Damien Kanner-Bitetti ’25 is a prospective English major and American Studies minor from Arlington, Va. In addition to the Flat Hat, he is a benchwarmer on Club B Soccer, a DJ for WCWM 90.9 and an executive member of Students of Hip Hop Legacy. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
Author’s Note: Fitness culture has been critiqued at length; there has been extensive discourse around the many negative effects that stem from it. Something that is less often discussed, however, is the myths that fuel this cultural mindset. In this piece, I wanted to explore the ways that people interact with and interpret these myths.
When students looking for a workout enter the College of William and Mary’s Student Recreation Center, they are presented with a series of choices. Some of these are straightforward. Weights or cardio? Upstairs or downstairs? Fitness classes or sports? Looming over all of these options, however, is a more personal and existential choice, one between individuality and conformity: evaluating your motivation for hitting the gym. Understanding this choice is, in my opinion, the key to forming a healthy relationship with exercise.
Contemporary gym culture is built around a number of promises. Chief among these is the idea that the gym is a temple of self-improvement, where confidence, status and sex appeal are all attainable via exercise, assuming you work hard enough. This premise is repeated ad infinitum in books, movies, magazines and TikToks alike, but it has its obvious limitations. For one, most people can’t achieve the unrealistically high standards that are idealized. For another, achieving these standards doesn’t guarantee psychological benefits. The central problem with gym culture, however, is that the pursuit of these goals is cast as an exercise in individuality and self-expression, when in reality it represents rigid conformity to externally imposed standards.
I’d argue that this pursuit of conformity is what’s responsible for most of the negative things associated with gym culture. For instance, conformity invites a competitive mindset: if you accept the premise of “getting in better shape will make me better,” then you accept by default the premise of “someone in better shape than I am is better than me.” Essentially, by viewing exercise as a means to an externally defined end, people accept that their current selves are flawed and must be changed to match the standards which they are told to emulate. This conformist mindset, fueled by insecurity rather than strength, is all too common. It’s a powerful motivator but is unlikely to bring the all-encompassing, lasting change that exercise is supposed to create.
None of this means that going to the gym can’t be a positive experience or have positive effects. I know plenty of people who genuinely enjoy exercising. For me, going to the gym can be the difference between a good and bad day. The question is, then, how is it possible to form a healthy relationship with exercise in the face of the pressure to conform? In my view, fitness culture is sort of a paradox — only by rejecting external pressures to conform can we achieve the type of success that they promise. This is where the other side of the equation comes in — celebrating individuality is essential to combating the toxic aspects of gym culture.
So what does all this mean? For me, it means viewing the gym as a form of self-expression and agency. A healthy approach to exercise involves adaptation, trying new things and, apparently, a lot of stretching. It means holding yourself accountable while also being able to forgive yourself for missing a workout. It means that physical health is founded on mental health. Mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind, sound body. Finally, and most importantly, it means not listening to people like me who tell others how to think in the gym; true individuality is the result of independence. The College strives to uphold the pillar of flourishing, declaring on its website that it seeks to “empower those who live, learn, and work here to make choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life.” In my opinion, the most important choice you can make in your years here is to choose individuality.