There is no question this week, because I want to talk specifically about New Years’ health-related resolutions. But first, I want to talk about the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit.
I will be the first to say this show was flawed. The crime of having an absolutely blatant Magical Black Character, Jolene, and then having that character DECLARE OPENLY she is not a Magical Black Character, only to then finish the basic footsteps in the Magical Black Character dance, is a crime for which the show should never stop paying. The portrayal of addiction is pretty facile, and there's a very strange cutaway to a woman in Beth's bed that seems meant to suggest Beth is bisexual that's never addressed again. While Beth clearly earns a lot of money pursuing her dream, her dream is also enabled to a fairly unrealistic extent by sums of money appearing via other characters, including Jolene, at crucial times.
However, what I admired about The Queen’s Gambit was, I've never seen a story that was so permissive about letting a woman simply focus on one of her own goals. She was so zoned in on chess that, for all intents and purposes, she didn't seem to be aware of even the god damn JFK assassination, which is never discussed once in the entire set of episodes (I choose to believe that briefly showing a magazine cover with JFK on it, pre-assassination, was meant to be a cutesy wink at this).
While she has little dalliances with boys, they don't consume her entire livelihood, and she is never forced to make a choice between them and her work. Compare and contrast, choosing a show at random, The Good Wife, which I love to death but derives many of its central plot points from romantic and family tension. While Alicia is allowed to be a good lawyer a lot of the time, her love life is always getting in the way and she is frequently presented with hard choices: choosing between Lockhart Gardner and her ex-boyfriend Will, or her husband's career and her own. The Good Wife is constantly asking how and whether Alicia can Have It All.
Beth is fundamentally pretty unlikeable, and she is not charming or socially deft. She gets into conflict with a couple of the boys, but almost exclusively over her becoming too good at the game to the point where they are threatened. Hearteningly, this does not come to bear at all when the boys join together to help her achieve her ultimate dream of beating some Russian guy in the world championship. Still, she's able to get support and build relationships with people who care about the same thing she does.
This is, to some degree, irony-level-zero girlbossian fantasy. What I like about this show, I guess, is it's a Twilight Zone “Time Enough At Last”-style wish fulfillment for people who want to be able to be great at something, or even just pursue something with abandon, but crucially, without it coming at the heavy price of "everything else." There is no gotcha moralistic turn of events about the heavy price people who want that should have to pay, or "in the end the reward was actually the friends we made along the way."
The best defense I have of enjoying it is that it's a fantasy that is rarely afforded to non-white, non-man characters: that a support network might harmoniously enable a characters' achievement, and not present an outright constant tension where the support network ultimately wins out or even gets its revenge moment in the story's moral calculus as the main character is punished for their alleged selfishness.
Part of the fantasy is also about being exceptional enough to "deserve" that relatively simplistic existence. But I think this is what the show gets wrong, or would at least like to think so: we don’t need to be exceptional, and there can be a lot more give and take of support. While Beth's focus and talent matter, she would not have gotten where she is without having other people who understood her investment in her success. The reason this show struck a chord is we don’t usually get to have this relationship with ourselves and other people, particularly about something hobby-adjacent, like chess, or working out.
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How does all this relate to New Years' resolutions about any type of "being healthier"? Dealing with our health, and working out in particular, can feel like a fundamentally lonely and even selfish pursuit, and is extremely emotionally charged thanks to all of diet culture. I know a lot of people who are borderline ashamed to work out, let alone talk about it to anyone else. I talk a lot about pursuing health in a vacuum, in part because I think a lot of the struggle is within ourselves. But to say an obvious thing, people and systems can be really helpful (or hurtful, such as in the case of fat people getting shamed out of gyms). A lot of fitness communities and figures are toxic and suck, and they are continuing to develop new and backhanded ways to get people to second-guess themselves.
There is a different way to feel about exercise than exasperated guilt. I’ve thought a lot about what particular bug it was I caught about lifting heavy weights, and the community was a huge component. It was a space where people were about their skills and strength, not weight loss or punishment for eating the “wrong” foods or having abs (though that part can be fun, secondarily). It was about learning to use your body to do strong stuff, and that was it. So if you’re tempted to beat yourself down yet again with another secret-shame resolution, I’m suggesting instead trying to surround yourself to the extent that you can with a different mentality around health and just, you know, marinating in it a little.
There are plenty of people out there already modeling this mindset, and I don’t think they get enough play. While I can't say I have tons of close friends who like lifting as much as I do, I sure have gotten a lot out of my own parasocial relationships to people who are about feeling good and capable in your body, and not about being exceptional, but enjoying the part of living that involves moving around and pushing forward in this hobby.
This sounds dumb, but it mattered to me to make a separate Instagram that was all about this so I could really steep myself in thinking about exercise in this way. Here is a little starter pack of people I follow in this vein, the kind who really did help change my perspective and help remind me to not overcomplicate all this stuff. (My follow list on Instagram is also probably 90 percent even more people like this). Try even starting a fresh new account that’s free of any past discovery-page prejudices with a few of these:
This is not enough to "fix" anything. But having one social media feed with radically different messaging than the normal stuff I see, a kind of “mindset bubble,” makes a difference. I’m making up a foofy self-help term here, but I’m trying to offer a concrete step forward, which I think would allow for more of us to develop a way of talking about working out with each other that doesn't involve shame and guilt, but some basic pride in what we can do. One key is talking about it more in these ways that don’t suck, and learning from people who already know how to do it.
Fortunately for people who feel like they must have goals revolving around health guilt, there has never been a better year to demonstrate how absurdly high the bar is (at least in the United States) for having agency with one’s own health, and how improbable it is that we can do very much about it. Our economy is simply not designed to support either preventative health (why enforce masks when you can put all the resources into rushing out a vaccine, letting 320,000 people die in the process?) or the free time with which to pursue it, unless you were born wealthy, because we all have to work so much just to tread water.
It would actually be pretty simple to change course here; we would have to just take money from the wealthy so the rest of us can have a little room to breathe. We would just have to institute Medicare for All, so that going to doctors is about taking care of yourself and not signing yourself up for financial ruin. I know it’s basically impossible to cure anyone of self-hatred with a few lines of writing, but hopefully you can take these realities into account at least a little when feeling guilty about not squeezing exercise in, among everything else.
Part of this whole "support network" thing is also seeing how the system is stacked against us like this, and how we deserve more room and resources to take care of ourselves. The wellness industry is telling an absolutely massive lie in saying that being healthy is about each of us being responsible for doing “what personally makes us feel good,” and that's it. We all need more from each other, more solidarity in protecting our health, more generosity in talking to each other about it.
In my last column, I talked about humbling yourself before a dumb little workout goal; I think that's still probably an important step for people who see exercise as fundamentally unserious. But you don't have to engineer the good feelings or value out of working out alone; look for the people who find the fun and gratification and positive feedback loop. Normalize being kinda mediocre at something and still finding value in trying to get better at it.
You don’t even have to wait for the new year for this, and you don’t even have to be part of the solution yourself. Yet. I want you to, obviously, but like every resolution I know you’re probably going to make anyway: One step at a time.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com.