Muscle Toning or Virtue Honing?: Alexi Pappas and the Rise of Virtue Ethics in Fitness Discourse

Christina Fogarasi //

Content Warning: suicidal ideation; depression; disordered eating

In October 2020, celebrity cycling instructor Ally Love kicked off the second season of “Sundays with Love,” an immersive, reflective at-home cycling experience focused on “creating a sensation of deep connection with yourself and with fellow Members up and down the Leaderboard.” Peloton—an elite home cycling program—aims to cultivate community among all who use their platform to work out, and “Sundays with Love” puts a particular emphasis on bringing members together regardless of their biking capability. The Peloton blog tells users, “You’ll explore a new virtue on the Bike every week, from compassion to selflessness to honesty and unity, through a challenging roadmap that will leave you believing in yourself and the power of community.” 

“Sundays with Love” exemplifies trends that many associate with contemporary fitness culture, including re-branding exercise as an experience, a spiritual journey, an act of self-care, a means of community engagement, and—what interests me here—a mode of moral development, vis-à-vis virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is a form of morality that provides no rules or calculations for making ethical decisions but rather suggests that well-calibrated moral judgement comes through practice; by honing particular virtues over time, an individual cultivates her character and exemplifies morality. As Aristotle puts it, “ethical virtue” is a “tendency or disposition, induced by our habits, to have appropriate feelings” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Thus, though there are many examples one might emulate, one cannot “reason” one’s way into morality. 

Undoubtedly, infusing exercise with character cultivation is not new; of particular note is the way that exercise practices native to many non-Western cultures such as yoga or martial arts emphasize spiritual and moral development. And yet, to my mind, the contemporary brand of fitness virtue ethics feels different, as it attempts to combat the exercise world’s dictates (“no eating after 8:00 p.m.”) and quantitative emphasis (weight, BMI, waist circumference, pace, leaderboard position, daily steps), echoing the Aristotelian rejection of rules in the realm of ethics. At the same time that exercise machines and fitness wearables include more health metrics and measure with greater precision than ever before (Garmin’s training watch, for example, measures one’s “Body Battery”), fitness virtue ethicists push to empty this data of meaning. Given that quantitative data, especially bodyweight, serves as the fitness industry’s foundation, these virtue ethicists forge a potentially radical counter-narrative. In this essay, I examine a prime example of the movement towards virtue ethics, which I locate in Olympian Alexi Pappas’ 2021 memoir Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas. I argue that Pappas’ commitment to virtue ethics re-frames both contemporary mental health discourse (allowing her to grapple with her own depression more effectively) and fitness discourse (producing much-needed counter-rhetoric to the quantitative push), while nonetheless maintaining a moralized and thus implicitly fatphobic conception of fitness.

***

Pappas is an Olympian, poet, and independent film-maker whose January 2021 literary debut is a self-help book masquerading as a memoir. The memoir covers Pappas’ running career, her coming-of-age, and her depression, refracted through her mother’s suicide, a trauma she admits partially fueled her devotion to running. In anticipation of the book’s publication, Pappas released a viral video, a sort of mini-documentary titled “I Achieved My Wildest Dreams. Then Depression Hit,” pleading with athletes to invest in their mental health. “What if we athletes approached our mental health the same way we approached our physical health?” Pappas asks.

In Bravey, the identity—or character—Pappas endorses is that of a “bravey,” a person who “replace[s] can’t with maybe” and, for the past few years, she has steadily grown an Instagram mini-cult of braveys. According to Pappas, “being a bravey is…a conscious choice to tell yourself what you’d like to be until it becomes part of you” (156). Because actions change thoughts and thoughts change feelings, Pappas emphasizes aspirational behavior, reflecting virtue ethics’ commitment to practice and imitation.  Indeed, in true Aristotelean form, there are no real rules to being a bravey, but Pappas’ book offers many examples.  She underscores the necessity of role models (her own include a childhood au pair, Mia Hamm, and Maya Rudolph) while also attempting to be one. In doing so, she puts forth a very contemporary iteration of virtue ethics, deviating from Aristotle insofar as she is more concerned with producing a particular type of self or identity, rather than developing a specific set of virtues (e.g. courage).

