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The Loneliness of the Sad YouTube Fitness Video

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; source images Getty

A few weeks ago, for once in my life, I was supposed to be thinking about food, but my brain drifted to the subject of fitness. I was rereading M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf and focused on her characterization of the human alone. When “living with himself, a man can do things that in front of other people might seem ugly, or undignified, if he needs to in order to live at all. I cannot swallow a raw egg in front of anyone in the world, no matter how much I want it. Or so I think.”

I could swallow a raw egg in front of anyone, but if I’m doing some sad boxing workout video on YouTube that’s soundtracked by a lobotomized, generic, rave synth because they can’t get rights to real music, and I hear one of my roommates come home, I slam the computer shut with more force than I applied to any one of the punch and rolls. I don’t know if it was like Heidegger or what, but everything is different if there’s a witness.

When you live with roommates, the line between what you consider shameful and not shameful sharpens, softens, then sharpens again. Even with roommates who are lovely and independent and really don’t care what I’m up to, exercising in my room feels unacceptable. One of my roommates does her yoga almost every day on a blanket in our back garden. This is so beautiful, so wholesome. The other uses some encouraging robot trainer who coaches her to run around the reservoir. This is so diligent, so self-disciplined.

Meanwhile, I am hunkered in front of a laptop or a phone screen, replaying an Instagram video about jumping onto a desk chair and landing in a squat. If I sense an eavesdropper, I treat it like porn. Or categorically more embarrassing than porn! Porn indicates I’ve at least heard about sex. At least porn was subversive once. Doing “fit things” in my room remains my greatest indignity.

Maybe it’s because of the way these videos treat me. There is certainly a type of free video, which finds me as much as I find it. My YouTube sidebar (a trough of personal secrets for all of us) is a parade of kicky aerobic dance routines. Often the instructors are flanked by two silent sidekicks. The trainers are distinctly not alone. And maybe in an effort to include me, they tell me “good job” and “keep your back straight here!” Usually, they are shockingly well-timed.

Or maybe it’s because it’s a license to be sloppier, wear a grosser shirt, wander away from the video during the cooldown to pluck my eyebrows.

Maybe it’s because working out in my room alone usually only happens when something has gone wrong. I arrived the forbidden six minutes late to a cardio class and was turned away and slouched home. Or my schedule is fucked and I’ve skipped working out for two weeks, so I’m jittery and restless and weird and at 9 p.m., and I remember that I could do something about that.

Maybe it seems antisocial, a cave animal hunkering. Doing goblet squats in a gym is strong. Doing goblet squats by your laundry basket seems one step closer to full-ass shut-in.

Maybe it’s because when I do clamshells the dog is like what. When I do lunges, he barks like I’ve lost my mind and only his sharp wail could bring me back to sanity.

Maybe it has something to do with the vulnerability of self-improvement. Like if a roommate asks if you have any elegant hair clips while you’re doing an “ab series” and you don’t have abs, you’re directing attention right to your soft spot.

This dynamic of vulnerability crystallized for me actually while watching Netflix’s genius social-reality show The Circle. The show shoves a bunch of people into small modular apartments, films them 24/7 as they spend their days engaging with each other in a social-media network, mastery of which could reward them with $100,000. The fan favorite of the show is earnest, sweet Shubham “Shooby” Goel, who previously was the youngest person to run for governor in California. In the second episode, there’s a shot of Shooby lying on the floor of his apartment doing crunches, doing butterfly kicks, trying his hardest. The show’s host is relentless — the slide in her voice as she says “whatever this is” when he’s clearly trying a sit-up! The second time we see Shooby working out alone, he tries to do some sort of pull up, yells in pain, and ditches it halfway through. I thought, Oh, he is me. And I thought, Oh, the narrator is my haunted brain being like, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHAT IS THIS? 

“There is a lot of vulnerability,” Shooby says, when I call him to talk it through. He also brings up an important point: “I was in my jeans doing it also which I think made it even funnier.” He says he didn’t even mind the host grilling him. “She was so playful and supportive. I was stoked to be doing the sit-ups, you know?” It’s Shooby’s relentless sunshine that won all our hearts. Perhaps this is the lesson in The Circle’s critique: Judgement abounds and does not, the way you interpret things is fallible, and haha, it does look stupid and that’s good material for any witnesses!

The Loneliness of the Sad YouTube Fitness Video