On a sticky Sunday, June morning in the Washington DC area, I drove my daughter to a triathlon at a Navy base some 2 hours south of our home. The event (3/4 mile swim, 6 mile bike ride, and 3 mile run) drew a lot of military athletes, but also civilians interested in the same exhilaration of hard, physical activity. As I helped my then 21-year-old daughter unload her bike, I found myself gawking at the sculpted bodies that surrounded me, especially those of the men: v-shaped torsos and 6-pack fronts, well-developed biceps, broad, muscular shoulders, necks thickened and well-defined pectorals, thighs pumped and strong like stallions’ legs. For the most part, I found the bodies beautiful. I had become used to taut and well-muscled bodies from my stint as ethics chair at the Naval Academy, but as one sitting squarely in middle-age and amongst many who have already arrived, the well-kneaded, non-saggy body seemed even more attractive. Still, I knew most of these fit bodies were the product not just of youth or nature, but of vigilant labor.
In all this, there was a subtle, but unmistakable, combat element. It came not just from the military types who flocked to this navy base, and whose bodies have long been thought of as “war machines” – equipment that is part of the armour and weaponry of the military mission, indeed bodies that are a public investment. It also emerged in the logos on equipment that civilians brought with them: racing bike tires emblazoned with the words “speed weaponry”, a t-shirt that showed a musclebuilder in combat fatigues and the caption “take no prisoners”, another t-shirt with a more light-hearted, revised army slogan: “be all you never were”. The scene confirmed something quite noticeable these days – that the fitness of the classic warrior has become something of a model for many Americans who themselves, for the most part, have had no military experience and have little appetite for it.
The phenomenon has become conspicuous in the many gyms and fitness programs that have mushroomed throughout the American landscape. In my neighborhood alone, there is “The Fitness Corps”, “The Sergeant’s Program”, “Basic Training”, and “The Fitness Force”. They are our local boot camps. In these programs, well-heeled men and women pay good money to subject themselves to self-fashioned drill sergeants who adopt just the sort of abuse that real military drill sergeants are now under pressure to abandon. Indeed, at 5 a.m. in my neighborhood, fitness sergeants are kicking the butts of saggy middle-agers who themselves willingly accept the abuse. One winter, my husband became a self-appointed victim. He would wake up before sunrise to endure the boot camp he managed to escape during the Vietnam years. One morning, he apparently lagged in his warm-up run around the park. The drill sergeant didn’t fail to notice and instantly ordered him to pay for his sloth by doing 20 push-ups on the frosty ground. As if this wasn’t enough of an indignity, the sergeant then barked out: “Presser, you little piece of shit, do them like you mean them, or else you’ll do 20 more.” It is not just men who subscribe to civilian boot camp. Women too flock to fitness corps, to be all you can be and everything you weren’t. One women’s workout group in our neighborhood has a four “d” slogan: “drill, discipline, dedication, dignity.” If Jane Fonda’s best-selling 1983 workout video first launched the fitness craze, military-minded trainers are keeping it alive and well.