sped up whenever he passed the lens. He also sped up when passing women, including me, a courting ritual of sorts. In both situations, he was performing and drawing attention to himself in an effort to impress the audience he accumulated. Yet another male jogger visibly sucked in his stomach when passing females. When men and women use the track as grounds for courting rituals, it is clear that they are looking for people that are healthy and in-shape, catering not only to society’s standard of the ideal fa├žade but also to biological drives.

            ANIMALS & HUMANS
Whether jogging to find a date or for health purposes, a distance is typically maintained between each jogger. No one came closer than 2 feet, unless passing the person in front. During one observation, a female jogger ran with her dog. There was virtually no space between them. If the master slowed, the dog would slow too, regardless of its own rhythm or ability. This canine pack instinct contrasts the more individualized human instinct.

            As we peer into this beautiful track upon which there is an absurd flurry of beings, dripping sweat and panting…. as all of these pieces come together, how normal does jogging seem now?

Hall, Edward T. The Silent Language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959. Print
Hartigan, John. Race in the 21st Century: Ethnographic Approaches. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Mauss, Marcel, and Nathan Schlanger. Techniques, Technology and Civilisation. New York: Durkheim/Berghahn, 2006. Print.
Miner, Horace. Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. University of Michigan, 1956. Print. (EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS!)
"No. 374: Prison Treadmills." University of Houston. Web. 29, Nov. 2010. <>.
Vankatesh, Sudhir Alladi. Gang Leader for a Day: Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

 The Woman Behind Unleashed and the Words                 
   I am a Practice of Art Major and Creative Writing Minor at UC Berkeley. My passions are writing and the arts in general. I created Unleashed for the empowerment and enlightenment of women everywhere. I am the editor, designer and contributing writer. I truly hope this magazine speaks to each and every woman.  Sasha Martin    

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