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.