by Charles McCrary
Shaun T, probably the most popular fitness guru in the United States today, tells us a great deal about selfhood, agency, and the good in twenty-first-century America. The first two parts of this series (one and two) sought to historicize Shaun T, first by situating him in relation to secularization theses and then by placing him within dominant traditions of American selfhood, from Edwards to Franklin to Emerson to Dewey. This third post, penultimate in the series, will delve more deeply into Shaun T’s epistemological system for evaluating truth, specifically, how you know your body is changing.
Shaun T is obsessed with evidence. In the previous two posts in this series, especially the second one, I highlighted Shaun T’s individualism. It doesn’t take a brilliant insight or complex theoretical framework to see his privileging of individuals (as consumers); every time the word “YOU” is used on Shaun T’s website, it is all capitalized. He wants you live “live for self,” to “open your mind and FIND YOUR LIFE!” But this type of individualism, wherein YOU are an indissoluble entity, a mover unmoved but by “digging deeper” into YOURself, does not seem to mesh with a heavy emphasis on evidence, especially as validated by measurability.
“Progress” is all about YOU feeling good and improving, but you need a system for knowing you’ve made progress. How do you know if it’s a good workout or not? One way is sweat. Shaun T constantly mentions sweat, and the Insanity infomercials feature people “just like you” drenched in sweat, slipping in pools of their own sweat, panting exhausted, telling you it really works. “You’ll watch the sweat and pounds drop like crazy,” the narrator promises. Insanity is a 60-day program, six days per week for nine weeks. On days 1, 15, 30, 45, and 60 exercisers (what is the word here? devotees?) take a “fit test,” which consists of eight exercises done as many times as possible in 60 seconds. “Do you feel your body changing?” Shaun T asks. Even if you say no, check the numbers. If they’re higher, you’re getting stronger. In Focus T25, measurements play an even more central role. Every STATurday for ten weeks, the exerciser measures his or her weight and the width of chest, arms, waist, and thighs—and takes photos.
Statistics are, like sweat, a measure of progress, a form of physical evidence for a personal feeling. Validation, confirmation. This is Shaun T’s own epistemology, not just the one he preaches. Just last week he posted a picture to Instagram with the following “confession”: “There are some days where I think that I’m fat. I feel disgusting. It’s annoying. No matter which way I look in the mirror…nothing helps.” He goes through for steps to “combat [his] mental condition.” First, he asks Scott (his husband) if he’s fat, and the answer “doesn’t help.” Second, he works harder, which sometimes helps. Third, he decides to “think logically” instead of basing his thoughts on “the way I feel.” Fourth, “Slap on a belt around my waist and make sure it gets to the same that it always does (WORKS 100% of the time).”
What is going on here? I suggest that this is an example of a modern secular imaginary in which, even when personal feelings and the integrity of one’s individuality and body is the absolute ethical good, the surest system of truth is measurable, statistical. We can feel a certain way, we can categorize (fat, fit, etc.), but a chartable number is true and authoritative. What is interesting, though, is that the ultimate end is still the agential creation of a better self, in order to feel better YOURself and enjoy YOUR life more. But if that’s the case, then why should the numbers matter? Is Shaun trying to have his rice cake and eat it too? Why appeal to the statistics, why make them the ultimate authority, when a personal feeling of the exercise of agency is the goal?
This brings us back to secularism. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argued that modern selves are “buffered.” By this he means that feelings and reality have been somehow separated. Thus, when a modern person is feeling depressed and is told, “it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunction, or whatever,” “he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling [melancholy], which is ipso facto not justified” (37). The buffered self, unlike the medieval porous self, controls and maintains its own boundaries, or, at least, it’s supposed to be able to do so.
As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’ (38).
Feelings are not to be trusted. This buffering is an odd bedfellow to the modern secular self, with its integrity of the body and privileging of the individual experience. Change YOUR body to make YOURself happier, but how you feel is still subject to further statistical investigation. When statistics and networks are the most real, who wouldn’t want to be a statistic—to participate alongside thousands of others, striving for an ideal body, perhaps determined by society but nonetheless chosen by an individual, and measuring the results?
Next Friday, the final post in this series will add story to stats, discussing the narrative dimension of Shaun T’s own self-creation, as well as the type of self-creation and maintenance he advocates in his programs.
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.