I sense that you are excited by the title of today’s post. Perhaps you are thinking that it refers to that special encounter you once had on a crowded bus in Rome. Or maybe you are recalling, with a certain thrill, the time you tried on a bathing suit at Filene’s basement in Boston. It was a busy Saturday afternoon in the group changing room, wasn’t it? That’s just sad really. Still, as you know I am not one to judge. While you are welcome to your memories of public indecency, I am going to write about something else: accidental intimacy at the gym.
I suppose I could start with the locker room, where nudity abounds and potentially erotic incidents occur, especially during the busy lunch hour. That is so banal. Yet there is a certain intimacy produced. I know who shaves, who clips, and who has a 1970s porno bush. Watch out, you are going to poke my eye out with that thing! Now that is an accident waiting to happen. And here I must briefly indulge myself by mentioning the corpulent fifty-something woman who does the same cardio routine every morning, and then showers. This is, of course, hardly unusual, nor is the fact that she walks around in the buff, bending fully over from the hips with little concern for those changing in close proximity. What is unusual is the way she sets her naked ass firmly and solidly, with a certain squishy sound, directly on top of the portable black stools supplied by the gym. I like to sit on them–fully clothed mind you!–while I lace up my running shoes. For obvious reasons I never choose any of the stools near the locker regularly used by Madame Buttcheeks. I walk all the way to the front of the locker room and carry one to the back. I realize that this behaviour is probably pointless. The bodily traces of others are everywhere, invisibly marking the communal gym spaces, and lurking underneath the swipes made by those moist towlettes. Oh great, now those of you who hate gyms have yet another reason to avoid them.
When I first wrote this title, I was really thinking, however, of the social intimacy occasioned by gym culture. As a regular, I see the same people there almost every day. Some of them I actually know, some are acquaintances, and others I never address, even though I come into contact with them more often than I interact with my work colleagues. Sometimes I give these unknown people pet names, like eye candy #1, #2, and #3, or FMA (he introduced himself to me the other day and is now officially an acquaintance). There is also a sixty-something woman who is in good shape and who I call ‘yoga lady,’ even though she does weight training and cardio, not yoga. I do not know her real name, but I chat with her almost every day, receiving from her spiritual advice about being mindful, living for today, not worrying about others, and coming to realize that everything happens for a reason. I am acutely aware that she does not approve of the determined and goal oriented way in which I work out and live my life. I flirt with her by pretending that I am willing to heed her counsel and chill out a bit. Those of you who actually know me likely realize that me+chill=complete codswallop. Thanks for lending me that word J!
I am intrigued more by the repeated and awkward social relationships I have with the gym regulars with whom I never converse. (Aside: so I try to have a chatty tone in these blogs and yet I fucking hate ending sentences with prepositions. I also hate split infinitives, a loathing that is far less rational). I am often physically adjacent to these people who love working out as much as I do, lying on the bench doing dumb bell flyes while they grunt out some tricep curls. I pick up the weights that they have just set down, use the machines they have just wiped off; I smile and look down when I must get out of their way as they head toward the ab rack–you know, the kind you hang from while doing Olympic leg raises? I love those. I am reluctant to say hello or chat in case these regulars presume that I am hitting on them, or that I want to be BFFs. It should be clear by now that most of these everyday strangers are men, for I work out like a man in the man area, using the free weights alongside hulking bodybuilder types. When I do group exercise classes, like ‘Absolution’–you can atone for sins by saying ten Hail Marys while holding the side plank–I work out with ladies. But I am not one of them anymore.
When I see these guys wearing different t-shirts and long pants at the grocery store or walking down the street I don’t know what to do. Should I say hi or acknowledge their existence? They recognize me and I recognize them; we look at each other but say nothing–just like at the gym. Unlike talking, looking and even overt staring is not forbidden at the gym; indeed, it is positively encouraged by the plethora of mirrors that line the walls and support beams. This atmosphere bothers some people, especially women, which is part of the reason why Curves considers its motto of ‘no mirrors and no men!’ a selling point. I say no thanks to a world without multiple reflections of boys in tank tops. I also enjoy looking at myself in the mirror while regarding men who look at each other as well as at me. This looking is sometimes sexualized but often it is not. A giant gay bodybuilder gave me some chest training tips the other day, and I seriously doubt that he finds me hot. In either case, there is an open appreciation of physicality at the gym that I embrace. It reminds me of being in the south of France, where men and women appraise each other’s frames in a direct and highly suggestive manner. The hot tamale also likes this open scruntiny, declaring ‘at least you know where you stand!’
But interactive gazing is hardly the only form of community at the gym. Women are often supportive of each other there, offering encouragement and praise. I was reading an article that was rather critical of female bodybuilding, arguing that feminists have overstressed the gender-bending potential of the muscular female form without considering its unhealthy aspects, such as illicit drug use–more about that in a subsequent blog–and rivalries. The author claimed that bodybuilding and figure contests encourage women to compete with each other, undermining any positive interactions they might develop. Well, time will tell and I am willing to keep an open mind. But so far, I think healthy fit ladies, especially those who teach and take spin classes, are the bomb. Even more so when they keep their pants on while seated on gym equipment.