Body politics for the pandemic: workout routines, compassion, and also…maybe a book review?

In a time of crisis, there’s an abundance of actions and words that, behind their good intentions, are likely to fail outright–or, even worse, come across as tone deaf.

Reviewing Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza’s Fitness Junkie might fall under the latter, if the intent is to review the novel as though removed from the period in which I finished reading it. It’s important, I think, to say that I finished it a couple weeks ago, rather than around the time I bought and started reading it. It’s been two years since, I think.

However, what’s strange–and what makes me want to write about this book today–is the underlying rigidity of having to stay fit while at home. Good health is a must more than ever today, sure. But I can’t quite reconcile this need with the way “fitness” has been co-opted in today’s discourse, in that the assumption seems to be that one must not, at any cost, gain weight during quarantine.

It’s an attractive way of thinking, largely owing to the micro-culture that one becomes bombarded with: a pseudo-lifestyle suddenly redundant with a variety of free yoga classes, HIIT routines, and other what-have-you exercise programs that you can do from the comfort of your home–assuming, of course, that you are at the very least bougie (or maybe even middle class) enough to have the space for keeping fit.

At this point, it’s probably best to say that I have nothing against staying fit at home. As someone who tends toward anxiety, one reminder I’ve clung to is that it is more fruitful and assuring to focus on the things I can control rather than the voluminous but vague idea of terror looming in the horizon. Following that sage advice, so far I’ve realized that some of the things I can control vary from the donations I can make, causes I can support, verifiable information I can help spread, the number of hours I [try to] sleep at night and yes, even the number of times I work out and how I choose to work out every week.

Having said that, I’ll be the first to agree that exercise does wonders for self-esteem. More importantly,exercise helps to introduce some structure to the looseness of my days. Following a ritual or two prevents me from being swallowed up by fear and ennui. Time once again begins to have some illusion of structure. And this is precisely why I do understand the steady if irrational desire to keep oneself distracted with a plethora of choices when it comes to staying active at home.

That’s not to deny that there’s nonetheless something cringe-worthy and authoritarian about the discourse of staying fit during quarantine. With every exercise program suddenly made free on fitness apps, with every Instagram story of someone exercising (or rejoicing after a workout, i.e., me), and with every online illustration of stuff one can do (read: accomplish, produce) during quarantine, the resulting idea is this:

That to lack a fitness regimen with a matching balanced diet is to fail at something fundamental. That to lack so-called discipline in a time of a global health crisis means that you’ve decided to “let yourself go.” That while good health is the heated campaign of the moment, you’ve somehow taken the less-traveled and completely erroneous path instead.

And yet…while it might be true that now more than ever one needs to take care of one’s health within the limited boundaries of home, I think what I find disturbing about the discourse of fitness, especially for women, is that it lacks re-imagination and the necessary adjustments that such re-imagining entails during a pandemic.

In short, it is a refusal of vulnerability. Today, ordinary employees (especially those on a contractual basis) worry about financial security in a way they’ve never had to worry before. Small to medium enterprises are suddenly grappling with new ways to manage their supply chain and deliver their goods at the level of frustration that even larger businesses are experiencing–except, of course, that the latter have better financial systems to support their having to pivot their business models during such a crisis.

I know. I digress.

But my point is this: it does not bode well for us to insist that we can build a fitness regimen from the ground up when the changes to our lives are monumental. Although focusing on what we can control can ground us into mindfulness, the obsession with the need to prove that we are, indeed, maintaining or losing weight not only implies that those who are less privileged and unable to do so are lazy, but also that our worth in isolation has to be determined by rigidity: and that henceforth, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to examine what we need on a day-to-day basis.

Does my current state of anxiety require a lazy Monday? Or would a Monday that closely resembles office life pre-quarantine be more assuring to me? Should I binge-watch the day away after my Tuesday Zoom meeting? Or would having a video date with family and friends after my meeting boost my morale instead? Should I exercise four times in a row this week to pump up my endorphins and then maybe just take it easy next week so that I can have more R&R?

