It is the first week of school and the gym is packed at all hours. Those with New Year’s resolutions occupy every machine. Gym regulars grumble as their studio space is taken over by people who will be long gone come mid-February. This overcrowded occurrence prompts the question: why is our culture so obsessed with fitness? More importantly, why are we so obsessed with making resolutions revolving around fitness and weight-loss? Today’s media-driven culture featuring beautiful, slim models and weight-loss fads makes health-oriented resolutions inevitable, but are these body image goals universal? Research indicates that it is predominantly the fast-food driven, workaholic, social-media obsessed American culture that resolves to workout everyday and eat less ice cream in the new year. Sociologist Isidor Thorner’s surveying uncovered that it is mostly Americans and other English-speaking Western cultures that indulge in the annual resolution-making tradition.
Anna Almendrala’s “The Surprising Reason We Make New Year’s Resolutions” in The Huffington Post includes the findings of Thorner, revealing that the American tradition of resolution-making evolved from the Protestant concept of annual spiritual renewal. Secular New Year’s resolutions originated from night watch services of Methodist churches as a way to obtain spiritual renewal in the New Year as opposed to partying. The night watch services focused heavily on reflection and contemplation of actions, specifically in regards to restraining from indulging in life’s pleasures. Thorner conducted an informal international survey, which revealed that only English-speaking countries like Australia, England and Scotland partake in the tradition of making resolutions. Whether the origins of resolution making began in England or the United States is unknown, but it is evident that the earliest forms of this tradition were heavily spiritual.
Surveys indicate that many Americans still declare life-fulfilling resolutions relating to wellness, self-improvement and community participation. However, in recent years, personal health resolutions like losing weight have taken priority over improving one’s character. It might seem reasonable that media-image driven culture like that of Americans is known for making resolutions in an effort to improve their image. But why is “lose weight” most frequently found at the top of resolution lists? This could be attributed to America’s reputation as a country plagued with obesity. Americans resolve to work out more and eat better to avoid this cultural trap. Almendrala cites sociologist professor Abigail Saguy, who suggests that appearing fit and thin is associated with social power. Only those who have money can afford to buy organic food and gym memberships. Therefore, Saguy argues that those who wish to lose weight also yearn to have (or appear to have) higher social status. Saguy deems such aspirations as selfish. Whether the American fixation on New Year’s resolutions is primarily for an improved image, personal health or an effort to increase social status, the common denominator is a purely personal goal.
It appears that the real reason Americans make resolutions is personal in the sense that people are ultimately trying to better themselves, but are doing so in a competitive manner. Saguy’s research suggests that what drives people to make resolutions are those around them. Americans constantly compete to be fitter or richer, which suggests that such resolutions are made not out of personal desire, but as a competitive version of the bandwagon phenomenon. Americans want to lose weight not necessarily to feel better, but to look better than their neighbor.
While eating better and working out more may improve personal mental and physical health, they do not guarantee long-term personal success, nor do they contribute to helping others or creating a better world. Perhaps Americans should encourage each other to instead make small, positive alterations in one’s personality or habits, in hopes of producing a positive snowball effect on the people and world around them. Losing weight affects no outside parties, but small resolutions like “be more patient” or “help my family more” can benefit those around you. These are hardly grandeur advances to solve world hunger, cure cancer or stop racism. However, small modifications in one’s personality are more closely related to the “spiritual renewal” Protestants and Methodists traditionally strove towards. Saguy would argue that Americans are so consumed with appearance that they not only neglect others, but fail to obtain a full spiritual renewal.
The Methodist and Protestant leaders of the 20th century certainly did not foresee their annual night watch services evolving to its current secular and allegedly “selfish” state. Nor could they predict that losing weight would dominate the goals of Americans come each New Year. Reverting to more “spiritual” oriented goals would strip New Year’s resolutions of their competitive edge, and might prove to be more feasible goals than going to the gym every day.