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The Optimised and The Non-Optimised

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

The December-January-(February, in some years, for those who celebrate Chinese New Year) line-up of months is most likely a period in which one receives the strongest messages of both indulgence and restriction. Christmas and New Year festivities occupy much space on the shelves and in our bodies, in the form of feasts and gifts. At the same time, we are well-versed with the ‘consequences’ of ‘letting ourselves go’: weight gain from overeating, loss of fitness from relaxing or taking more breaks – if not from the rush of news articles featuring interviews with health consultants and infographics of advice and ‘sinful’ calories, then advertisements of wellness packages with fitness ‘experts’, (or perhaps just annual commentary from Aunty Susan). At the end of the day, whatever ‘havoc’ wreaked is expected to find resolution in a new year’s resolution. People return to gym memberships and personal trainers, process their shopping carts of workout equipment, and make mental bookmarks of fitness influencers’ virtual classes and new diets, ‘cleanses’, ‘detoxes’.

The bottom line is not merely a quantifiable ‘get-back-on-track’ reversal of what we feel is an inadequate current state; rather, particularly in the embodiments of female experiences as Jia Tolentino (2019) writes in her book Trick Mirror, mainstream measures of worth are based on how we expect the self to always be attempting to optimise, sincerely believing that we can one day attain the “idealised mirage of [our] own self-image” (p. 65), with sufficient drive and necessary – but reasonable and normal – sacrifices.

The Optimised

The normal, always-optimising self looks like this: we enjoy whole foods in the morning, slip into clothes that fit us, follow a simple morning skincare routine for a natural look. We listen to a podcast on the go, or catch up with the headlines on Telegram news channels. For lunch, we have endless permutations of grain bowls in the district, even ‘Asian-inspired’ flavours – dressings on the side – that change seasonally; eating hawker food can be nourishing too, if we were to look out for traces of the Health Promotion Board at the stall front.

After work, we change into activewear and head to a Pure Fitness or Anytime Fitness near the office, for the Zumba, yoga, spin, cardio, strength training session, because we know investing in exercise is investing in health, which is, of course, wealth. Every now and then we go for brunches or suppers with the peers and gym buddies we have found a sense of community with, because we would have ‘earned’ and ‘deserved’ it from eating ‘clean’ throughout the week, and it is okay to have a ‘cheat meal’ or treat oneself – especially if the occasional happy hour chimes with Burpple deals.

At home, we self-care again with skincare, scroll through Instagram stories that blur with sponsored posts, work on Duolingo or learn the correct ways of meditation. We meal-prep our overnight oats breakfast and protein bar snacks that ‘fuel our bodies’, wash our Tupperware containers, and sleep to fill in a new day again.

The Deviant

The deviant body is difficult to defend. They do not compensate for holiday ‘binges’ or pandemic weight gain, have not tried to circumvent the closure of fitness facilities, and simply do not seem to show any determination to improve their lifestyles.

Tolentino’s notion of optimisation relates to how seamlessly the unworked body has become synonymous with the lack of trying – and thus, the lack of self-responsibility, self-discipline, and productivity, by mainstream standards of neoliberalism.

There is a tempting narrative that we can all rationally design our lives; resources and pathways are always open if we were entrepreneuring enough to find and choose them. We combine ‘just do your best’ with ‘just do it’, so staying still (unless you are meditating, of course) is a deviating state, profoundly antithetical to what we expect each other to be.

However, it is worthwhile to consider suspending the inward imperative to work on ourselves, whether it be explicitly following a diet or exercise regime, ‘self-help’ manuals, or even the familiar persons who say they know the ‘best’ for us. Often, these imperatives promote fixed ways of being and doing, while minimising the role of structural barriers against differentiated abilities, classes, ethnicities etc. They assume that our life goals are already on the market and marketable for us, on behalf of us, just waiting to be fulfilled like a ‘true’, better self, waiting to be discovered beneath our current one.

Perhaps, what is actually well and healthy for us is neither being strong nor skinny, neither ‘wanting’ pain nor gain. There is ample space for us to look at ourselves, neutrally, in all our messiness, and not ‘need’ to change.

Food for thought:

  • How do you process mantras and often-repeated quotes such as “don’t wait for opportunity; create it”, “nothing is impossible”, in relation to others’ expectations and your own expectations about individual efficacy?

  • Who do you think benefits from a culture of optimisation and ‘hustling’?

Written by Chong Kai Qing, Year 2, Double Major in Sociology & Social Work



Tolentino, J. (2019). Trick mirror: Reflections on self-delusion. Random House.

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