Physical fitness as a sign of class privilege


Feel the burn

We wish we could put a finger in time at the precise moment when ‘physical fitness’ emerged as the new status symbol for the upper class.


One imagines that it’s the elites who, through better educational opportunities, were the first to catch wind of the many physical, sexual and psychological benefits of exercising; of heading out for a jog in Fatima Jinnah Park on a regular basis, or playing tennis or squash at a posh club accessible only to the top 4% of the population. Hence it’s among the upper class that the trend was the first to take hold, and achieve the status of a virtue.


The Twin Cities serve as a tempting setting for any study involving class differences. Comparing the social behaviors of the people of Rawalpindi and the denizens of the state capital – even if one goes about collecting anecdotes in a wholly unscientific fashion – can be a fascinating endeavor.  Surely, Rawalpindi and Islamabad are not neatly synonymous with ‘lower class’ and ‘upper class’ districts. One must consider the ‘insufficiently’ Islamabadi zones like Sector-I and PWD, as one ought to take into account the acutely un-Pindi-like segments of Rawalpindi, like Bahria Town and DHA.


In Rawalpindi, there’s a noticeable dearth of quality gyms that divert focus from simple iron-pumping and muscle-building, to full-body fitness. The derogatorily termed ‘Pindi Boys’, in addition to their gaudy fashion sense, are known for their preoccupation with displays of traditional masculinity – namely, large, veiny biceps. Members of the enlightened class on the other hand, gravitate towards whole-body fitness attained through up and coming workout routines and dietary regimens.


There’s a solid theory about how this came to be. For the working class populace, especially in the developing world, physical exertion is often built directly into the daily work they perform. The common masses have their own version of a full-body workout called, “having a job”; one that does not involve sitting at a mahogany desk, signing papers, and never having to clench one’s thighs to fit into a public Suzuki, by the virtue of owning a comfortable private car. The upper class, on the other hand, has to pay the price for its sedentary push-button lifestyle by burning off the calories at a gym – no, ‘fitness center’.


Jason Tebbe, in a riveting article that appeared recently, compares the fitness trends of the modern upper class with Victorian values. It’s worth noting, the elites’ readiness to consciously suffer for the sake of their ‘fitness’, and post pictures of themselves on social media indulging in such ritualistic suffering as running marathons and taking advanced yoga classes. The unacknowledged objective is to tout their mastery in self-discipline, and demonstrate their right of membership to the high-society; as opposed to the pot-bellied lower-middle class slobs populating the unsanitary streets of Rawalpindi.


Gone is the era when a bulging abdomen was the sign of being part of an affluent family, a ‘khata peeta gharana’. For the upper class Pakistani, like his Western counterpart whose neocolonial line we obediently tow, obesity has transformed itself from a marker of prosperity to a sign of moral failing. And ‘class’ is now quantified by extreme attention to personal psychological and physical fitness.


This can be verified by a number of social experiments. On common dating apps used in Pakistan, one is likely to find a much greater diversity of sexual or romantic desires among the pejoratively termed ‘maila’ class. Turning on a distance-limited dating app in the middle of Rawalpindi Saddar will open up a buffet of users seeking short, tall, fat, skinny, hairy, shaved, light-skinned, tanned, English-speaking, or Urdu-speaking potential partners. Using the same app in Islamabad, is like peering into a hive mind that scans the available profiles for a narrow range of class markers – namely English-language skills and physical fitness.


One may be tempted to quote Pauline Nordin who states that a well-built physique is a well-deserved symbol of status, because it cannot be inherited or purchased; only attained through hard-work. But then one may wonder why the laborer who carries piles of bricks up and down the stairs all day – which decidedly counts as ‘hard work’ – usually sports an aesthetically unappealing body of above-average build. Meanwhile, the 22-year old business student struts around the pool area with a muscular back, chiseled chest, and six-pack abs. It does not explain why the wealthy mem sahib looks fitter and fresher than her house-maid, who spends half a day squatting over the floor and sweeping it with a jharoo.


This paradox merits little investigation. The laborer and the house-maid never inherited boxes of protein shakes, high-quality organic food, Reebok footwear, electronic fitbits, cosmetic and bariatric surgeries, and memberships to elite fitness clubs that we use to attain our desired shapes. The blue-collar citizen cannot afford the time or the money it takes to attend regular yoga classes, or indulge in costly ‘cleanses’ that involve consuming only asparagus water and caviar for 2 weeks.


These fitness rituals, which are entirely inaccessible to the poor, thus become perfect markers of not only your affluence, but your self-discipline and commitment for self-improvement.


None of it is intended to say that attention to personal health and physical fitness is inherently problematic and bourgeois. But it is important to have some insight into upper class trends, their origins, and the often unutterable reasons for their popularity. Just as it is vital to realise that the same fitness standard cannot be achieved by every single person, for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of self-discipline or moral failing.


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