8 min read

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

In praise of Alison Bechdel's marvellous look at fitness crazes and mortality.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Hello grownups!

My problem with so much of the fitness content in the world is that it's way too tangled up in the beauty narrative. It's all like, "Oh girl, get that summer body!" "Dudes, get swole to impress the ladies!" Seriously, the most highly recommended weightlifting book aimed at women on the r/fitness subreddit is a book called Strong Curves: a Women's Guide to Building a Better Butt and Body (yup, it was written by a dude).

And that sucks, because the subtext is that if you're not white or cisgendered or young or naturally skinny and effortlessly toned, then fuck you, loser, why even try? And that just makes fitness really alienating for anyone who isn’t those things. Which is a problem, because there are many important reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with what your ass looks like.

That's why it was such a joy for me to discover Alison Bechdel's new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, a graphic novel-style memoir about her lifelong fascination with exercise. Bechdel was born in the 1960s, so she's seen dozens of fitness crazes through the decades, and enthusiastically embraced every single one: from the Charles Atlas bodybuilder programmes in the 60s all the way to the spin classes and HIIT programmes and mountain biking movements of today.

A page from Alison Bechdel's "The Secret to Superhuman Strength" about learning karate.
Bechdel joining one of the few women's karate clubs in the 80s

It's a tour through the exercise trends of the past half-century, and an analysis of how each one reflected the cultural concerns of its time. She goes back further and considers the earlier generations of social progressives who sought inner transformation through physical fitness: Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, and the Romantic poets, all of the often "drug-addled, nonconformist seekers of intensity and mystical visions" who got super into mountain climbing.

But Bechdel really shines as a memoirist (if you haven't, please read her magnificent dysfunctional family memoir Fun Home). This isn't a self-help or a how-to book, but a memoir of a person who is obsessed with self-help and how-to books. So it's an intensely personal story, not just about skiing and spin classes, but also about Zen Buddhism, queer relationships, psychedelic drugs, the death of Bechdel's mother, her struggles with workaholicism and alcoholism, the stress of professional success, and her obsession with the apparel brand Patagonia.

At its heart, it's a book about the power (and limits) of personal transformation in the face of mortality.

A page from Alison Bechdel's book

This book hit me at exactly the right time, because I've recently been working through my own relationship with chronic back pain.

When I was twenty years old, I parked outside the Michaelis Library at UCT and found that I couldn't get out of the car. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't swing my legs out of the door and straighten them. It was the weirdest thing: I wasn't in pain (not yet); I just absolutely could not stand up. Sitting was fine, though, so I drove myself to hospital, parked in a bay, phoned the ER, and politely asked them to come fetch me from my car, ten meters away.

I was diagnosed with a spine issue called degenerative disc disorder and told to move as little as possible for a few weeks, apart from a daily bout of torture billed as physiotherapy. Weeks turned into months, and the pain became unbearable. After three months of lying prone in my bed watching LOST reruns I could barely follow because of the heavy painkillers I was on (sure, that might not have been due to the painkillers), I was finally referred to a surgeon, who sliced into my spine to clear away the loose bone fragments that were damaging my sciatic nerve. Three more months of recovery, and even more bewildering painkiller-tinged LOST seasons, and I could walk again.

Being diagnosed with a disease called "degenerative" anything sucks. "Degenerative" implies inevitable worsening. My dad was diagnosed with the same thing, and had to have several of his vertebrae fused together in his mid-30s. So it all felt predetermined. Just another error in my DNA.

The doctors told me that I'd need more surgery in a few years. Five if I was lucky. And then my discs would inevitably crumble to dust and I'd need to get them replaced with synthetic ones. They suggested pregnancy would be difficult for me until a couple of years after that disc replacement surgery, so they pushed me to get it done sooner rather than later. But surgery's kak scary, so I wanted the opposite: I wanted to delay it for as long as I could. The field of spine surgery is changing very quickly, I reasoned, so every additional year I waited meant I was likely to have a better outcome. So I doubled-down on strengthening my back muscles to try to buy myself as much time as I could.

And then something surprising happened: I got fit.

Not very fit, mind you, just much fitter than I'd ever been in my life (like, I could run five kilometres). And my pain didn't just lessen; it vanished. I discovered that I love hiking. I briefly got into weightlifting. I did a bunch of yoga. I stopped thinking of myself as a broken person. Five years went by, then ten, and my back was stronger than ever.

But still, I believed I was just buying time.

I kept it together pretty well for the first year of the pandemic, all things considered. I clung to routine like it was a life-raft. But somewhere between lockdown two and three, my exercise habits started slipping. I started spending more and more time hunched over my desk, sometimes going days without moving my body further than the distance between my office and my kitchen.

