Escape from the doll house

The deceptive, glossy media images of faces, bodies and social lifestyles, make us hate ourselves so we will buy a solution to love ourselves once again.

Bryant H. McGill

Are you frustrated?

I’ll bet you are.

You’re trying your best to build a life and a career with meaning, substance and dignity. You want to create a healthier life for yourself and others around you but somehow, it feels like an uphill fight. Everywhere you look, you see the health and fitness industry falling into a state of superficial irrelevance. Sadly, it feels like it's taking you along for the ride.

There’s a reason for this state of affairs, so let’s be blunt: The problem is not our industry itself, but the context and culture in which it lives. We are, in effect, locked inside a series of Russian dolls. We do our best to develop meaningful practices, but the larger dolls that surround us are creating its own form of culture, entirely without our consent.

Here’s how it works:

Our various health and training practices (yoga, CrossFit, nutrition, functional training and anything that even sounds holistic) are routinely placed inside a larger Russian doll called “health and fitness.” But the “health and fitness” doll is nested inside the “lifestyle” doll, which in turn is nested inside the “entertainment” doll. This categorization has profound ripple effects: Whatever people do with the biggest doll inevitably affects all the dolls inside it. In other words, if you’re nested inside the “lifestyle” or “entertainment” doll, your precious work may well be presented in ways that are antithetical to what you’re really trying to do.


Of course, we are free to argue about the proper labels for each doll or the precise relationship between dolls, but this nesting of content in modern culture is an incontrovertible fact. In the world of publishing, writers call it the “Barnes and Noble problem.” If you write a book or produce some other form of content, you’ve got to put it in a category. And once your precious creation is nested inside that category, it will forever be a slave to all the assumptions, expectations and appearances that go along with it. If your product or service gets placed in the wrong category, you’ll be forever constrained by its values, look and feel. Once you’re pigeon-holed, your ability to grow may be radically compromised.

This explains why, no matter how hard we push for authenticity and dignity in health, the vast majority of our efforts wind up looking like one more Photoshopped soft-core-weight-loss-fashion-cosmetic-hair and skin cover issue on the local news stand. This is why health and fitness now resembles a vast, sugar-coated, mass-market peep show that’s all about sex and not much else. In other words, it’s all about gloss.

Nothing illustrates this point better than the transformation of yoga from it’s traditional, substantive roots (“trad yoga”) to the modern high-glamour, celebrity, sexy yoga (“glossy yoga”). Yoga, as some will remember, used to be a disciplined, authentic practice devoted to spiritual transformation, by way of the body. It wasn’t glossy and it definitely wasn’t sexy. It had a higher and a deeper purpose. You didn’t have to be a super model to participate, but you did have to commit to serious, long-term study. In a traditional yoga studio, dabbling and drop-ins were definitely not an option.

But today, yoga has been glossed up to a blinding extreme. Now it’s all about cover models and sexuality, with a little bit of substance thrown in to maintain the image. And now, every yoga magazine cover is basically identical. Sure, there’s a couple of articles about meditation, mindfulness and spirituality, but wow, look at how slender she is! What a babe! I want to look like her! And sleep with her! I’ll do yoga too! And I’ll buy the products in this magazine!

(The day I see a fat, balding, middle-aged man on a yoga cover, doing his best to hold a downward dog, I’ll take it all back.)

Sadly, the gloss industry is killing yoga and just about every other health practice in the modern world. Even as gloss and sex brings in more students, it simultaneously destroys the deeper purpose of our practices. If the trend continues, yoga will soon be nothing but a shimmering layer of sparkle on another profit-driven, profit-centric enterprise. And soon, every health and fitness practice, no matter how authentic and substantive, will be boiled down to 10 minute weight-loss, 10 minute abs and really hot sex.

Don’t get me wrong. I love sex and lipstick and hair and nice clothes and suggestive postures just as much as the next guy. But believe it or not, there are other dimensions to life. Traditional cultures have been doing dignified work with the mind-body-spirit for a couple of thousand years now. Perhaps it’s time to turn away from gloss and get back to our physical and spiritual roots.

At this point, however, things don’t look promising. In New York City, the gloss capitol of the planet, the working assumption among editors, agents and marketers is that gloss is the only thing that will ever sell. Substantive ideas, memes and publications are dead on arrival because they require actual effort, engagement and participation. And consumers, we are told, don’t want work; they want to be distracted from work. Readers don’t want to delay gratification for some greater good; they want to be gratified right now. And if we can figure out a way to promise an orgasm in the process, so much the better.

The gloss industry believes that consumers are nothing more than fish and publications nothing more than fishing lures. The best way to get people to bite on the lures is to add gloss in the form of sex appeal, flash and highlights. In this sense, launching a promotional campaign for a new health product or service is nothing more than a fishing expedition. Just make sure that your lures–your website, books, DVDs and other promotional materials–are all glossed up and your hooks are sharp. Then it’s simply a matter of trolling in the right waters and at the right depth. (Your target audience.) Of course, this assumption is cynical, dangerous and debasing to our culture, but that’s how things work in the gloss industry.

So how are we to rescue our body-based professions from the glossification and sexification of culture? Somehow, we’ve got to find a way out of the Russian doll house that hold us captive, and that means refusing common classifications and taxonomies. It’s time to be assertive. If a glossy publication wants to profile your business or profession, think twice and be sure that the article and imagery are consistent with your true values.

Even better, perhaps we need a complete break from every form of gloss. Let's stop with the weight loss. Get out of the appearance business. Stop with the toning, the firming, the before-and-afters and the promise of sexual nirvana. Stop with the promises of fast results. Instead, get back to traditional practice: discipline, commitment, functional movement and health fundamentals. Sure, if people follow this path, their bodies will probably become more slender, more attractive and more sexual. But whatever you do, don’t tell anyone. You’ll just end up inside the wrong Russian doll.