Character cultivation seems an odd place to start when addressing issues on Pappas’ agenda, most especially mental health in sports. For Pappas, character forms through hard work, mental fortitude, and responsible willpower allocation—what matters is not any given situation, but how you respond.  This means that her memoir functions as a prime example of therapeutic culture, complete with post-feminist gestures, an overcoming-disability narrative, and a heavy dose of neoliberal individualism. For the most part, the memoir emphasizes individual change, rather than social or political reform. Perhaps this is a product of the memoir genre, but there is no critique, for example, of how capitalist logics exacerbated Pappas’ depression: runners depend upon shoe contracts for an income, and Pappas accepted a poorly negotiated contract out of a sense of desperation. Rather than point out the exploitative contract system, Pappas blames her poor decision-making skills. Critical analysis of systemic oppression and Pappas’ own privilege proves seriously lacking.

Still, I’m drawn to what this text does offer and how, more specifically, Pappas’ virtue ethics function as an intervention in contemporary fitness and mental health discourse. One answer comes indirectly, when Pappas shares how trauma determinism (the idea that we inevitably repeat the trauma we witness or inherit) intensified her post-Olympic depression and suicidal ideation (further exacerbated by a torn hamstring and an insufficient Nike contract). What could have been a recoverable post-Olympic low turns into Pappas’ “rock bottom” (134) in part because Pappas situates her mother as a sort of inescapable, compulsory role model:

I feared the worst: Both my mom and her brother had died by suicide. That’s both kids in her family. As I understand it, their mother—my maternal grandmother—also had struggles with her mental health. With the history of mental illness in my family, I am obligated to tick the box about depression every time I go to the doctor. I am reminded of it constantly. I’ve always been afraid there is an invisible timer in my head that will one day run out and I will become like my mom, and I was terrified that I was on a collision course with a destiny that I was desperate to avoid. (121) 

Pappas terrorizes herself, mapping her mother’s future as her own, which is only confirmed by the genetic framework for depression the medical system advances. Pappas highlights the psychic toll of ticking the “box about depression” during every doctors’ visit, implicitly revealing how medical disclosure cemented her hopeless determinism. If Pappas situates trauma as the underlying explanatory principle for her life, this in part because Pappas believed her mother haunted her, believed she was “un-helpable,” believed (I would say) that trauma could only ever repeat itself; she interpreted all her feelings and behavior as proof that trauma serves as the crux of her character or her fully actualized self (what Aristotle might call her final cause or telos). It is this looping effect Pappas hopes to end through recourse to alternative role models and self-expectations—and, ultimately, through character reformation. To my mind, Pappas isn’t so much saying that she can think herself out of trauma. (She explicitly says that one cannot think one’s way out of feelings.) Rather, her story demonstrates how pre-conceived notions about trauma inhibit one’s ability to heal and force a deterministic understanding of one’s character. In this way, Pappas fuses virtue ethics (the sense that we hone our virtues over time to achieve our telos) with poignant commentary surrounding trauma discourse’s determinism revealing how the latter offered her a false sense of her telos, misdirecting her character cultivation. 

Virtue ethics takes the stage most prominently, however, in Pappas’ appropriately vague but crucial fitness advice, consisting primarily of injunctions to prioritize eating, sleeping, and mental health.  Early on in her career, Pappas conveyed these injunctions as well as reflections on running via her poetry:

            run like a bravey

            sleep like a baby

            dream like a crazy

            replace can’t with maybe

In her memoir, she divides her chapters with these short, quirky poems—often one or two stanzas max—presenting her readers with easily-grammable nuggets of inspiration, ideal for her mostly young adult audience.  Pappas glosses her decision to share her poetry, writing,

I knew there would be kids, much like the little girl I had once been, who would pore over every word I posted and try their best to imitate it. I didn’t want them trying to replicate my hundred-plus-miles-a-week training regimen; I wanted to give them something they could healthily adopt as their own. So instead of posting workout splits, I posted poems. (6) 

On her personal Instagram site, the lighthearted, whimsical, and occasionally cliché poetry has become the dominant way Pappas interacts with her fans, who send Pappas DMs asking about social anxiety, fueling, injury recovery, and more. More than the content themselves, the poems offer a vehicle through which Pappas affirms her followers and situates herself as a confidant, active listener, and role model. Again, Pappas demonstrates that her virtue ethics isn’t necessarily about honing a single quality, but about embodying the fearless, thoughtful, caring bravey ethos that she herself aspires to personify.

