I’m In the Best Shape of My Life and It Doesn’t Matter

Events that make history can seem unremarkable in the moment: When Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, it felt like yet another instance of racism that non-Black people would wring their hands over for a few days before moving on. My anger at his death felt like a bead moving in an abacus, another tally of the terrible power of white supremacy—but nothing else.

Catalysts for lasting change, even in personal terms, can be impossible to predict. I never expected that a set of at-home workout resistance bands would force a brain-rewiring metamorphosis to Conventionally Hot Girl during the pandemic’s apocalyptic early days, but here we are. Six months into quarantine, I am the dubious inhabitant of a cis female body sculpted, toned, and trimmed down to a feminine physique that women’s media has long hailed as the aesthetic Holy Grail. I am The Beauty Myth’s smirking revenge, seamlessly integrating with the self-optimized ideal woman Jia Tolentino described as “trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy.” 

My own “fitness transformation,” to use a common wellness euphemism, was neither goal nor intention when I took up daily at-home workouts in mid-March. For a little over a year after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’d maintained a gym and vinyasa yoga class routine that bordered on religious in hopes of marshalling my aberrant neurotransmitters. I was drawn like a moth to a lamp to the place that promised, at least in part, management of a lifelong mental illness with no cure. With social distancing, that routine was no longer an option. 

Like most people, my early quarantine was a clusterfuck of emotions, but unlike most people, a mental breakdown in quarantine might actually involve unhinged social-media rants and involuntary hospitalization under section 5150 of California’s welfare code. Naturally, safer at home orders in greater Los Angeles, where I live, sent me scrambling for a fitness plan B. 

The day all gyms shuttered countywide, I started a two-week free trial streaming yoga online, ordered a set of resistance bands vis-a-vis Kat Matutina’s newly virtual ASSCAMP fitness classes, and prayed I’d find long-term motivation to keep my fleshy brain house in working order. Within a week, the weight-adjustable Scandinavian Sports resistance bands had arrived in the mail. A confusing mix of adjustable rubber cables and knee straps that wrapped snugly around with the familiar crunching sound of velcro, they represented the possibility of mental deliverance despite isolation.

Before long, I’d tacked on Instagram Live workouts from Health House, a series of low-impact, high-intensity workouts five days a week beamed from a camera-ready West Hollywood studio to my laptop. Staring at the same four walls of my home office-turned-gym, I started to crave the ecstatic relief of collapsing after a resistance band-enhanced round of burpee squats, my eyes level with the floral patterned rug, over and over and over.

The results, as folks say, speak for themselves. Visible abs! Toned arms and calves! Newfound ass curvature! By early May, while posing in a yellow bikini at a friend’s backyard pool, I felt like I’d scaled the beauty standard equivalent of Mt. Everest, feeling for the first time in my life like I didn’t have to suck in my stomach at all times. I hardly recognized myself in the photos I took that day. Instead, my mind drifted to early childhood memories glamorizing AZN pride era Asian car models. I had made it.

In The Guardian, writer Jia Tolentino argues that mainstream consumer-friendly feminism has entrenched the tyranny of ideal womanhood. “The psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her,” she writes. As a woman, it’s easier than ever, she says, to spend your life trying to reach an idealized mirage of self-image in the name of girl power. Having inadvertently walked toward this mirage, I can say Tolentino fails to mention, beyond the influence of the internet and the insidiousness of traditional femininity, what else drives the continued myth of the ideal woman: the corruption of the once-revolutionary act of self-care. 

In no way does today’s self-care invite the casual person to truly look within themselves, or beyond themselves, choosing instead to traffic in soothing rituals, including nutrition and fitness.

The term, popularized in 1988 by Black lesbian feminist scholar Audre Lorde, argued the act of caring for oneself is an act of self-preservation, one that plays a role in larger political warfare. Reduced by white feminism to a marketing buzzword, the mass-market version of self-care is no radical act. In no way does today’s self-care invite the casual person to truly look within themselves, or beyond themselves, choosing instead to traffic in soothing rituals, including nutrition and fitness. Questionable adaptogens and “good vibes” above all else keep people focused on infinitesimal gains in self-improvement over big picture self-actualization.

Looking within and beyond themselves is what all of America was finally forced to do in May, as civil unrest rocked major U.S cities after the death of George Floyd. On LA’s Westside, glued to the TV, I watched people loot sneaker stores on Fairfax and smash in the front door glass of the Third Street Promenade REI. Two days later, I watched comedian Clayton English‘s live stream of LAPD telling protestors to disperse, then cornering them on an apartment rooftop. Everyone else’s time-consuming quarantine trends, implicitly billed as self-care—the sourdough starters, DIY tie-dye kits, and windowsill green onions—disappeared from my newsfeeds like Southern California June gloom in the early afternoon.

Understandably. When people in all 50 states have taken to the streets chanting “Black lives matter” despite the threat of a deadly virus, that type of self-care starts to feel profoundly useless. Overhead, the ominous sounds of helicopters came and went as I sat dumbly on my yoga mat. In Santa Monica, the National Guard would arrive the next morning, after the local police had already begun tear gassing protesters. Beginning yet another hour-long vinyasa flow from the safety and comfort of home was the last thing that felt fulfilling or even remotely useful.

