As You Labor so You Become: The Way Work Shapes Us

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Photo by maHidoodi

In Russia no less than in America, in Moscow no less than in New York, people are obsessed with keeping “fit”. When I see people running off to their “fitness clubs” I think of my grandfather and grandmother. My grandfather was a coal miner. He had been a coal miner since he was fourteen years old and his body reflected that fact. He was short and in his old age, wizen. For most of my childhood he had been dying of black lung; and his struggle to breath weighed on our family’s days. But in his youth, he had been tough and wiry. He had had for most of his life the body of a feather weight fighter.

Several of his sons followed him into the mines and worked there until the anthracite mining industry caved in upon itself in the late fifties. I have today a picture of them, somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30, standing bare chested on the steps leading to the back porch. They are frozen in time like Greek sculptures. The sight of them would and did set women’s hearts aflutter – every muscle cut and well formed. Were someone to suggest to any of them that they should go to the gym to work out after work, it would probably have set them into peals of laughter. Coal miners didn’t work out, they didn’t jog, they didn’t go to gyms, save perhaps to box. Fighting was their sport and they practiced it wherever and whenever they wanted, not to get fit, but just because they were “tough guys” and that is the pass time of such men.

My grandmother, the mother of eleven children, did not go to the gym to get fit either; neither did she jog. She maintained her upper body strength by doing the laundry by hand in the kitchen sink, by kneading dough for the endless loaves of bread her family consumed, by rolling pasteries for pies, by washing floors on her hands and knees. She had no nanny to help her with the children, no maid to clean her house. She walked wherever she had to go. She bent to lift one child after the other, she stretched to hang clothes. The very suggestion that she should go to the gym to work out would have set her into peals of laughter.

So it was for most of America before machines came to replace muscles, before strip mining replaced men with picks and shovels, before machine harvesting and farming, before lifts replaced lifters, and street sweeping machines replaced street sweepers, etc. Machines not only gave rise to the degradation of skilled labor, they ushered in a generation of workers who no longer worked with their muscles. Armies of workers moved into factories, where they may have worked with their hands, but not with the rest of their bodies, not with their whole bodies. On production lines a worker stood in one place and performed the same motions repeatedly, day after day, year after year, until their overused body parts began to wear away and break down, while the rest of them became flaccid and underdeveloped. For those workers who moved into offices, particularly women, it meant sitting in same place all day long, engaging in boring, mindless and repetitive work. I worked as a typist as a young woman, and I remember doing just that in rooms filled with dozens and dozens of women, all pounding away on manual typewriters. So much of modern science and medicine has shown repeatedly that sitting still for long periods of time is one of the unhealthiest a person can do. In terms of shortening our lives, it is right up there with smoking and eating processed foods.

The mechanization of labor did not stop at the office or factory doors but entered the home itself. All one has to do is to look at the commercials of the late forties and early fifties, beyond the ads which encouraged Americans to smoke cigarettes, drink Coke and buy cars, to those which preached that being modern meant having modern appliances – washing machines and new stoves, refrigerators that limited the amount of time one had to spend shopping, mixers and blenders and even electric knives. By the 1960’s the combination of economic necessity, birth control, and mechanization of home labor, meant that women could enter the labor force.

As labor became ever more sedentary – just think of all those people who work in IT today – people could look at their bodies and see the ugliness it produced; not just the obesity but the flabbiness. They could feel the effects of their sedentary labor in their lungs, in their hearts, in their muscles, in the feeling of weariness that was their daily companion. They could see it in their faces, look into their eyes and find it there. And all these things filled them with fear and a degree of self-loathing for being what their labor made them and sent them racing to reverse those effects. The result of all of this was twofold: on the one hand it gave rise to several new and quite profitable capitalist endeavors: fitness clubs, fitness products, fitness supplements, fitness foods and drinks. Workers, both those who are highly paid and those who are not, were equally willing to spend a portion of their incomes on “being fit.” This fixation on getting in shape produces significant profits for a 32 billion dollar health and fitness industry.

The second effect of all this has been, I would argue, to develop and feed a narcissistic self-absorption. Staying in shape has become an obsession, a neoreligion, and those who do not worship at the altar of fitness are viewed as inferior outcasts and pariahs. Although it is not solely responsible for the narcissism that prevails in America, sedentary labor, combined with the “health and fitness industry that it spawned, has played a major role in producing the “cult” of the body. The focus on “self” of course, obscures our focus on others, and the fact that we are part of humanity, while the focus on the body comes at the sacrifice of a focus on the mind. The end result, more often than not, is self-absorption at the lowest level of the flesh, and a thoughtless ignorance.

Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.


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