One of the most common arguments we see deployed on the internet in favor of wellness/fitness/health stuff, from Sugar Bear Hair to waist trainers to "The Teaser" ab exercise, makes my blood absolutely curdle. You’ll be scrolling along and minding your business, when you come across a mighty argument on some influencer post’s comments about the merits of her ten-day juice cleanse or “two-week abs” program. The commenters are trading blows; it takes tap upon tap to load the whole thread. And then here comes the stan with the discussion-ender: “Well, it worked for me,” they say.
It’s time to unpack this argument, in the context of health stuff, because I hate how well it works. It has two big problems: it’s a cursed attempt at science, and (almost always) a mis-appropriation of a type of political argument that is meant to help people, but used for ultimately greedy means on behalf of a powerful party.
First, the science part. “It worked for me” is a stab at scientific evidence by extremely unscientific method. Any one person’s experience is not at all up to the task of scientifically proving… anything, really.
Good evidence requires good science, which requires things like control subjects, stable environments, enough subjects to identify an effect, and maybe most importantly, a lot of thought as to how to manage the experiment so that other confounding variables don’t give us a false positive. Just for instance: If you thought a juice cleanse made you lose weight only to learn next year you were slowly developing hyperthyroidism, the fact that it appeared to work for you didn’t mean it actually worked for you. Good science on human bodies is already hard to do, even before we add the exercise part in; one person's experience is not up to the task.
“It worked for me” has barely any thought toward the good-experiment-design part of science, which means it contains a staggering number of biases. Here’s a list of a few of them:
Confirmation bias: When you form the belief first (Chloe Ting’s program works) and then seek evidence for it (reading all the positive reviews, ignoring the negative ones), rather than having a hypothesis or question (does Chloe Ting’s program work?) and then looking open-endedly for an answer.
Survivorship bias: Focusing on people who made it through a selection process and ignoring those who didn’t. This is what happens when, say, 100 new followers come to an influencer’s Instagram page and try his program; 95 of them decide they can’t stand it and unfollow him or remain silent. Five are left, still following him and commenting “It worked for me!”, yielding an apparently 100% positive experience based on his Instagram comments. This is closely related to attrition bias, where only people who complete a study or set of tasks remain at the end to look at the effects of the thing. This set naturally doesn’t include the people who don’t complete the tasks, for (in the case of workouts or diets) likely relevant reasons to someone considering trying the workout or diet.
Volunteer bias: People who self-elect to do a study will often have a different set of characteristics than someone who does not themselves choose to do it. For instance: someone who likes working out is more likely to try out a trendy new workout and probably more likely to “see results,” because they have good soft skills that enable actually completing workouts (keeping a schedule, feeling motivated by and excited about exercise, etc.).
The availability heuristic: Estimating the probability of something based on being able to think of some or many examples, instead of estimating based on how often something does vs. doesn’t happen. “I heard about a bunch of people who lost ten pounds with the keto diet this year” is not a way to evaluate how successful the keto diet is. “Here is how many people attempted the keto diet, and here is how many people lost ten pounds and (say) kept it off for a year” would be much, much better.
Now for the political part. The power of “It worked for me” seems partly attributable to the identity politics, personal-is-political times we live in. Like so many things, these arguments were created to help marginalized people, and were quickly co-opted for profit to sell identities back to us (think the Dove body positivity ads or Victoria’s Secret using inclusive body models). There is a sort of neo-liberal brass-tacks practicality argument to stuff like this, such as “What’s wrong with a little visibility? This is better than nothing,” but often these kinds of arguments allow extremely powerful people to escape with bare-minimum efforts that serve to bolster their image and work our guilt; pressure us to accept crumbs lest we receive nothing at all; AND put marginalized bodies between themselves and us who become collateral damage, lest their attempted be criticized. (Worth noting here: in the event "it worked for me" IS deployed correctly, punching up and not protecting a powerful figure, then: That's fine!)
These arguments are meant to be logic- and “show me the data”-killers, and that makes sense when they punch up: women asserting their understudied-and-documented experiences with abortion; black people asserting their experiences with having to work uphill to be afforded opportunities that are freely distributed to white people, like acquiring property.
That’s why “It worked for me” is particularly painful to see when it’s deployed in defense of some powerful figure, some influencer with a friendly and silly Instagram who sold their workout app for $400 million to a private equity firm. A brand knows it’s won when its fans are laying their own bodies on the line. No matter how cute their social media posts, they are not our friends.