Poetry affords Pappas a vagueness that combines with her virtue-ethics approach to counteract fitness culture’s numbers game. Between an epidemic of disordered eating and coaches who are verbally and emotionally abusive, the world of women’s running is inhospitable to the body-minds it claims to nurture.  The same can be said of the fitness industry, and both arenas compound their toxic fatphobia by exacerbating systemic inequities related to race, gender, class, and sexuality. Still, despite a growing body of critique, the fitness world has struggled to reform. Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, shares that many, including herself, don’t quite know how to “define what ‘body positive’ exercise should be. It’s freeing to no longer tie my definition of workout success to my jeans size—but where do we go from there?” she asks. By way of virtue ethics, Pappas and Love implicitly demonstrate skepticism surrounding numbers as indicative of health and thus, at their most powerful, generate body-positive exercise possibilities (though I would not assign either the more radical, anti-fatphobic position). 

***

At the same time that I am in favor of eliminating qualitative measures from fitness discourse, I worry that virtue ethics re-infuses already moralized arenas—exercise and bodyweight—with more morality.  In other words, when Love suggests that her cycling rides cultivate humility, is she not unintentionally replicating the age-old, thin-supremacist idea that equates fitness (and, as it is so often defined, bodyweight) with being a good person? Thin supremacy, inextricably linked to white supremacy, as Sabrina Strings has shown, confirms the moral superiority and virtue of the small body; an anti-fatphobic and anti-racist approach should disrupt this correlation, not reify it.  

Imagining a non-moralized approach to exercise leads me to functional fitness programs that ensure individuals can lift their babies without low back pain, keep their balance on an icy sidewalk, or avoid neck pain after hours of Zoom teaching. These programs don’t pretend their participants will become more courageous by doing push-ups but instead offer fitness as a tool to navigate daily tasks and alleviate pain. 

While not her central emphasis, an interest in functional fitness can also be found in Pappas’ memoir, particularly in the way she writes about mental health. After weeks of suicidal ideation, Pappas connects with a helpful psychiatrist and receives a “high-risk situational depression” diagnosis; thereafter, she channels all her energy into healing. Pappas writes, “I promised myself I would become dedicated to curing my depression as if it were my next Olympics” (145). Though this section falls prey to the overcoming-disability narrative structure, it also re-frames fitness not just in holistic terms, but in functional ones, as Pappas prioritizes “self-care and maintenance over productivity and performance” (145). The sentiment here is more profound than the use of the buzzword “self-care” might lead one to believe, for Pappas is getting her mind in shape in order to live. She does not hope to “win” at mental health, nor does she believe it will necessarily make her a more moral person; rather, maintaining her mental health is necessary for her day-to-day. So, if Pappas originally asks, “What if we athletes approached our mental health the same way we approached our physical health?”, I wonder, What if we approached our physical health the same way we approached our mental health—with a functional, non-competitive approach?

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Nathaniel P. Likert for helpful insight into Aristotelean virtue ethics.

Works Cited

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Pappas, Alexi. “I Achieved My Wildest Dreams. Then Depression Hit” The New York Times, 7 December 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/opinion/alexi-pappas-depression.html. Accessed 7 April 2021.

—. Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas. New York, The Dial Press, 2021.

Sole-Smith, Virginia. “Can the Fitness Industry and Body Positivity Coexist?” Elemental Medium, 15 January 2020, https://elemental.medium.com/can-the-fitness-industry-and-body-positivity-coexist-408e7e0084dc. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Elements of Fat Phobia. NYU Press, 2019.

“Sundays with Love” Peloton: The Output, https://blog.onepeloton.com/sundays-with-love-peloton/. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Author bio: Christina Fogarasi is a PhD candidate in Literatures in English at Cornell University. Her work focuses on trauma, therapeutic culture, and the contemporary novel. Her writing has appeared in Public Books and is forthcoming in Modern Language Studies

Image source: Cover of Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas by Alexi Pappas (The Dial Press, 2021).

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