I imagine that such questions would vary from person to person, and it is exactly such variety and re-imagining that is necessary if one is to understand that the striving toward fitness is not always the same as wellness. Today one might want to achieve a fitness goal by using a 15-pound weight for a deadlift. For the next five consecutive days, however, one might want to take multiple naps or eat ice cream for breakfast. Is there a line to be drawn here in terms of indulgence? Sure. But just as we’re careful not to over-indulge, we should be equally careful not to hate ourselves for not being able to transform our extraordinary circumstances into a robotic spectacle where control means self-punishment.

So where does the book review come in?

Here it is, in brief:


Fitness Junkie is an enjoyable work of satire. To me, an enjoyable satire is one that’s grounded on both observation and fact while managing to narrate both with colorful commentary that’s seeped in irony. A good work of satire is capable of showing what goes on in the day-to-day, sure; but it also manages to imply that there might be something ridiculous about such daily operations. In Sykes and Piazza’s work,  Janey Sweet goes on a quest to a slimmer waist and a lower number on the scale in order to fulfill the ultimatum set for her by her business-partner-slash-boss: lost 20 pounds or lose her job at B, their couture wedding dress company which, of course, only has sizes leaning on the small side.

It doesn’t take too long for the reader to realize that of course, Janey will come to her senses. That of course, between reviving her dating life and going on New-Age inspired retreats, Janey will eventually realize that she isn’t into drinking bike-blender smoothies and losing herself in a sober rave after a long flight. That she wants someone more reliable and who has his shit together, rather than a guy who lives “dangerously” in their pursuit of a life that’s both zero-waste and high-octane to the point of exhaustion.

Most of all, it’s no surprise how Janey realizes that

“[she’s] never going to be a size 2, or even a 4 or a 6 again, and that was just fine with her. It was amazing how easily weight found its way back when you weren’t starving yourself or forcing your body to burn calories in cruel and unusual ways.”

Put this way, it might seem like Fitness Junkie is a good piece of satire, but not too good a novel–which is a fair evaluation of the work. It’s an enjoyable read, but it’s not exactly a mind-blowing narrative. Its value, however, comes from reminding readers that many of the things we learn about losing weight and staying “fit” are marketing campaigns. One of the funnier parts of the novel, for instance, unfolds when it is revealed that there’s a current media campaign to start endorsing kelp as the new kale, thus usurping the latter as the royal vegetable of a healthy lifestyle. The wellness industry’s affinity for a particular vegetable or diet might not be completely devoid of scientific data, sure; but the consistency of different kinds of diets that resurface every couple of years with slight variations on their strategy and target audience also means that the production and consumption of these “fit and healthy” lifestyles have a lot to do with fad culture.

So then, why read Fitness Junkie? Janey’s redemption arc is predictable, after all, while the nature of satire assures the reader that clay-based diets and intense, name-calling workouts won’t get the last word in the narrative anyway. In this sense, however, it’s less the way the novel is written which matters. It’s more important, I think, to ask ourselves why such novels continue being written and consumed–because if there is still a need to satirize the way we look at and operationalize things like “fitness” and “wellness” especially when there’s a pandemic, then we have not yet, in fact, outgrown the tendency of falling for fads-as-truths–falsities to which we subject our bodies for the promise of some superficial acceptance.

Today, that “acceptance” takes the form of what I’ve already discussed above: the gold-star approval that you are indeed making the “most” of your time in quarantine and translating all your anxiety into pushups–3 sets with 20 reps each set, with 15 goblet squats between each set–over and over, every single day, without paying attention to the rest of your body, without taking into consideration, perhaps, that your mind remains on overdrive because you have prevented it from truly articulating and going through the actual fears that haunt you.

