Perhaps it’s the widening of that field that freed Bechdel up to write The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Some might read the memoir’s description and expect an account from a woman beholden to Pilates or Flywheel or any other trendy boutique fitness class where an hour in a sweaty room costs roughly the same as a nice meal out. But for Bechdel, exercise isn’t really about aesthetics; it’s about strength, a virtue she’s been in thrall to ever since she first saw bodybuilder Charles Atlas on TV as a child. At 60, Bechdel appears wholly uninterested in perpetuating the workout-as-self-care trope; she makes it clear that her relationship with exercise is something much deeper and more fraught.
“I love to see people exercise just because they want to. I don’t think it should be connected to anything else, or it will just become miserable,” says Bechdel. She admits, though, that it’s hard to center a whole book around exercise without occasionally falling into the trap of presenting it as a moral imperative. “I do feel a little sheepish about being so pro-exercise without having a thorough critique of sizeism, but I made a decision not to discuss body image in the book because I think it’s unusual for women not to talk about it.”
Bechdel’s complex, often painful life story is a matter of public record—in Fun Home, she wrote about losing her long-closeted father to suicide shortly after coming out as a lesbian, and in Are You My Mother?, she chronicled her thorny relationship with her often-distant mother. In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, though, exercise is presented as a possible corrective to all that pain, a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement and internal balance that helped Bechdel through some of her toughest years. “Exercise is the one part of my life that isn’t riddled with conflict,” she says, adding, “I don’t want to come off as an exercise evangelist because I think that can be off-putting, but I like to think of it as a bit of relief from my cerebral life.”
Bechdel’s graphic novels are often placed into contextual conversation with the work of other writers, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength is no exception. She ping-pongs between her own ideas and those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich, creating a canon around the art of moving one’s body that joyfully complicates the notion of exercise as an anti-cerebral activity (even if that is partly why Bechdel is drawn to it). Bechdel and her partner—the artist Holly Rae Taylor, who colored the book’s images—live in Vermont, where they favor long hikes and bike rides. Like many others, however, Bechdel had trouble adjusting her exercise routine to fit the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “I was very sad to fall off the weight-lifting wagon when the gyms closed.”