What paid subscribers got last week: I’ve been reflecting on the absolute hold that Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body had on the peripatetic exercisers of the world, the ones hovering on the threshold of the gym, just about ten years ago. There may even be some in this audience who toyed with the idea of The 4-Hour Body workouts and diets, or actually tried them. Ferriss mainstreamed a lot of stuff that I now recognize as pretty standard broscience fare; he also perpetuated some harmful and weird stuff, and even got a couple things right. Since we are doomed to repeat that which we don’t understand, it’s time to re-appraise the workout and diet regimens of one Timothy Ferriss.
~Discord Pick of the Week: There’s always some influencer out there who has newly decided to push blood-flow restriction straps on their hapless followers, leading them to be like, “oh shit… do I need this? Am I wasting my time in the gym if I’m not tourniquetting my arms and butt while do curls or squats?” The short answer is “no, they’re just trying to get you to buy something” but if you want a very very long answer, witness this extremely thorough Eric Helms podcast. ~
I’ve been remiss in often talking about muscles in the body and how different training movements pair with those muscles but not surfacing a nice, thorough, encompassing resource on those two things in a while. So behold: the ExRx Muscle Directory and the Exercise Library. The Muscle Directory shows you where the muscles are and what they do, which you can use to roughly identify muscles that seem under- or overworked; the Exercise Library lets you click on a muscle and see a beautiful menu of movements that will work that muscle. Bookmark both!
As a supplement to the above, it’s a bit outdated, but I’ve often relied on this Reddit guide to Overcoming Weak Points to help me figure out what’s holding up my squat/bench/deadlift/row/whatever. Note that you’re probably not always going to be your own best judge of what your lifting problems are, but it’s not a bad starting point and fun to learn what all’s going on in your body (or not, as the case may be in lifting struggles).
Loved this interview with Julia Turshen on the Burnt Toast podcast, particularly this part:
For me personally, I had what I thought was a weird relationship to food for my entire life. It’s what I now understand to be a decades-long eating disorder.… It was very much reinforced by the fact that I have spent my whole professional life working in food, specifically cookbooks. I’ve made my career out of measuring food down to, like, the teaspoon. It’s about having the sense of control over food, like: Here’s how you make this thing. Here’s a recipe. I think a lot of what I was seeking in my life, as someone who’s lived with an eating disorder for a long time, was just control. And my career as a cookbook author offered that to me.
Kristin Cavallari deadlifted 185 pounds!! Before any more of you say it, yes, I know she is an anti-vaxxer. At the risk of disappointing you, most celebrities are anti-vaxxers, bless their hearts.
"I’ve got big, muscular legs, and I’m finally proud of them."
Serena Williams is retiring; I can hardly believe it. Please enjoy this photo of the queen.
A haka with love from the ladies of Whangarei to the USA in women’s rugby.
Simply wild quote from Melanie Lynskey on the filming of Coyote Ugly:
I played the best friend from Jersey. But the scrutiny that was on Piper [Perabo], who’s one of the coolest, smartest women, just the way people were talking about her body, talking about her appearance, focusing on what she was eating. All the girls had this regimen they had to go on. It was ridiculous. I was already starving myself and as thin as I could possibly be for this body, and I was still a [size] four. That was already people putting a lot of Spanx on me in wardrobe fittings and being very disappointed when they saw me, the costume designer being like, “Nobody told me there would be girls like you.” Really intense feedback about my physicality, my body, people doing my makeup and being like, “I’m just going to help you out by giving you a bit more of a jawline and stuff.” Just the feedback was constantly like, “You’re not beautiful. You’re not beautiful.” In your early 20s, so much of it is about beauty, and how people respond to you, and do people want to fuck you?
Doja Cat is going to “gain a ton of muscle but as a joke.” Doja, please gain a ton of muscle but for real!! Call me!!
A Guinness world record you didn’t know existed: 25 pull-ups hanging from the feet of a helicopter.
The Millennial Pause: the moment after the camera starts recording but before you start talking, apparently.
I finished the book Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin in a whirlwind this week. As in, I struggle to read on the best of days, but I could hardly put this down. It gives The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, both in that it’s a story about creativity and work and creative partners but also asks similar questions about a field underrated for its artistry (comics for K and C, video games for TaTaT).
Amazing profile of Maria Bakalova, aka Borat’s daughter.
This is mostly nichey media stuff, but I enjoyed Ed Zitron’s write-up on the way crypto is rapidly building up to going full Enron mode soon.
That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—