Search the hashtag “no excuses” on Instagram and you’ll get over 14 million results. Tap through and you’ll find selfies of beautiful women with rock-hard abs, muscular men lifting double their bodyweight as a warmup, before and after photographs of women and men who’ve lost fat and gained muscle and inspirational quotes – one of my favourites reads: “You can’t do big things if you’re distracted by small things.”
The concept of “no excuses” has been playing on my mind recently, for myriad reasons. For one thing, I’ve been wondering – Carrie Bradshaw-style – how we define an “excuse”, versus a “reason”. What is the difference? Dave Anderson, on his site, Anderson Leadership Solutions, suggests that “an excuse is a way to deflect blame”, whereas a reason is more concrete. Although, he posits, “reasons become excuses where they are used to deflect responsibility”.
Use of the “no excuses” mentality to suggest that anyone can be anything if they just stop making excuses ignores a lot of nuance in everyday life. I would go so far as to say that it’s a mentality that is, at best, ableist and, at worst, narrow-minded and shame-inducing. As a concept, it also ignores the struggle between structure and agency – explained really well in Emer O’Toole’s book, Girls Will Be Girls* (which I would highly recommend, not just for that useful explanation, but because it’s brilliant).
Simply put, according to Stuart McAnulla in Theory and Methods in Political Science* (Marsh, Stoker 2002), “agency refers to individual or group abilities to affect their environment”, while structure “usually refers to context”. Bear with me, for here comes a concrete example: when we discuss crime rates, for example in areas with a low socioeconomic status, there are often two sides of an argument. One side will say that it’s the background, that is, the “structure” that causes these issues, while another side will say that each individual has a choice and can choose to “work their way out” of that situation, either at school or in the workplace.
The truth, in fact, is usually somewhere in the middle – it is not impossible to excel in a “terrible” situation, but it is rare – and, especially in the case of children, it is difficult to see a way “out”, so to speak, without being given concrete examples and individuals whose situations you can both identify with and aspire to.
And so, back to “no excuses” – a concept that entirely ignores people’s circumstances (i.e. structure) and assumes that we all have the exact same abilities to overcome our situations and step up to the plate (for want of a lesser cliché). Does that strike you as being a bit, well, ridiculous?
I think a lot about this because, as you’ll all know, I suffer from depression. I was diagnosed almost a decade ago now (wow, that is a bit nuts to think about) and I now have a variety of methods I use to cope with my mental health. I say “cope with” because that’s what it is; I don’t think it’s a disease that’s going to be cured, so I just do things, day by day, to get by – the best way that I can.
Sometimes that looks like therapy and training and eating well and, other times, it doesn’t. It looks like sitting on the couch in dirty leggings and watching six hours of the same TV show and eating chocolate. I’m not going to lie and say that I believe that to be balance; I believe it to be coping. I did a YouTube video, a while back, probably when I was doing quite well, emotionally and mentally, about how I do that, which you can watch below.
As someone who struggles with their mental health in a way that affects my motivation, my “get up and go”, my ability to deal with people and the outside world and buses and trams and all sorts of things that I suspect some people (but not as many as we’re led to believe) take for granted, I find the “no excuses” mentality really alienating. And it fills me with guilt. Why am I letting myself off the hook? Why am I using my mental health as an excuse? Why can’t I just tough it out, like this man I saw on Instagram who lost his leg (no joke) in Afghanistan and is now a powerlifter? What’s my excuse?
And imagine, for a second, how people feel who aren’t white, fairly affluent, middle-class, cisgender… in other words, people who don’t have my privilege? “No excuses” ignores people with disabilities. It ignores people who genuinely don’t have the time (and fuck the whole “if it’s a priority, you’ll find the time” idea). It ignores people who suffer from illness or disease, who are struggling just to get through the day. None of those things is an excuse. They are reasons.
Life is not a zero-sum game and we are none of us born equal. Neither are we born the same. And I will admit that it rankles to see people – let’s face it, a lot of them fitness professionals – acting not only like life is easy, but that it is the same level of easy for each and every one of us. It’s not. Not all of us can get out of bed at 5am on a Saturday to train – for reasons we don’t have to explain to anyone. Not all of us can prioritise our physical health at all times because perhaps we struggle with our mental and emotional health. Not all of us have the same privileges, the same freedoms, the same motivations, and that’s just fine.
Now, I guess, the question is: has this entire blog post been a way for me to make excuses for myself? Or am I genuinely talking sense? Let me know.