Going To The Gym

Melissa Garrison Elliott

Copyright 2002 by Melissa Garrison Elliott

Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash.
Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash.

Today I am going to the gym. How many times have you begun the day with that hopeful sentence? Probably the same number of times I have-and you have also probably become embroiled in the self-same quagmire of gym logistics, gym etiquette, and, ultimately, gym loathing (somewhat akin to self-loathing). It's like an endurance test-it begins with anxiety, proceeds with pain, and ends with exhaustion. First, the anxiety:

My thinking is, if I go in the morning, I'll start the day out right, and can then rest easy knowing that exercise for the day is out of the way. There's just one problem: I am not a morning person. Getting up early enough to go to work is about the limit. Getting up earlier to go to the gym is out of the question. Besides, when I'm done with my workout, the only thing I am able to contemplate, both mentally and physically, is the oblivion of sleep. Which sort of defeats the purpose of getting up early and going to the gym.

If I DO manage to wake up early enough on a work-day to go to the gym, then things immediately get complicated. I have to cart along soap, shampoo, a towel, makeup, a hair dryer, extra clothes, underwear, shoes and socks. If I forget any one thing-like a shoe-I'm sunk. Furthermore, I don't really like to get ready for work at the gym. Inevitably, someone grabs the last available shower just as I arrive in the shower room. There I stand, holding my various bottles of goo, wrapped in a wholly inadequate towel with all that avoirdupois I thus far failed to lose hanging out, and wait for someone to finish. Post-shower is no better: As I lean into the mirror while applying my mascara, my mouth hangs open to stretch the skin away from my eyes, my tongue sticks out of one corner of my mouth, and I look like my parents were first cousins.

As an alternative, I decide to go on my lunch hour. I do this exactly three times. I discover that it has all the disadvantages of the morning visit, plus I'm on the clock. Oh, and one more little thing-I'm HUNGRY! Lunchtime visits to the gym would certainly be a double-barreled benefit to my waistline (no pun intended), but the multiple humiliations of the gym just can't compete with pasta primavera. Guilt, however, does NOT make for a tasty dessert.

So I decide that I'll go to the gym in the evening. Work off that pasta. That will solve the morning problem, won't it? Not entirely. If I'm going to go to the gym in the evening, I have to bring my workout clothes with me to work. I simply must go there straight from work, because once I get home, the thought of getting back into the car and driving the three miles to the gym can't compete with all the other things that claim my attention the minute I walk through the door. Like dinner.

One of the advantages of going in the evening is that I can work out and then go straight home instead of having to go through the shower-and-change ritual. Plus, the problem I have in the morning of being too relaxed when I'm done is not a problem in the evening, because I can go home and lie on the sofa. Another benefit of working out before dinner is that I then feel more like eating salad than cookies. You'd think that after having worked out, I'd feel justified in eating the cookies, and that when I haven't worked out, guilt and salad would go together, but it works just the opposite. If I come home without working out, I lie on the sofa and eat cookies. If I come home after having worked out, I eat a salad. (Then I have the cookies.)

All this angst takes place just in the process of making the decision to GO. After I arrive, anxiety gives way to humiliation as my self-consciousness ratchets up to maximum intensity.

I have a membership card, which has little black lines on it like the skew tags at the grocery store that the checker scans, and I have to put the card through the scanning machine and then show the lobby attendant my driver's license. The lobby attendant, who is a big, buff young man with overdeveloped pecs and delts and abs and all those other muscles, reduces me with one look to the wimpy, chubby, verging-on-middle-age woman that I am. In the face of this I can never remember how the card goes into the scanner-lines toward me or lines toward Buff-head, and upside down or right side up? I always get it wrong and have to do it a couple of times, and the superior man behind the counter is probably thinking that I must not come here very often. Good guess. I gather up the shreds of my dignity and run for the locker room, the next setting for my further humiliation.

Perils of the locker-room: That feeling that you don't really want to take off your clothes in front of the other girls. (Yes, I have at this point reverted to age 13.) Sudden panic that you're wearing the underwear with the holes. The vain hope that no one will notice the difference in the state of your bra-less profile. The surreptitious glances to see whether those cute, perky women in spandex really look quite as good without the spandex. The depression when they do. The glee when they don't. The impossibility of putting your jeans back on without lying down to zip them.

But I'm a brave and motivated woman: In spite of the reversion to adolescence, I manage to change clothes and stow my stuff, and now it's time to leave the comparative safety of the locker room and move on to the active part of the game: The Workout.

