Corie Sanford

Your Best Body


I will not lie to you. I am, at the moment, at the peak of my after; I should be posing for photos with a smile on my face. Week after week, mile after mile, I have been competing against myself, watching my time creep down, nursing the new muscles emerging under my skin. It is painful to start every workout, painful to walk sometimes. As my new form emerges, I realize something elemental, fundamental about my body (previously derided and ignored by me): I am a machine. Not because I have pushed myself hard enough that I am finally muscular. I am a living, breathing, functioning miracle, I am a blood-making, CO2-creating machine. This feeling comes to me about 30 minutes into a run, when my slow body adapts to moving quickly and my muscles rouse themselves, warm and ready. There is a burst of speed lasting a half-mile, at best. For the moment, channeling Whitman, I admire myself, I adore my body because it is working; I feel like Prince’s Little Red Corvette.

The half-mile ends. I can’t breathe, my knee hurts, sweat stings my eyes and unnoticed snot or spit dangles from my chin. This is the after, this is also the before. Before my next self. Before the self I will be when I run faster (or slower) tomorrow. I am machine, always, but I have only learned to recognize it when I run. I am body, always, and I notice it every day when it hurts to get out of bed.

I used to empathize with my car, when it would drop into low gear going up a steep canyon road. I could hear the motor pitch change, feel the downshift, and immediately think, You’re tired. I loved my car, felt loyalty towards it. It drove well and so did I and that made me proud. I knew it was well-made, reliable, intended to run on for hundreds of thousands of miles, but found myself urging it on, coaxing, consoling. I drove from Portland to L.A, Denver to Seattle, San Francisco to Las Vegas, and every time found that the engine ran the same after 300 miles as it did at 1,300. Sometimes I added oil, wondering, how long until you give out? (The answer: 270,000 miles along with a failure to replace the timing belt). I knew that my empathy was misplaced: the engine hummed as long as the key was turned, as long as all wires and belts were in their correct places. This went beyond personification (although I am one of those people who gives cars and bikes names) into identification; the car was an extension of myself. When I was driving, it was hands and feet to me. When other people drove my car, I felt uncomfortable. My concern for its abilities was a conversion of my awareness of my own limitations; my love for the car was a result of its speed, its sound, the fact that I was certain it would go anywhere I wanted it to go.

When I am supposed to write, or work, I run instead. This is the way I learn about my body, by avoiding my mind. The dichotomy coughs in the corner, a smoker’s hack, and I lean down to tie my shoes, and don’t make eye contact. When I am supposed to run, I pick up any book, any pen, and begin the slow cathartic procedure. Mind or body, the shadow in the corner wheezes. The difficulty in being a machine is that I am not always a machine who wants to perform its job.

Enter the word no, the will of ‘the people’—the ‘people’ in this case being the me who wants to keep getting stronger, faster, better. I am slow and lazy. I like cheese, beer, and mayonnaise. I quit smoking because I knew what it was doing to my lungs—the precious machine—then took it up again when I got sad. Emily Dickinson defined no as “the wildest/word we consign/to language,” calling into question the resignation I often associate with it. College girls will tell you that consent is sexy (which, of course, it is—in the sense that it means you will have sex), but consent is following a biological instinct built into us. Refusal, on the other hand, refusal takes biology and instinct and social pressures and turns them on their heads. We are animals enlightened with the nerve to deny our own instincts. Humans build machines to say yes; fearful of becoming robots (or some version thereof), we insist on saying no.

There are two things preventing the total transformation of human into machine; both are a product of this ongoing tug-of-war between affirmation and refusal. Strangely enough, both are also places where the yes and the no meet, and become, if not the same word, the same action. The first is best described as stillness: if I put my feet down in a river, I am no longer a slave to the current. I am carried along by a number of influences, not the least of which are my own routines. The stillness I am speaking of is, therefore, a force I exert to resist, or otherwise cross, my life as it would be if I simply allowed things to happen. The moment of standing up, whether a result of a denial (I will not drink any more beer!) or of affirmative choice (I am going to quit my job!) is lovely for the incredible force of faith behind it. In the mechanical world, stillness demonstrates brokenness, death even. The defunct lawnmower in the shed, the truck overgrown with weeds: evidence of a disconnected wire, perhaps, an engine rusted through. These are accidents of wear and tear, irreversible unless an outside force intervenes. As a human being, though, my decisions are determined by the ongoing question of ability vs. refusal; cannot/will not are divided deeply by my real (or perceived) inability and/or my denial of potential activity.