And sure enough, my back pain came back.

So I saw a spine specialist last week. And I told him the whole long saga. And I said, "I shouldn't be surprised. I knew I'd need surgery eventually. I bought ten years, but I guess the inevitable has now inevitably happened."

And he smiled. And he told me, "the things we thought we knew about back pain ten years ago are not what we believe about back pain today." And then, friends, he proceeded to BLOW MY DAMN MIND with these facts:

  • Specialists no longer diagnose young people with degenerative disc disorder. They've discovered it's an unhelpful framework for understanding back pain in people who aren't elderly.
  • We now know that telling someone with a spine like mine to lie flat on their back for six months is basically the worst thing you can do for them.
  • Vertebrae fusion and disc replacement are disproven therapies and are almost never prescribed any more in cases like mine. They have been shown to relieve symptoms in the short term, but exacerbate the underlying issues in the long term.
  • I have a genetic predisposition to thin vertebral discs, yes. But there is absolutely no reason that I can't work to strengthen my back, and get more movement in my spine, and retrain my pain system to not overreact to pain signals and render me immobile when I'm sore.

So, basically, a bunch of the narratives I've been telling myself about myself for my entire adult life are wrong, and have been limiting my sense of what I can do, for no good reason.

Wild, right? I'm still reeling. But good reeling, not like "I just watched the season 6 finale of LOST and I'm furious" reeling. Reeling like, "oh wow, there's absolutely no reason I can't become as strong as anyone else, and this core thing I've believed about myself for half my life is wrong."


In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck explores the idea that people who believe that talents and abilities are immutable (the "fixed mindset") find it much harder to flourish than people who believe that most abilities can be improved with effort (the "growth" mindset).

In a 1998 study with 5th graders, Dweck (and collaborator Claudia Mueller) split the class in half and gave all of the kids a simple puzzle test. After succeeding, they praised half the group for their intelligence ("well done, you're so smart!") and the other half for their effort ("well done, you worked so hard!"). Then they gave both groups a new set of puzzles that ranged in difficulty. The group that had been praised for their effort quickly chose to progress to the more difficult tasks, because they wanted to learn. The group that had been praised for their ability stuck to the easy puzzles to ensure that they'd keep succeeding.

The problem with kids who get called "smart" or "talented athletes" or "musical prodigies" or whatever and develop a fixed mindset, is that failure becomes terrifying.

Here is the logic of a "fixed mindset" kid who's told they're smart:

  • This adult is proud of me because I am smart.
  • Smart is what you ARE, it is an unchangeable personality trait.
  • Smart people do well at intellectual challenges.
  • Therefore, if I ever FAIL at an intellectual challenge, then it means the adult was wrong and I'm not actually smart, I'm a terrible stupid fraud.
  • If being smart is an unchangeable personality trait, then being not-smart must be an unchangeable personality trait, too.
  • Therefore, failing at anything ever is a life-threatening disaster that must be avoided at all costs.

Whereas a "growth" mindset kid fails at something and shrugs it off and tries harder next time. No big deal.

This whole experience has been a powerful reminder for me about my own tendency to fall into "fixed mindset" when it comes to my relationship with my body ("I'm a weakling with granny-back, doomed to a lifetime of pain - DOOOOOOMED!"). Scientific knowledge evolves. We have to evolve with it.

Our sense of self is constructed by stories. Stories we tell about who we are and what we're capable of. Those stories are damn powerful. And sometimes, they're untrue.

Growth, ha! We all think we want to grow. But in fact we resist it at every step because deep down we believe that if we don't change, we won't die. Well, let me clue you in. We're going to die if we don't change.

Find Alison Bechdel's The Secret to Superhuman Strength at your local indie bookstore or library.

Wishing you inner peace and the ability to touch your toes (I'm working on it),


Updates from Sam-Land

Sam pointing at a sign that says, "Bookdash"
  • I spent just the funnest Saturday collaborating with Anja Venter, Wilna Combrinck and Carla Lever to write a new open-licensed children's book with Book Dash. IN TWELVE HOURS. It was exhausting but so, so fun. I'll share the finished book with you next week.
  • Last month, I was super excited to be hosting a free presentation for JSE Power Hour about how to manage your money like a champ. Hundreds of people tuned in, and then, fifteen minutes into the presentation... my internet died. So we're trying again on Thursday 27 May at 5:30pm SAST, on a computer screen near you. Book a free slot here - it will be grand!
  • I've been adoring The Overstory by Richard Powers, which is a book about trees and ecological grief. I keep stopping to copy perfect sentences out of it, like these: