The Post-Holiday Guilt Complex

Blood on the dance floor, MJ says!!!”

Our instructor shouts this to the music as we sweat through a round of pulsing pliés.

This is a snapshot of my friendly neighborhood Jazzercise class. My friend and I were recently recruited to join, and since it’s just down the street from us, we decided to give it a go.

I know what you may be thinking. Jazzercise is still a thing? It’s not just a relic of the 80s? It’s not just something never to be taken seriously and only to be reprised in GIFs like this?


Ohhhh no. Jazzercise is more, I tell you. It’s more than leg warmers and spandex and poofy-haired women propping up their smiley heads as they lie on their sides and lift their feathery legs up and down. It’s a lot more intense (at least for me). It’s shirt-sopping sweat and burrowed eyebrows and limbs bending in and out of Tinker-Toy-ish angles at a pace faster than I can type.

But it’s also tons of fun. And fun is a non-negotiable for me now when it comes to exercise.

I have a not-so-fun history with exercise. At the peak of my disordered eating and exercise, I was so ensconced in my solitary running rituals and controlling how many calories I’d burn that I had no time for silly communal dance workouts. Then, once I went through therapy—surrendering my need for control and becoming a lot healthier and happier because of it— the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. I became so cautious of fitness-y things and a “burn calories” mentality that I steered clear of all gyms and exercise classes.

But now here I am, Jazzercise-ing away in my first ever exercise class, chassé-ing and relevé-ing my little heart out to Katy Perry and JLo and Sam Hunt and, if we’re lucky, Michael Jackson’s “Blood on the Dance Floor.”

Joining this class—especially for the sake of fun—has been a productive move for me toward a healthy middle ground between the aforementioned extremes. But now that I find myself immersed in fitness culture twice a week, I’m realizing there is some unhealthy rhetoric I need to be aware of— including the self-flagellating diet-culture talk that comes after a holiday.

Rewind to my Jazzercise class yesterday, the day after the fourth of July.

“I ate SO much yesterday,” our instructor announces as a kind of motivational dangling carrot. “Who could use burning some extra calories with me today?!!”

Some collective groans can be heard in response. They aren’t necessarily groans in response to the upping-the-ante intensity. Everyone wants that. They are groans of agreement— groans of, “this class won’t be nearly enough to undo yesterday’s damage.”

One woman says in exasperation, “I’m going to need more than just burning “some” extra calories. I’m going to need six or seven hours of this!”

Others laugh in agreement. I force a laugh, too. I try not to be one big walking eye-roll. And I can relate to these women. I appreciate their vulnerability with one another, their desire to connect, and their need to make light of that constant pressure both women and men are under to spend each day optimizing calorie burning.

On the other hand,  I’m saddened by the fact that many women seem so constantly plagued by that struggle, and I want to say something other than just laugh. The comments seem to expose a perspective and lifestyle that looks like bondage— one that I used to live in. And it’s a miserable way to live— to reduce food and holidays and celebrations to simply how much “day-after guilt” they will inflict. It’s like living in a constant state of debt, always perceiving experiences in terms of how much calorie-burning compensation they will necessitate or how much physical exertion you owe for falling short of perfection.

Most of us on a given holiday will encounter day-long feasting. That’s how my family does things, at least. Start off with the grilled chicken and cheesy potatoes and veggies. Then pass around the bowl of chips and nibble as you talk. Give yourself a breather and then descend upon Grandma’s Italian cookies. When another aunt and uncle arrive, go for the homemade peanut butter cookies that also just came through the door (they’re still warm). And don’t forget the six boxes of Nutty Buddies that you stuffed in the freezer and will bust out later, shortly before your mom passes around her irresistible homemade pepperoni rolls.

Holidays don’t always look like your typical day of eating. And for anyone who holds a tight grip of control on what they consume each day, this is an anxiety-ridden prospect. But it is OK and good to indulge on a special occasion when we are (hopefully) gathered around both feast and family. Celebration should involve good food in large quantities. And it is OK to have days where you take in more calories than you “need.” The body is not meant to be some machine that robotically operates on the absolute minimum caloric requirement each day. That’s not enjoyment or freedom; it’s a chronic need for control that ends up controlling, and it snuffs out every kind of joy.

I hope that the food-and-exercise conversations among both men and women keep changing for the better. I hope that the post-holiday guilt complex, rather than taking us down, can be an opportunity to surface and interrogate some majorly dysfunctional thinking about our bodies and, ultimately, our sense of personal value. Maybe then a spin class, barre class, Zumba class, or— now that you know it still exists— Jazzercise class won’t need to be reduced to a function of “overeating” damage control. Perhaps the moment we release chronic control and surveillance of our bodies is the moment we can open ourselves up to even more creativity, energy, balance, and fun— essentially, a life moving toward true wholeness and wellness.


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