As we sat on a bench outside of a coffee shop in post-industrial Brooklyn recently, a friend showed me an image on his phone. It was a black-and-white Adidas flip-flop, the kind you see everywhere in gyms, high schools, and suburban malls, but its sole had been extended in Photoshop six inches, turning it into a kind of platform shoe. The image was strange but oddly familiar. Walking along the sidewalk in front of us was a parade of skinny hipsters dressed in monochromatic, strangely proportioned workout clothing and clunky shoes branded with glaring athletic logos, just like the image. “This is Health Goth,” he said. “Haven’t you heard of it?”
I admitted that I had not. Health Goth is a lifestyle that combines the traditional Gothic ethos of morbidity with the wearing of tight, black, highly branded athletic gear that fits in at the gym just as well as the club. It’s a countercultural rebellion for an era obsessed with fitness, sterility, and the worship of the body as a temple for a god who outlawed gluten.
Here, in the words of Health Goth ambassador Caitlin Mary Cunningham:
Healthgoth for us IS NOT A TREND! It’s not high fashion, skinny photo shopped models wearing sports gear, runway attire, tumblr pictures of pretty boys and girls wearing black & white branded gear. No. I personally do appreciate and admire and love the imagery/art of all of the above, but NO! This isn’t the core of Healthgoth.
Think about the satanic bible for a second!? It talks about creating your own destiny, being your own God—pretty much taking control of your life. That’s healthgoth. At the end of the day you get one body & one shot at living. Taking care of oneself is key. Staying healthy, keeping in shape while being true to yourself is HEALTHGOTH.
Punk is dead. Steampunk is for nerds. With all that makeup, regular Goth is bad for the skin. What recourse is left to prove your difference besides getting in shape?
Photo of Caitlin Mary Cunningham via deadworldwide.tumblr.com
Health Goth flowed out of social media around six months ago with the sudden popularity of the eponymous hashtag on Twitter and Tumblr as well as a ballooning Pinterest board. The trend has effloresced into the real world in the form of underground clothing brands like Whatever 21 (riffing off the suburban retailer Forever 21), which sports giant logos, baggy gym shorts, and generic Velcro straps. It even has a semi-ironic champion in Deathface, an electronic dance musician who released the “10 Commandments of #Healthgoth,” which include “Learn to deadlift properly,” and “Don’t check yourself out in the mirror at the gym.”
Wait a second. Goth, at least the kind I knew in high school, is antithetical to the idea of exercise.
Goths are supposed to hide in the dark watching Invader Zim, not sweat their angst out under a barbell. The collision of the two diametrically opposed words is a paradox. If the trend sounds completely ridiculous, then let your suspicions be confirmed. It is a joke—to an extent.
Screenshot via Healthgoth.com
Deathface, also known as Johnny Love, a Chicago producer, has admitted as much. Health Goth was just “photos of people wearing black sportswear, which is what I was doing with the addition of actually working out,” he told the website Remezcla (Love had decided to get fit after gaining weight on tour). “What started as just a Tumblr meme I’m trying to turn into an actual fitness movement.” Indeed, Love’s final commandment runs, “Health Goth is a completely made-up subculture.”
But aren’t all subcultures made up? Punks, nerds, preppies, hipsters—they’re all arbitrary identities outfitted in arbitrary fashions. Health Goth might be a strange intersection of styles, but it does have a kind of perverse logic that’s suited to our moment. Its emphasis on branding comes via Normcore, a movement invented by the artist collective K-HOLE that has gone bizarrely mainstream, to the point that Gap’s new slogan is “Dress Normal.” Normcore fetishizes mundane clothing from the ’90s perhaps as a “reaction to surveillance,” as Navneet Alang writes in Hazlitt. Logos become a way to blend in to our branded landscape, to look as normal as possible in fear of the consequences of sticking out.
The Health Goth Etsy page.
Health Goth takes it one step further. It expands on streetwear style and the post-apocalyptic urban gear of Hood By Air, the underground clothing brand that is now a favorite of celebrities like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake. The trend is a show of strength and a tool for survival in the dystopian cities of the future, or as the case may be, of today. “It's an articulation of being paranoid and prepared,” Mel Nguyen, a designer and Internet artist who shares some of the influences of Health Goth, told me. “You don't just put an outfit on; you're in crouching position to start sprinting.”
Fashion trends are ephemeral and inaccessible by design; Health Goth isn’t heading into Gap any time soon. But as silly as it looks, there’s something in the air that’s causing people to dress as if they’re going to have a Crossfit contest against a nightmare clown. For this source of anxiety we might look to the exaggerated threat of Ebola or the senseless shootings of innocents like Michael Brown and others in plain daylight on open streets. Safety is suddenly a major concern.
Yet sitting outside the coffee shop that day watching the Health Goths go by, I suddenly felt that I had fallen into some strange intersection of trendspace and reality, the parallel universe that hosts New York Times Style section articles, the nexus at which Internet culture seeps into the world. Nothing was real anymore, or everything was. I experienced a looming vertigo.
As if Deathface himself were speaking inside of my head my brain instructed me: Go to a Sports Authority. Get a mesh jersey and a transparent backpack. Wrap yourself in logos; they are your only chance. Buy a pair of Adidas shoes. Run for your life. What I would be running from or where to, I didn’t quite know.
Photos via deadworldwide.tumblr.com