Exercise is good, yes. But our bodies and minds are multi-faceted structures that won’t always need the same thing again and again, over an uncertain length of time. Routine can be therapeutic, but without compassion, it is not discipline but cruelty.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that those who are most critical of their own bodies, diet, and workout regimen during this time–those who tsk at minimum wage earners who line up at wet markets; those who have forgotten that the homeless exist; those who advocate charity as the highest virtue–that it is these people who probably display a greater tendency to believe that the poor have determined their own fates and made the choice to become ill.

Another list of small things for the plague

I have an idea.

I shall never pick up the phone again–

and in return, my friends will remember a clutter of things about who I used to be.

Used to like postcards; but now they lead to nowhere. Used to collect notebooks; but now they remind me of my own silence. Used to rave about colorful ballpoint pens; but I lost them at every office visit. Used to salvage all the scratch paper I could muster; but no one read my words anyway.

Used to have little notes with to-do lists; but now I weep at cheap labor. Used to have my keys with me everywhere; but people could anticipate my homecoming every time they jangled in my hand.

There is a lesson in all this, and I suspect it might be that all things are essentially useless. Another might be that we need to find new uses for old things. Pack up our old selves. Find a new way of life, with no more new things.



Some wrath for the plague

People think that anger isn’t about productivity.

Notes from a therapist: when we feel an emotion, we do not think about it. Rather than put the emotion into a play-by-play we simply feel it. There is no meticulous note-taking here.

But do emotions stop at being emotions? Of course not.

To speak of anger without acknowledging that we channel our anger into productivity is to be incompetent.

But “productivity” reeks of capitalism. It speaks of brands and endorsement that would use disaster to count views, and then translate views into amount of money for donation. Of course, all help is needed these days. Who can say no, when there are already so many mouths to feed? We have to get to them first or the shooting them dead will get to them first.

It is not productivity that anger must be channeled into, but human dignity. To do that, to dignify the poorest of the poor and those who went to sleep hungry last night and the five ten fifteen nights before that, we must channel our anger into focus. Into clarity.

Because we understand and believe that dignity has been withheld from us by those who wield power, we now believe that the future is up to us.

We channel our anger into hope.

A list of small things for the plague

I think of the sunlight and how it is only ever golden in memory. In real life, harsh. Always too much. It is much the way we imagine ourselves.

I think of pocket books.When was the last time you referred to something as a “pocket” book? No one has pockets big enough for books. Pockets that are spacious are reserved for big fears. Books are not big fears but small, important thoughts that keep you sane.

Passing thoughts allow us to survive. For instance: the ketchup has dried on the lip of the bottle. The dining table smells like Zonrox. The curtains need changing. I have to open the windows, or my east-facing bedroom bakes even in late afternoon. That’s sunlight again.

I think of shoes. Most of my shoes are at the place I rent. When I was younger and rather out-of-pocket I only had very old shoes to wear. I’d wear them again and again. Introduce them to the rhythm of my public commute. They would fall apart but I would always be short on cash so it would take years to replace them.

In recent years because I tried to fancy myself a career woman I have more heels than I know what to do with. More work shoes than are practical. Nude heels to give me illusion of height. Comfortable shoes I don’t mind wearing up and down the stairs. My favorite pairs for meeting someone after work. Comfortable enough for errands, good enough for work.

Now the shoes are useless, but I have them to comfort my younger self.

I think of my bedroom. The one I promised to clean up and redecorate. That’s too much for me right now. But my bedroom is a memory box. It is okay to be disorganized sometimes.

I think of photographs I left at my place. I swore to use them on my journal. I am disappointed that I left this journal. It contains half my heart. There were months and months I wrote everything down. Now the plague has put a stop to that.

I write elsewhere now. But there is nothing like that journal.

I think of the menu of a restaurant I think I visited or bookmarked to visit, because I would like to visit it now. In my mind, this restaurant is Mexican. It is fusion. It is five-star. It’s Japanese cuisine, it’s southern comfort food, it’s everything they say that if you’re creative enough, you could cook at home.

