You will be shocked to hear that I have been reading academic studies about gym culture. One article, written by a Brit–a weedy type no doubt–discussed his experiences after joining a gym in his neighbourhood. He noted that there was a certain community spirit in the cardio area because no one could tell how hard another person was working. They were all equals engaged in the same endeavour. Holy bullshit! That guy was obviously a newbie, with little long term gym experience. Those with an extensive involvement in fitness can easily separate the wheat from the chaff. Your spinning instructor knows that you did not turn up your tension to 90 on command. The red-and-black-shirted trainers are aware that you are stepping instead of striding and are doing so on level one. And gym rats like me try hard not to roll their eyes when you carry magazines or books toward the recumbent bike. Reading and reclining are poolside activities and you, my friend, are at the gym!
Let’s face it, the gym is a hierarchical place, with various actors and social divisions. First, there are the trainers and staff, often bodybuilders, boxers, or other athletes who train seriously in their own time. At good establishments these people will be well educated, though at places like Curves they are deliberately amateurish in order to make newcomers feel welcome. I would prefer a little expertise, but maybe that’s just me. Then there are the gym members. Some are regulars training for specific ends, like the professional dancer man who is always practicing upstairs (so hot!), or the tai-kwan do guy who does his own thing when getting ready for a competition (so young!). Other regulars–I should interject that by regular I mean 5-7 times per week for 1-3 hours minimum–train hard for their own purposes, to look good or just to be strong. They tend to be on speaking terms with the staff, trainers, and other regulars. Some relative regulars–they attend a measly 3 times per week–take scheduled classes together, and are chatty and friendly with each other, potentially making occasional visitors feel like outsiders. And then I suppose, there are the newbies, like that young woman who was trying to lunge with a barbell on her back the other day; she was doing so in such an awkward and potentially injury-inducing way that one of the ‘I-work-out-everyday’ bodybuilder men intervened to instruct her. I thought that was very sweet of him, but the newbie looked a little embarrassed. Newbies are not all the same though. There are those who work hard and try to learn; and there are those who bitch and whine, apparently understanding their trainers as evil torturers rather than professionals doing the job they were paid to do.
Lately, I have been paying attention to how people move in and out of these categories, and how they become authoritative at the gym–enough, for instance, to assist or correct others. Authority has more to do with commitment than appearance. Showing up and working hard go a long way toward earning respect. Of course, being fit (FMA, the Fittest Man Alive certainly caught my eye when he squatted, holding heavy weights, while standing on top of the balance ball) and having visible musculature also helps. Several months ago, a bodybuilder who has competed at the national level deemed to give me some bicep training tips, saying ‘You look serious so…’ I think he addressed me partly because of the sheer amount of time I have spent at the gym, paying my dues so to speak, but also because it was clear that I was trying to work out properly and was open to taking advice. At the same time, conventional gender roles made it easy for him to instruct me; girls do not have to pretend to know everything. Not to toot my own horn, but I overheard two men comment while I was doing sets of lunges with a 50-pound barbell on my shoulders, saying ‘She is strong. Look at that intensity.’ Maybe they were simply describing my body odour, but I like to think that they appreciated the seriousness with which I take working out, and the effort I put into it.
Then there are those jackasses who work out badly on a regular basis. Some are potentially mentally ill, like the young Italian man who wears a cape and a mask while swinging like Tarzan on the chin-up machine. Scary. And I don’t even want to mention the stalky white fellow who showed up one day wearing tight speedo-type light blue underpants and nothing else, flashing his not-so-impressive basket at me while I was doing seated cable rows. Ugh. And what would a morning session be without the short lived presence of that middle-aged smugly grinning fool who moves randomly from machine to machine, doing a few sets on each with rapid, jerky motions. If it is true that how people work out reflects what they are like in bed, then he is not doing himself any favours. Or maybe he is, and will continue to do so in a solitary fashion for the rest of his life. Jackass.
Another way to gain authority is to be aware of gym etiquette, particularly in terms of spatial politics. Some rules are overt and some are unspoken, but there are proper ways to work in and move around the gym. Do not stand in front of me while I am doing hammer curls, old flabby-butt-cheeked man! Do not hog multiple machines while you do a circuit. I could go on but most of these rules are obvious. There are nevertheless more subtle indications of confidence and comfort at the gym, with regulars and those in the know negotiating the different work out areas and the machines with ease. I now take this confidence with me to other gyms, at hotels or in other cities, claiming space in a potentially domineering manner because for the most part I know what I am doing. My comfort with fitness might also be turning me into a judgmental asshole–see ‘jackass’ above–one of the dark sides of my new project that I will address in my next post. I know you can’t wait for that one!