By Perry F.
One day, while riding a stationary bike at the REC, I witnessed something completely bewildering. A girl, probably late teens-early twenties, walked onto a treadmill, then turned on the treadmill next to the one she had just claimed, and proceeded to let it run for the better part of the next half hour. Needless to say I was enthralled, while this case study took me far beyond my 15-minute warmup bike, I simply could not look away. Finally, after what felt like an absurdly long time to be taking snapchat selfies, she switched the moving treadmill off, took a video that contained both a shot of her, and the treadmill dashboard displaying her stats, dismounted the treadmill, and promptly left the gym. While her actions still mystify me to this day, the art of the gym selfie has ripped through American culture like a plague. Since snapchats release in 2011 combined with the integration of the front facing camera into modern cell phones, it’s easier than ever to give into the temptation to snap a selfie when you’re looking cut or trim. But why?
Symbolic/interpretive anthropology would view the ‘treadmill selfie’ as a symbol, more specifically, that this girl’s behavior is learned and shared, and that the ‘gym selfie’ is a recognized cultural phenomenon. A Symbolic anthropologist like Geertz would view the ‘gym selfie’ as operating within a larger preexisting symbolic system, and look to define its significance. He would argue that taking a selfie at the gym and sending it to others within your click is part of the framework that holds up our fitness culture across the country. It functions as a level of accountability to those around you. By saying ‘Hey, look what I did.’ In a picture, you are inspiring your friends to act as well as effectively guilt tripping those who are not. So why not just run? Symbolic anthropologists would take her specific actions as a sign that this photo gives her more social credibility, elevates her status amongst her peers, and is therefore more beneficial for her socially than just working out.
An anthropologist like Sherry Ortner would contextualize this women’s behavior using Practice Theory. In Practice Theory she outlines an intimate connection between social structure and human action, and examines how agency allows this girl to act and defy from within the system as an individual.  Clearly, this girl wanted to make her friends believe that she was working out, while she obviously did not want to at the moment. Ortner would argue that her actions are indicative of pre-existing social expectations, and that she is being dominated within a social hegemony.  While her actions are representative of her need to confirm her roll within this fitness culture as well as upholding it, her display of agency in rebelling against the rigid confines of the norms present within college social hierarchy is symbolic of this girl asserting her individual power over the system.
- Class notes