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The Oatmeal’s Running Strip and the Morality of Sport

I am a runner. I have one of those self-congratulatory 13.1 stickers on my car and hope to add a 26.2 sticker later this year. I love running even when I hate it, if that makes sense. So last week, almost everyone I know (it seemed, anyway) either posted this comic from The Oatmeal to Facebook or sent it to me directly. I really enjoy The Oatmeal, and I admire many aspects of this particular comic—I laughed out loud at the straw in the Nutella and the raccoon in the kitchen and felt transported by many of the euphoric descriptions of running.

There’s a shift in subject matter later in the strip, though, from the personal joys and rewards of exercise to condemnation of people who do not feel the same way. The comic moves from amusingly self-deprecating and inspiring to a screed against “vanity,” in which the author labels people who use tanning beds as “vapid, narcissistic idiots who have barren vacuums where their thoughts, fears, and passions should be” and “the appearance and intellect of an inbred baked potato.” He also characterizes people who use gyms instead of running outdoors as “people who read beauty magazines while jogging on ellipticals and drinking Diet Coke” and refers to exercise classes as “synchronized stupidity.”

Full disclosure: Nothing about this invective hits me on any particularly personal level. I don’t use tanning beds, and I do my running outdoors. But before you pronounce me awesome for these choices, you should know more about what allows me to make them. I grew up in Texas with a pool and now live in Oklahoma, which is basically Texas-light, also with a pool. Oh, and a job that allows me to take summers off, during which time I do a lot of floating in said pool, in the actual sun, making me tan as much by default as intent. (My sister also grew up in Texas with the same pool, but she now lives in Minneapolis, which could be called Siberia-light, and she does visit a tanning bed sometimes because she misses our sun and pool very much.) We both enjoy the feeling of warmth on our skin and the way we look with a tan. What’s the difference? Further, I can run outside because I live in a quiet suburb in a place without a lot of weather (besides the occasional tornado); my job allows me more flexibility than many others; and I am solvent enough to afford accessories that offset outdoor running challenges, like quality road shoes, reflective gear, hydration belt, Bluetooth headphones, etc. I don’t run outside because I think it makes me a Better Runner; I just happen to like it. So, even though I’m not one of the comic’s targets, its hostility upset me in part simply because the author doesn’t seem to acknowledge that not everyone has the access, ability, or desire to make his same choices.

More to the context of education, I know the Oatmeal author addresses adults in the piece, not adolescents, but his scorn for people who exercise the wrong way exemplifies an issue I see with high school and college sports and beyond: Our unquestioned cultural investment in the moral relevance of sport. Very soon after deciding, as a people, that (voluntary) exercising was more virtuous than not exercising, we gifted (and burdened) ourselves with a whole shiny new Whitman’s sampler of moral judgments to gnaw on, including a spectrum of more virtuous and less virtuous activities. This hierarchy of virtuous vs. non-virtuous sport pervades all levels of culture; where I grew up in Texas, football was always, always king, and other high school sports and athletes got to fight for the leftovers, whether that be funding or fans. We all know how much trouble girls and women have had with support and funding as well. A significant factor in determining a sport’s place at the virtue table is its likelihood of engendering a narrative of tragic heroism; thus, the popularity of high school football increases with each player who staggers across the goal line with a broken leg to be valorized in the press and the community. (I react to such stories with horror, even rage. All I can think is: They saw that he was hurt and no one stopped him? They just cheered harder? I enjoy football but I would ground my son for the rest of his natural life if he risked his health by running on a broken leg unless he was being chased by a bear. Luckily, he chose the bowling team, where they have no money for anything but face very little pressure to maim themselves in inspiring ways.) Either way, the unstated premise behind celebrating full-contact heroic injury is that placing oneself in physical peril is in and of itself virtuous, so we’re back to the idea that sport embodies intrinsic moral implications which, again, creates space for moral criticisms as well.

Beyond the moral implications embedded in the sports themselves, I am also dismayed by the piece’s rigid classifying of anyone who strives to look a certain way as vapid, superficial, and narcissistic. The desire to be socially acceptable is not mere vanity; for many, it’s more like survival. Thinner, younger-looking, more conventionally attractive people enjoy automatic privileges in multiple contexts, including career opportunities. High school can be a very superficial time, and its denizens therefore easy to judge as shallow and ridiculous. When I think back on my own cringing anxiety about everything that could possibly embarrass me with my peers, I can’t imagine how I survived my teens. How anyone survives them. What a seething quagmire of insecurity and angst and fear. Those class strata and accompanying anxieties fade but never disappear for most of us; the stakes just change. I wish people always exercised (or tanned or wore cosmetics or whatever) because they just felt like it; hell, I wish no one would ever feel compelled again to do anything because they feared being judged fat or flabby or pale or unattractive. I’m not prepared to condemn anyone for those anxieties, though. We learn them early and well, and attaching additional moral judgment to them seems cruel to me, even with adults. With young people, educators and parents should do all we can to empathize and validate fears about fitting in, without criticizing anyone for being shallow for caring about appearance. Then we can work on mitigating that anxiety realistically instead of writing it off as the result of weak character.

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DrShell

DrShell

DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

8 Comments

  1. July 27, 2013 at 10:49 am —

    I found that strip SO irritating, too. And I love everything about this response.