Apparently everyone has sirloin or T-bone, ghee or mozzarella, some slab of salmon or jaw of tuna just waiting to be used for gourmet cooking at home.

Our pantry here is small. It is purple and lovely to look at. It is well-stocked just enough for us four. But it is very small.

I need a few more small hours. I would like a great deal of many small things. I would like a new list every day. I would like just a small portion of every day away from all of this.

I think I would like you to leave me like this.

an inner life for the plague

Most days are lost to time, so perhaps this is why I think of writing like I have not thought of writing for a long time yet.

I am wary of calling this a return: more like an interested wayward nostalgia–and nostalgia is always perilous. Or at least it is when you are not sure exactly what it is about the past that you would like to conquer or recapture.

At this point I’m pretty sure it is not an old self I’d like to look at again. Not that I don’t love her but that we’ve already met many times before. I’ve had that catharsis. To pick at a wound is not to learn from the past but to live in it.

Could I really remove the poetic illusion that faintly haunts all writing? Probably not. If you write you recognize that scent. And there is something indulgent in writing of and to self at a time when there is so much outside of self that demands collective criticism and action. So I do not pretend that this first draft resolves either lack of action or political incompetence. This is a comfort all my own; that it is a desperate attempt to grasp the contours of my fear does not make it any less comforting or any less something to look forward to.

That is what time has become. The time outside of the political nightmare that has captured us. That time might not even exist, except that to continue to serve the collective one must carve it out for self.

There is an inner life that must be cultivated or I will teeter over the edge. I would disappear and never come out again. I try to think of the world, that greater word outside me as something I can cherish and serve even if from a distance.


For now, a brief description of amorphous time as it unfolds for my family and me:

In the mornings I think I am early and have the rest of early sunlight. But in truth my fears kept me up at night and at six or seven the neighbor’s dogs whine and cry or bark and whimper, their owners never a care in the world.

When I get up to work which is not work per se, it is already too warm to concentrate. I set out to do the tasks before me half-heartedly–which is to say that the ideas are magnificent, and the illusion of fulfillment, if I finish such tasks, are enticing. And yet I am weary by noon.

After the mid-day meal there does not seem to be much more worth to the rest of the day. My mind races. There are books to read. I bought many in the last few months, or at least more than I can actually finish, usually.

I look back now. Perhaps that was a foreshadowing: my instincts telling me to stock up on distractions, because in a couple of months distractions will become means for survival.

I thrive on being drowsy most days, although I try my best to fight it. At the worst of it my body will call for rest, but I will be tyrannical about it. I will think naps a waste of time. The usual escape offered by sleep will seem silly. I will not immediately recognize this as a call to allow me to nurture myself.

Even the list of little things I’ve wanted to dedicate myself to (learning watercolor, reading poetry, personal notes to self, cooking a grand lunch or impromptu dinner)–I’ve accomplished only shadows of these little dreams. Put together in my mind they seem more like fragments.

I have been wasting the days away.

At night, or at least once dinner and its corresponding chores are over I finally shower the heat and exhaustion of the day away. The exhaustion seeps from all the things I dream about but never do. All the emotions I think I am expressing but I am piling them up away instead, for perhaps a more lucid day. It would be nice to know what day it is again. Whether I will take up my goals–my little, inconsequential, unproductive, selfish little goals–on a Monday or a Thursday. Whether it will be next week or two months from now.

Uncertain whether the hope I feel must be tethered to the short  or long term, I allow myself paralysis. It is easier to let my mind diffuse. Some days I am a little better at articulating myself to friends with whom constant communication is kept. Other days I am hollow, but the little internet techniques of different platforms conceal this shadow. On those days it is my understudy that performs. She is tired but it is her turn to play.

