“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
In a panel about halfway through Alison Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, the writer stretches her hip adductors in a claw-foot tub in her crummy New York bathroom. It’s after her dad’s suicide, and she has thrown her entire self into learning karate. “My only pain was physical,” she writes. “The dull pain of bruises. The acute pain of blisters. An exquisite tenderness that suffused parts of my body I’d never been aware of before.” The physical memory singes with contradiction: It shows how hyperawareness masks neglect, how one painful aftermath can supersede another, how solicited agony replaces ignored agony. It’s also a perfect example of the way Bechdel uses movement as an organizing principle to tell a new story about herself.
As a memoirist, Bechdel is accustomed to scooping the corners of her life for material — and intellectualizing each subject with an elevated line of inquiry. The syndicated newspaper comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” gave a soapy treatment to a group of friends, sprinkled with topical political commentary. Fun Home (2006), Bechdel’s best-known work (subsequently adapted into a Tony Award–winning musical), incorporated meta-literary analysis into her relationship with her father; Are You My Mother? (2012) used psychoanalysis to examine her relationship with her mother. Bechdel’s approach to her new book is no different; she shades her personal exercise history with a handful of philosophical and literary movements — Romanticism, transcendentalism, whatever the beatniks’ -ism was. But Bechdel’s perspective on movement is so engrossing, pensive, and peculiar that the book has no need for a history lesson to justify its subject.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength is a memoir of a love affair — not with a person but with moving. The book’s real subject is life force. And what better subject is there? It necessarily deals with aging, desire, pain, pleasure, fun, failure, capricious taste. We see an early punching bag that Bechdel made herself in tenth grade from a laundry bag filled with pennies and marbles, using her dad’s ski gloves to box in secret. We see her swept away by the group-classes feeling “of union as we moved and breathed in sync in a collective trance” while learning how to be an unbeatable karate opponent. Exercise comes in different forms and different obsessions, but the principles — of strength, change, and accomplishment — remain steadfast.
We also see how physical practices shape not only her body but how she considers herself as a body in the world. During the heat of karate training in her 20s, Bechdel gets into an actual fistfight with someone who groped her in a subway station. “That was the beginning of the end for me,” she writes of karate, which she quit shortly after. Its purpose jarred suddenly: She’d been training as a warrior when she never wanted to go to war. This dénouement precedes Bechdel’s rapture with the hard work of biking — and the particular way cycling teaches you about geographic terrain. “I love the verticality of my new turf,” she writes. “The scoliotic spine of the green mountains runs the length of the state.” Where karate conditioned her to fight, cycling conditioned her to explore.
Throughout the book, Bechdel seems self-conscious to have written a memoir about moving the body, as if this diminishes the life of the mind. “Well, I’m not just writing about fitness,” she reasons. “I’m writing about how the pursuit of fitness has been a vehicle for me to something else.” She consciously injects the memoir with intellectual history to give it a sense of seriousness. But all the arguments fall short of Bechdel’s writing about how incredible it feels to breathe hard on mountains. And in gyms. And on small yoga mats as we wave in our living rooms.
As soon as she gets the apologia out of the way, you realize how much she never needed the apologia. In a rigorous physical pursuit, like any rigorous pursuit, you learn about all your corners. It’s a natural subject for a memoirist who likes to push deep into all the layers of feeling: from surface skin, to wavy muscles, to hard bone, to the softest marrow.