In the three-odd months spent on my home-office floor sweating bullets, electronic Top 40 remixes pounding in my ears, with upbeat personal trainers shouting words of encouragement from the digital ether, I had learned a handful of new skills: proper squat form, a sustained side crow, and how to walk the fine line between between being gentle with myself and “riding my edge.” In the process, my brain had subtly rewired itself. Regular exercise is known to regulate mood, after all, and promotes levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that contributes to neuroplasticity. But although better endurance and biochemical fine-tuning helped me be more okay with myself, they couldn’t offer guidance on how to be a better citizen, community member, and overall moral and ethical human being.

Within [the self-care] model, there is no good framework that allows for the difficult, draining, yet ultimately necessary work of confronting yourself as a social entity existing in a fundamentally racist country.

Watching a group of mostly white people smile and congratulate me for “working hard” through my screen as police fired teargas and shot rubber bullets at protesters and journalists felt tone deaf. The most insidious part of mainstream self-care doctrine encourages you, above all, to look after yourself and to pat yourself on the back for doing it. Within that model, there is no good framework that allows for the difficult, draining, yet ultimately necessary work of confronting yourself as a social entity existing in a fundamentally racist country.

As a non-Black woman of color, I began to realize only one way to live with myself—carving an action plan towards racial justice for the long haul. Compared to other people in my social circles, my reckoning this past spring had less to do with learning the exact gears by which institutional and systemic anti-Black racism churns and more to do with finally choosing to commit, long-term, to tangibly doing something about it. Historically, I’ve been privileged to have an education at UCLA, the birthplace of the word “intersectionality,” with unique formal and informal educational experiences that have shaped my racial consciousness.

While traversing the exhausting headline-a-minute social media news landscape in early June, I came across “community care,” a model from leftist organizing movements and non-profits that went viral last year on Twitter via Toronto-based community organizer Nikita Valerio. Unlike self-care, community care incorporates showing up for others in a way that addresses systemic issues and draws upon the greater resilience that comes from a support system. This can be both small acts of compassion in daily life and more structured versions such as grassroots mutual aid organizations and community fridges. 

The model of community care Valerio envisions serves both as a stepping stone to racial and economic justice, as well as giving people a larger sense of purpose and psychological fortitude through interdependence and validation from others. “It’s about being committed to being there for people,” Valerio told Mashable. “It’s about adopting an ethos of compassion and very intentionally applying that.”

As someone who at that point had worked out at least six days a week for the better part of quarantine, I resonated with community care’s intentionality and commitment. In my eyes, the model doesn’t wholly discount the importance of self-care. Instead, community care integrates caring for oneself as an act of self-preservation, as Lorde imagined self-care to be, into a larger framework where one sustains oneself, both emotionally and physically, through a combination of holding oneself accountable to a larger community and one’s own mental and physical health demands, when needed. 

Without incorporating community care into my life, I saw no path forward that would address both my complicity in a system that perpetuates anti-Blackness and vulnerability as a woman of color with a severe mental illness, albeit a privileged one. Community care has helped me find that path and draw strength from a shared sense of unity, bringing this quote by James Baldwin to mind: “We are responsible to the future, and not to Chase Manhattan Bank.” When I hold this model in mind, the ideal woman myth feels smaller in my mind, its power diluted by a purpose beyond self-optimization in pursuit of impossible consumerist ideal. Though I might never free myself from its clutches, I can keep it at bay.

Amid the chaotic early days of the pandemic, when everything seemed to be on the brink of collapse, the individualist-minded side of self-care might have appealed to me, but they no longer serve me today.

Although I still maintain a consistent exercise routine, I see my habits these days in a different light. I take days off when other aspects of life gain greater ethical urgency. I find ways of holding myself accountable to racial justice in my actual, real schedule through demonstrations, phone banking, donations, and other forms of financial support. My view, overall, is more flexible and dynamic, incorporating my own well-being into the context of a greater collective struggle for racial and economic equity.

Amid the chaotic early days of the pandemic, when everything seemed to be on the brink of collapse, the individualist-minded side of self-care might have appealed to me, but they no longer serve me. Self-soothing circular rituals performed in the name of self-care might sustain a person from day to day, but mere self-preservation is no way to truly thrive in a worthwhile life. I find fulfillment in both waving a sign by the side of the road in West LA, months after the crowds have died, as I do in crushing another at-home workout, yoga mat glistening with sweat.

Graphic by Lorenza Centi.

Patricia Kelly Yeo

Kelly is a LA-based writer and recent alumna of the University of Southern California’s MS in journalism program. She nearly went to medical school in Brooklyn, thinks Susan Sontag is overrated, and profiled the Olympics of third-wave coffee for the New York Times. Find her casually writing on Instagram @patkyeo, where you can usually find her posting stories of homemade food or cute frogs.

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