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Pilates + the Cyborg Body

This post was written in collaboration with ChatGPT :)

Zoochosis is a term used to describe a range of abnormal behaviors that animals in captivity (incarcerated, imprisoned) may exhibit as a result of stress, boredom, and frustration. Examples of this include repetitive behavior, such as pacing, or self-injury. Although it is difficult to determine whether humans experience zoochosis in the same way that other animals do, there is evidence that long-term confinement and isolation have negative effects on human mental and physical health. While humans, even those living in the most restricted of modern conditions, generally have a larger degree of agency and autonomy than animals in zoos, modern society does inhibit the ways in which we can engage with our environment and limits opportunities for physical activity. This can have a number of negative consequences. Physically, our bodies are designed to move regularly and engage in diverse activities. When we are confined to a sedentary lifestyle, our bodies can become weakened and less resilient. Humans thrive on connection and interaction with others, therefore the confinement and restriction that we experience can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and depression. Regular exercise is often offered as a remedy for these symptoms because in addition to improving physical health, it can also boost the mood, and help us to feel more connected to others, thus counteracting the effects of confinement and restriction.

Facing a more sedentary lifestyle, fitness trends in the early 20th century tended towards the study of “natural” movement and physical culture. Many fitness experts at the time believed that humans had become too disconnected, and that studying animals could help us to reconnect with our bodies and improve our physical health. Heavily influenced by the physical culture movement, Joseph Pilates was also fascinated by the way that animals moved, and he believed that humans could learn a lot from observing them. However, Pilates' study of animals was unique in that he often studied caged animals. One of the key influences on Pilates' work was his observation of the lions in Central Park Zoo in New York City. He was impressed by the way that these lions in captivity were able to maintain strength and agility, despite the limitations of their environment. It is important to point out that some have theorized (maybe even backed up with documentation) that he developed the foundational movements of his floorwork while incarcerated as a prisoner. If true, this would explain his lifelong fascination with, and sympathy for, the caged lions that he studied. Pilates created a series of exercises to replicate the movements he observed. These exercises focused on developing core strength, flexibility, and agility and were designed to be performed in small spaces, making them ideal for urban environments, or one could argue, for humans living and working in a sort of “captivity”. He also created a series of machines designed to accompany the floorwork. The machines, such as the Reformer, were designed to provide both resistance and support for the body during exercise, helping to recreate these animal movements with even more precision, and often supporting the human body in movements that would otherwise be impossible.

The Pilates machines were originally intended to support and encourage the movement needs of bodies in modern society. These days, they are more often used to augment bodies to reinforce commodification of the self as demanded by late stage capitalist ideology, often marketed as a form of self-improvement or self optimization. The concept of a "Pilates Body" or being a “Pink Pilates Princess” are perfect examples of this commodification, as it reduces the practice of Pilates to a means of achieving a particular aesthetic ideal rather than a system of exercise designed to improve overall health and well-being. And although I disagree with the machines being used for commodification purposes, the positive results gained from meeting societal standards is undeniable, therefore I understand the desire to do so and would never shame anyone engaging in this effort.

The commodification of the body through exercise was written about extensively by Jia Tolentino, in her book “Trick Mirror ''. I would highly suggest reading it for a more in depth discussion on this topic. Although Tolentino was centering this discussion around the Barre method and not Pilates specifically, it is relevant here because not only is Barre heavily based on Pilates movements, but it also a perfect representation of how Joseph Pilates’ system has been commodified to serve late stage capitalism beauty standards. As an answer to the commodification via self optimization trap we find ourselves in, Tolentino proposed choosing the way of the cyborg as described by Donna Harway in the essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto”. This essay explores the concept of a hybrid being that blurs the boundaries between human and machine, thereby challenging traditional notions of identity and embodiment. It is curious that Tolentino offers the cyborg as a solution to this issue because although the interpretations of this essay are varied, one of the popular critiques is that it reinforces the commodification of the self through the promotion of self-improvement and self-optimization via tech, precisely what Tolentino herself was criticizing. I still remain unsure whether Tolentino was using Harway’s cyborg concept as a means of embracing the commodification of the self or if she disagreed with that critique of the essay and was proposing an alternative. If anyone else has thoughts about this, I would love to hear them!

My interpretation of Donna Haraway’s essay is that technology can be used to help survive the experience of modern capitalist society, and provide tools to subvert traditional power structures, thereby changing the systems that harm and marginalize. An example of this would be how the Sunflower Student Revolution in Taiwan used the internet and tech to organize, spread their message and create an online voting system to make decisions collectively and democratically. While that movement and Haraway's essay may seem far removed from the world of physical fitness and exercise, the ideas presented have interesting implications for Joseph Pilates and the machines he created. While Pilates did not use the language of the cyborg, his machines can be seen as a kind of hybrid body-machine, a version of a cyborg that transcends the experience of the human body and allows the user to execute movements that would otherwise be impossible. Working with the Pilates machines can augment the body's abilities to withstand the restrictions of our modern lifestyles and achieve greater levels of mental and physical fitness despite living and working in confined spaces.

Another popular critique of “A Cyborg Manifesto” relates to the accessibility of tech. If the technology required is cost prohibitive or not readily available, then it will merely reinforce existing inequalities rather than become a tool for liberation. A similar argument could be made for access to Pilates machines. The machines themselves (the tech) are very expensive, which limits not only who can own them for home use, but also limits who can own them as a business and offer them for others to use. Large group machine classes should theoretically make it possible to reduce costs and expand access, as the cost of the experience could be shared among a group of people. Unfortunately in practice, we don’t find much of a cost difference between a class size of 3 versus 20. The user is paying the same amount while the machine owner is making exponentially more profit as the class size increases. Not surprisingly, the profits aren’t being shared equally with the teachers hired to instruct these larger classes. Given that exercise is truly vital to mental and physical health, it shouldn’t be exclusive. Whether the machines are used to optimize for commodification or to provide relief from living and working in confined spaces (or maybe both), it is time for the experience to become more affordable and accessible. And while exercise can be a powerful tool for improving our physical and mental health, it's not a solution to the underlying problems that contribute to our sense of confinement and restriction. To truly address these issues, we need to work towards creating a society that values movement, connection, and well-being in every thread, rather than simply relying on exercise as a way to counteract the negative effects of our modern lifestyle.

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