At my gym, the women have a separate weight room, but there's also a common room with treadmills, stairsteps, mountain climbers, aerobics classes...and MEN. The pros and cons: If you choose women-only, you only have to suffer in front of your own sex. On the other hand, you never meet any men. But do people really meet other people at the gym whom they're willing to date? A good percentage must expect to, because lots of the women at my gym come in full war paint, perfect hair and trendy outfits. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who scorn fashion and wear the oldest, raggediest, smelliest, most faded and stretched-out clothing they can find, with sweat bands and wrist bands and a weight belt, and they stand in front of the mirrors and watch their muscles flex while they use the free weights. These women, too, could be participating in the mating ritual, but I think they're probably just working out.

Due to several culturally ingrained taboos that say I shouldn't appear poorly groomed in front of men, that ladies never sweat, that I should never appear publicly to be stronger or smarter or faster or more stoic than a man and, conversely, that I should never show weakness or let down my guard, I personally find the presence of men inhibiting to my workout. My feminist soul cringes, but I was raised by a southern belle-what can I say? Anyway, I've never met a potential soul-mate, or even a potential date, at the gym, for obvious reasons.

The next and most daunting obstacle to a positive attitude: The mirrors. The mirrors are the bane of my gym existence. I suppose that the gym should be the one place where you drop all of your illusions and look at the "I am" instead of the "I wish." But without all those mirrors, I'd spend more time at the gym.

I don't need them to check out my makeup or my hair or my clothes, because I'm not wearing makeup, and my hair looks like a bird's nest in a rubber band, and the clothes are a stab at a compromise between Miss Lycra Spandex Thong and Ms. Ripped Tee Weight Belt. They seemed okay at home....

I don't need the mirrors to watch myself lift weights, because I don't lift many, and when I do, there's nothing much to see, because you have to lift a lot of weights to be able to see anything when you lift weights, and I don't.

I don't need the mirrors to make eye contact with the opposite sex, because I'm trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, at all costs. The personal magic I employ guarantees that if I don't look at them, THEY CAN'T SEE ME!

So I sit down on the bike or get onto the stairstepper, I warm up, and I start to move. I'm working hard, I'm sweating, I'm feeling healthy and fit and muscular and firm. I look in the mirror. The mirror in front of me reflects the mirror behind me, and there it is. My ass. Endlessly reflected in a fun-house of mirrors. I can see it from every angle. It sticks out so far, I instinctively reach for the shelf paper. I watch it jiggle and bounce, waggle and jounce as I stairstep my way into total depression.

Unfortunately, the only way to make it smaller is to work out, but when I do so at the gym and see its magnitude reflected in all those mirrors, guess what? That's the last place I want to go. All in all, I could do without the mirrors. All in all, I could do without the gym. But there's that ass.

The other day, as I was stairstepping away, I was pondering all the thought and planning and angst that goes into doing something with my body that used to happen naturally to people in the course of a day...chopping wood, carrying water, walking to school, running to catch a bus, riding a bike, rowing a boat across a lake, sitting in a sauna with friends. Now it all happens in one little room lined with mirrors and filled with people I do not know, to whom I do not speak, all busily lifting big metal things and tugging on ropes and rowing across the floor and bicycling-where? Where are we all going? What IS this strange ritual? Why am I sitting in a sauna in the glorious altogether with a bunch of naked women I do not know?

Why not bicycle to the store-in rush hour traffic and hazy air? How about a nice walk around the park-in the mud, in the rain, in the dark, accompanied by shrubbery-clad rapists? These are the images fostered by whoever had the bright idea to line a little room with mirrors and fill it with instruments of torture to simulate simple everyday motions of lives that we no longer lead. (Why didn't I think of this?!)

Instead of spending all this time thinking about going to the gym, deciding when to go to the gym, shirking going to the gym, and feeling guilty about not going to the gym, how about putting our time to more constructive use-like remembering the joys of walking in the rain or bicycling to the store? How about banding together and refusing to be intimidated? Why don't we reclaim our parks and our streets and refuse to give in to being locked in a smelly little room with big mirrors and nothing to contemplate but The Ass?

Personally, I like trees and birds and sun and rain much better, and now I'm going to go for a walk. I'm going to go for a walk in my neighborhood, greet my neighbors, speak to the dogs and cats and squirrels and crows I meet along the way, and display my ass to Nature-who will not comment or judge or even glance at it, who will not require me to show a membership card for the privilege of viewing it, and who will not reflect it back to me.

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