On my most recent cross-country trip, I was heading from New Orleans to Denver, hoping to make record time. I love driving; there’s something about the constant motion that allows me to reflect more deeply, spend quality time in my own head. I stopped for gas and noticed a large puddle under my car, but after examining the engine and antifreeze levels, decided that it must have been there when I pulled in. Two miles later, my temperature gauge spiked as far as it would go; in a matter of seconds I went from a moving machine to a silent, steaming machine on the side of the road. There I sat for several hours as the evening faded and the tow truck made its slow way toward me across rural Texas. This machine does not work, shouted my hazard lights to every passing semi. I refilled the radiator and tried to move, but after another half mile, the gauge shot up again and I had to give in to the brokenness of my vehicle. There is much less of a difference between can’t and won’t for machines, can’t only really being able to delineate what a machine is or is not made to do. For machines, does/does not work is the greater issue. Although my car would not, could not drive away, these two vastly different issues temporarily became, in its broken down state, the same thing.

The second obstruction to total transformation is plasticity. Machines are solid, and although we speak of them as gathering “character” or being “vulnerable to the elements”, they do not change. Selves are another story entirely, lining up one behind another as we exert will, effect change. Anne Carson evokes a lovely image in her poem The Albertine Workout: “Albertine is not a solid object. She is unknowable. When [Marcel] brings his face close to hers to kiss she is ten different Albertines in succession.” We are always shedding selves. Carson describes her protagonist’s impression of these selves as a series of “friezes” lining up one after another. This impermanence and repetition make concepts such as before/after difficult to apply to human beings. This is most clearly demonstrated in our physical selves, which are acted upon by age, elements, and environment, but are primarily affected and changed by their own inhabitants. Once a person becomes conscious of their ability to change and impact their appearance, this ability and its ensuing responsibilities quickly become an enormous part of self-governance.

What makes the before/after question so murky are the varying forms self-governance takes—or, rather, the various motivations we have affixed to it. Am I making conscious choices about my body and my face because I am trying to express myself? Am I making these choices because I wish to take care of myself? The latter carries a moral implication, which is more synonymous with our understanding of the function and purpose of government as such (more on this later). The former desire for expression is used frequently, but commonly identified with youth, inexperience, and creativity—due to the preference of democracy for “individuality,” this is often placed outside of the moral realm. We also tend to divide our actions into two categories: exercise and eating right fall into the latter, while acts of beautifying, marking, or changing one’s appearance fall into the former. We do, however, affix before/after labels to people undergoing transformations in both categories, blurring the lines between self-expression and self-care. The expected result is also the most culturally acceptable; a twisted application of Keats: “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” We are convinced that having your “Best Body Ever!” is the same thing as creating the most accurate and honest representation of yourself. Consequently, our task is to live so that our selves become a progressive frieze of after photos: recreating our bodies as a form of expression that defies the laws of entropy.

In The Albertine Workout, Carson states that the “pictorial multiplicity” of Albertine creates a “plastic and moral multiplicity”. When it comes to our bodies, we inflict a harsh evaluation of appearance/effort: do I look good and am I trying hard enough? The moral imperative is to do the thing that is “good for you” (and, of course, not do the thing that is bad for you). It is a question of do or do not: either/or. There is the woman in the before picture, sad about how she looks (her greasy hair, her overhanging belly), and then, in the after, grinning away, with a new hairdo and probably a new boyfriend. People who look good deserve good things; people who do not look good have failed in their moral imperative, and are undeserving. After: a permanent phase, when this happy woman makes the daily decision: do not eat ice cream, do exercise. A balance of dichotomies, with the dangling carrots being your life as you want it to be vs. your life as it is now: presumably we are all that woman in the before photo, embarrassed to be caught in our underwear before we’ve had a chance to shower. What if the woman in the before picture was also allowed to smile? Would we acknowledge the construct?

Here is where the mind/body/machine conundrum meets and cracks wide open. Humans cannot be machines if we are self-created, self-expressive, constantly regenerating beings. If, however, a certain kind of no—unpredictability, defiance, what have you—is necessary to our autonomy, then perhaps the very processes of expression and self-care—dictated as they are by our moral or societal obligations—become functions of ourselves as machines. There is nothing I want that I have not been told to want. If the mind is the last bastion of self-defense against becoming full-on automatons, we are losing the battle. Cautioning against the influence of “generals and politicos” for whom our predictability creates “a window in your head,” Wendell Berry urges readers: “Every day do something that won’t compute.” In order to remain human, you must become a machine whose entire being is dedicated to no: “As soon as [they] can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.”