    I’m not a runner (used to, but I find no joy in it), but I do like lifting weights. I *hate* that some forums/groups for women to talk about weightlifting mock the shit out of “those little pink dumbbells” and the women who use them. First, you gotta start somewhere. Second, there is an overwhelming amount of bullshit out there about “toning” and a lot of women are scared that heavier weights will make them look bulky. And yes, that opens a whole can of worms of how women are supposed to look and how muscles aren’t supposed to be seen on a woman, but you’re supposed to magically be “toned”.

  2. July 27, 2013 at 11:06 am —

    Thanks, Amanda. Do you ever think about how different the world would be if we just left each other the hell alone? sigh

  3. July 29, 2013 at 10:49 am —

    It’s worth noting too that the Oatmeal lives in Seattle, where weather barriers (aside from frigid rain and depressing overcast) are pretty much nil. I’d like to see how he’d fare in Montreal, where not only is it utterly frigid six months of the year, but the streets and sidewalks are often too icy and treacherous to move at any pace faster than a cautious stroll.

    This is, in fact, kind of a big problem. After all, when people are overweight, experiencing symptoms of poor cardiovascular health, or even suffering from depression (seasonal or otherwise), a doctor’s first suggestion (after addressing dietary concerns) is to walk 30-45 minutes a day. When it is -15 (5 F) out, this is just an exercise in misery (hah!). And while there certainly are indoor spaces large enough to do this in relative comfort (such as our own network of underground shopping malls), most people would have to travel for a fair amount of time to get to them. Now we’re talking about 2-3 hours/day just to maintain ‘normal’ activity levels. Not a lot of people have that much time to spare, and certainly not the groups most at risk.

  4. July 29, 2013 at 1:16 pm —

    The gross anti-fat bias and overall body shaming are what killed any chance I had of enjoying this comic. I so wanted to because there were some funny, true, insightful points that I deeply identify with as a runner, but ugh.

  5. July 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm —

    I know. It’s very disappointing. I am glad it’s not just me who feels this way; so many of my friends seemed to think the whole thing was brilliant.

  6. July 29, 2013 at 6:08 pm —

    While my thing wasn’t running, I was told by my doctor – after having a serious staph infection in my leg – that I was at the border of becoming a pre-diabetic. Along with some other stats, she’d said that losing weight and following some dietary restrictions would get everything back in check, so I did. I did a lot. I had a similar mental thing going on as in The Oatmeal’s strip: what I was doing was good, and if I did more that was better. The biking I was doing was a great escape and I had a fun & mentally relaxing time going on rides.

    After I trimmed about 65 lbs. off, my doctor – of course – encourages me to lose more (I “should” be around 200, I think I should be at 220ish, but I seem to have hit a stop at around 245). So I look at myself and… am disappointed. It took a lot of discipline and self-dissatisfaction to keep me going, and now the dissatisfaction has decided to hang around. What’s worse is that I find myself looking at other people – whom might have looked sort of like I did back before I started – and get judgemental about their weight. Not in that sort of “they’re lazy”, but seeing them as a reflection of myself when I was bigger. It makes me uncomfortable seeing them, it makes me uncomfortable and shameful for reacting that way, and inevitably makes me think I’d gone about this entirely the wrong way. I never set out to think of being fat as “bad” – just “bad for me”. Yet that’s what happened.

    In a way, I think that some people push themselves too hard to change and wind up using techniques (consciously or no) that lead to more harm than good. What I wound up doing was creating an anxiety in me to always be doing something (like exercise), so now I have a hard time winding-down and relaxing. The part where The Oatmeal says “I run because I’m terrified of becoming that kid again” is me too – I was a fat kid, and got horribly picked on for it. That’s not a healthy reason to lose weight, and somewhere in the back of my head I have the same fear compounded by the fear of social ridicule. I also weigh myself every week (instead of every day) to make sure I don’t “backslide”. This, of course, adds to my anxiety.

    I’m glad he’s figured these things out for himself and it’s working for him. It doesn’t work for me so much, possibly because of other mental baggage, and so I think it’s clearly not some fix-all for losing weight/exercising more. Not that he’s selling it that way. While I was disturbed by the anti-fat bias, I know it’s personal to him (at least he expressed it that way) like it’s personal to me – except it didn’t *stay* that way for me, and now I’m trying to figure out how to undo that.

    • July 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm —

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, and this is very well put. I often run into this same attitude where a “bad for me” belief balloons to “bad for all,” especially as related to weight. It’s too bad that most people are reluctant to learn the truth about fat and health, instead relying on “everybody knows” B.S.

      I definitely see what you’re saying about the author’s ideas being expressed as his alone, but the problem–I suppose–was more in the scads of folks reposting the comic as capital T – Truth(tm).

      Best wishes to you in your journey, pandakun.

  7. July 29, 2013 at 7:08 pm —

    pandakun, thank you so much for sharing this. I flinched at the idea of running out of terror, as well. If nothing else, it undermines some of the joy he describes elsewhere in the piece.

    Moniqa, that’s it EXACTLY, well spotted. I didn’t see one critical treatment of the strip from any of the people who reposted it, just a lot of “Yes! This!” kinds of responses, and it bugged. I stewed about this blog post for several days, and part of me wondered if I were going to be eviscerated by Oatmeal fans if I published it. I’m glad I went ahead. Thanks. 🙂

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