If there is optimism here I keep it to myself. Not because it is “unreal” or “impractical,” for I have thrown those words away. I have emptied my register, I write new codes every day. There is an optimism that belongs rightly to the world. That optimism is the real important work, the only work that matters–of sustaining healthcare systems and critiquing operations, of disbelieving the worship of billionaires and loathing government when it is run like a business. That optimism I do by moving and thinking and engaging.

The optimism reserved for self relies on stillness. I must forgive myself. I must keep some things only for myself, only to myself.



Small Victories

Some of these things are true:

Made plans and pushed through with the bare minimum. Purchased commodities, shared with a community. Standard cup of kilig from where you are to where he is. Perfect cardio workout. Drank coffee. Highlighted and diagrammed. Remembered filial obligation. Had a concussion, or two: first from forgetting how low the bunk bed is, second when entering a taxi. Glared when in a narrow hallway you had to be the one to step back and make way. Discarded books. Laughed hard to the point of tears at how ridiculous community has become, memes imitating art. Ate too little. Experienced, for the first time, pure elation at the words, the possibilities are endless. Because you don’t know when, or how, they’ll come at you, wings spread, eyes bright, claws for the inevitable jouissance crumbling your soul into cigarette butt, beer bottle, new notebooks, plastic bag, house dust. Whole, after the rush. You’ve become a fragment of the few words in this piece that you can trust.


Stand-Alone Adventures

former selves

“I felt like I was in danger of vanishing, though at the same time the feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming that I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether, perhaps for a few months, until the intensity diminished.” – Olivia Laing


Crooning pieces to adulthood: as a child, being told by my mother that what I feared didn’t exist. It wasn’t a matter of monsters but anxiety–the nuns at kindergarten would drink my tears and feast on my heart, I thought; the plaid on my uniform meant I would be bullied; the car, despite all my prayers, would turn turtle, crash, and fold my skeletons into unfamiliar frame.

A practice: consider that unexpected changes in schedule are only an exercise of the imagination, until they finally occur. And then consider that prophecies mean nothing until the central figure realizes that the material presence of all future-meandering is really a challenge to feel at ease with nothingness. Absence of new space, for instance, and then a re-doubled sense of loss when what was previously novel becomes distant: so a timetable becomes a calendar for losses, one which charts what footnotes demarcate as external but also supplementary. The footnote, then, is this: survive in the lack and treat this lack as personal space, else be doomed by false presences.

Fulfillment of changes in schedule as end in itself, as in this is an end. But there is also something attractive in not-speaking, in meaning: please let me persist alone a little longer. Please leave me here to digest myself. Olivia Laing writes,

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.

The fact is that mothers always know best, but daughters, when they awaken to fear, swallow blades whole. Like the above, one might propose: what is internal should be divulged, raw, instead of shied away from. But perhaps there is also another way? Laing, still:

Language is communal. It is not possible to have a wholly private language. This is the theory put forward by Wittgenstein in philosophical investigations, a rebuttal of Descartes’s notion of the lonely self, trapped in the prison of the body, uncertain that anyone else exists. Impossible, says Wittgenstein. We cannot think without language, and language is by its nature a public game, both in terms of acquisition and transmission.

Seems simple enough. Create a new language with which to configure fear. But I disagree (it’s becoming a habit). The turn inward is important, but to what extent? What is gained by the unintelligible? To this I propose: do not create a new language yet; instead, listen to yourself. Avoid the convenient excuses people use to get under your skin. The self-same excuses meant to make you wonder if you’re really feeling what you’re feeling and would you like to elaborate on that? No, I would not.

It’s true; the public (to acquire, to transmit), will be there for you to use. But as with everything else that is social, it also requires further thinking before contribution to discourse. To understand the public is to allow for wonder, and that also means taking time to mull yourself over. Descartes, and then eventually Wittgenstein. Childhood fears turn into everyday realities, yes. However, it also means that such realities are quotidian and perishable in their persistence.

And if so, then you already carry within yourself the capacity to bear them.


Laing, Olivia. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Loneliness. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016.