Self-governance, as any form of government, is about control and awareness. Berry’s urge toward voluntary insanity is only viable because of the immense machinery of society and culture; in his view, anything that does not “compute” is enough to ensure a break with the machine. This is not bestial, foaming at the mouth insensibility—this is calculated refusal, Dickinson’s wild no. If a person in Berry’s world becomes aware of their cog-in-the-machine status, their refusal of such consignment is certain. We are left with the question of power: who has it, and who wields it best. For Berry, as for Carson, each human being is a continuum of selves; the authors differ, however, on the creative force that sees and sustains awareness of our selves. Berry urges us to “Practice resurrection”: self-governance is a tool for inception, and we give birth to new versions of ourselves consciously. Carson’s Albertine, on the other hand, is submissive; her multiplicity is the result of the dominant obsession of her captor. It is her lack of awareness and clarity that leads to the confusion of selves; the fact that Marcel is kissing “ten different Albertines in succession” indicates that she is plastic, yes, but on a more dangerous level, we recognize that she is not in control.

We employ discipline in various ways in order to break our bodies in, mold them into something new. When I begin a run or a workout, I am less conscious of the compression of before/after. The desire to get better, stronger—a mental determination—forces me to tie my shoes, step outside (or in). It feels like the edge of something; a definitive beginning, with cold muscles and aching joints. After setting off, however, the mind fades to the background, and mechanics take over. If I am running alone, I set my watch to the lowest time it has taken me to run my route. The timer becomes my trainer; it governs my pace, pushes me to keep moving, move faster. I need an external motivation, an outsourced superego, a dominant will. Sometimes I get this from an actual trainer in workout videos or gym classes. Most often, however, it is the ticking hands of the clock, my body a machine racing against a machine that is keeping track of my mechanical movements. In this sense, the workout is not always about the dominant mind; it is, just as often, a submissive act. The person served is not the trainer, but a future self, whose body is still in the process of being formed; an after that does not yet exist.

At the gym, there are dozens of ladies in various versions of Nike attire doing various versions of Zumba moves. Their instructor is lean and energetic; he wears a head set and works out twice as hard as any lady present, save one. She knows every step, so well in fact that she probably should have been leading the course. When I ask her how long she’s been doing this, she blinks, then spits out a guess: “Six years?” I was in the back of that class, doing about 1/16th of the work everyone else did. She had seen. “You keep at it. The trick is muscle memory. After you do something a few hundred times or so, your body remembers it. Then you don’t have to think about it as much and your brain doesn’t get in the way!!” This confirms earlier suspicions: that I do not have the time for Zumba, and our minds are wild things, always interfering with the automatic forward momentum of our bodies.

The brain doesn’t really “like” to think, I read in an article a long time ago. (My brain refused to remember which article or where). What the brain likes is being able to go on autopilot—to kick back and put that Kanye song on repeat while muscle memory and habit take care of the activities of daily living. This is why learning new tasks like driving is such an exhausting feat: the brain is required to focus and process information for long periods of time. As soon as possible, therefore, our brain is busy remembering movements, thought processes, making even the act of noticing brake lights routine. The body is much the same, but instead of going to sleep when the process of practice is through, the body comes alive once it’s learned all the steps and can actually do them. My Zumba guru was correct: the body remembers. Not only this, but the body excels at remembering. The pure joy of my muscles and lungs 2.5 miles into a run is my body remembering how to take longer strides, pick the feet up, sprint on my toes. The verve with which practiced aerobics participants take each step is evidence of the body’s memory and love for motion. The mind wanders, but the body presses forward with each memorized step, each muscle awake, almost conscious.

I wonder if Albertine had more focus, if she was more awake, would she be only one version of herself at a time? I have had her experience: wandering half-drunk through a party and wondering, which self am I now? In these moments, the three components—machine, body, mind—go their separate ways. My heart continues churning blood, my muscles work—barely—without much encouragement from me. I am functional but automatic; the antithesis of Dickinson’s no. Self-governance is nothing without awareness; it only serves to drive us deeper into the machine, push us into autopilot. Awake, I am at the peak of my before, the nascence of my after. I turn the corner into City Park and feel a breeze lift the humid air. For a brief second, I bring my thoughts to bear on the present moment: alive, I stretch out my legs and run, blood pumping, lungs expanding, and I see the Spanish moss sway and know that I can stop any time I want.

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