“Man up!” I tell myself every other day as I enter the dimly lit basement of a nearby supermarket. The plastic doors and cheap gray tile stairs scream “ex-Soviet country” back at the American pop blasting through my headphones. I descend further, mentally preparing myself for the routine. A mix of anxiety, determination, and lack of air circulation push out a faint greeting out of my lips as I reach the front desk. It never feels like I sound confident enough. I take a quick look around to see how many people are already working out in this would-be industrial space — the fewer, the better.
I trade in my membership card for a locker key, and the changing rooms are a few steps away. There is an image of a bodybuilder on the entrance: “MEN.” It is a very tight space, or maybe I just feel cornered. I surreptitiously change into my workout clothes — a plain T-shirt and black sweatpants — hoping nobody will make a mental list of all the things wrong with my body. Of course, nobody but myself. I am usually quite confident about the way I look, but the fluorescent lighting highlights all of my flaws. I prefer not to think about it. Time is ticking; the treadmill does not wait.
The speedometer is a bright red benchmark: 4.5 mi/h — a brisk walking pace. I loathe running, and I publicly confess that I avoid it at all costs. I just feel awkward trying to move my body in a coordinated way at high speed. The acceleration button does seem appealing, but I hit a psychological speedbump set by PE classes where body shaming was the main topic. I weigh less now, but I still do not want to be gazed at like a hamster on a spinning wheel — a lanky hamster with a bit of loose skin.
The mirror in front of me provides a view of the rest of the gym. The imposing walls and lack of windows create a prison atmosphere. It is populated by high-school archetypes: the fit girls with fake tans and the jocks in tight shirts, the ordinary overweight men and women, and everybody else who blends in but stands out by not matching any trivial category. It is not surprising that gymnasia have their roots in Ancient Greece and Rome. It is the peak of democracy: people of all shapes and sizes collectively engaging in the same activity, drenched in sweat, all in the name of health and validation both from themselves and from others.
The term itself comes from the Greek word for naked. Too many centuries later, that is still one of the main reasons people put in so much effort: to look better naked. This idea is blasted at us like the lewd bass of workout music. I overhear two assiduous guys:
“I saw his profile on Grindr. He looks great!”
“Yeah, totally. By the way, do you take creatine before or after your workout?”
I recall one of my first romantic experiences; I’d gone to the gym that morning, but still couldn’t take my shirt off. What body fat percentage does one have to reach to starve the fear of being vulnerable?
The symphony of metallic noises and grunts does not sound off-key within these walls. The grays and white lights radiate harshness. It seeps into my head like the testosterone in my veins. The bench press machine is next to the row of treadmills. I always enjoy the first pump; I am full of energy, and the tension is empowering. Here I am nobody but a guy breaking his muscles to make them grow. It is a fundamental process fueled by the desire for self-improvement and a challenging environment, illustrated by edited posters of unnaturally fit bodies that stand in perfect disjunction to the mirrors.
There are at least twenty different machines in this room, all gray with black seats and handles. The soft leather is peeling off from some of them. I am free to choose any one of them, the only guides I have are my reflection, the blinding lights above, the cold tiles below, and the occasional awkward contact with someone’s eyes or body parts. Yet in this concrete box, my mind is unrestrained. The satisfaction of instantly feeling the effort you put in is addictive in a “Better! Stronger! Faster!” world. Accelerated, strong heartbeats bring out the same biological mechanisms our ancestors used daily — not just on Wednesdays and Fridays after work.
I move a couple of feet past a doorway into a large space with benches and dumbbells. I try to keep my head up despite the suffocating pressure of people glancing at me as I walk past them. This gym is not an open space; it is a cage built from the scrapped plans of an ordinary basement. It is so intimate it could’ve become storage space for people to put all their family junk and let it collect dust for years. Instead, it holds a group of tightly packed strangers, all hoping that the next person walking in isn’t going to start breathing three feet away from them. The plasterboard ceiling tiles are appalling. Pipes run out of some of them; others encircle flickering fluorescent squares. I briefly glance at a laptop in one of the corners — it’s playing a typical workout playlist that I, fortunately, cannot hear through Mylène Farmer’s voice in my headphones. Everybody has access to the sound controls; there is a sign explicitly stating this: “We are trying to improve our [fitness] club. Please work with us.” These words have as much purpose here as they do in a jungle, not only because most people are not interested in the English-language message they display, but because there is no sense of community. Nobody is confident enough to change the playlist — the rhythm running this place — and nobody cares either.
I lay my towel on one of the benches, marking my spot, and I retrieve a pair of dumbbells from the wall-length racks. It is incredibly difficult to find the right weights in these lighting conditions, so I do my best to squint my eyes and intrude into someone’s personal space with a determined face: “I’m just looking for the 60-pound ones.” The high concentration of people and mechanisms imposed by the small area makes it cumbersome to move back with the weights in both hands. One careless step and the laws of physics are swinging you onto a path of embarrassment. I slowly lay the dumbbells on both sides of my bench. Is there a masculine way to put down and pick up things?
This room is next to the bathrooms. The smell of excessive air freshener is just as nauseating as the people walking past me as I am lying on the bench and groaning. But nothing bothers my numb mind. I inhale, push, count, exhale, and slowly lower my arms. This is meditation 2.0. If gyms were not designed to propel an image of toughness, self-imposed body shame, and a self-improvement ethic based on attaining perfection, they could easily have plants, aromatherapy candles, and calmer music. I close my eyes and imagine lying on a beach in Greece, feeling the warm sun on my future abs. My relaxed mind is a slave to the carrot-and-stick model. My nerves, the chains tying my muscles to a brain hooked on instant gratification.
The cycle is over. I stand up, greeting my sweaty reflection in the mirror. I look so much better than I feel, yet the image I crave feels as artificial and unattainable as the physical illusion in front of me. My energy is leaving my body, and my exhausted muscles are shooting up endorphins into my system — the drugs tell me to stop now. “You’ve done enough for today. You can be proud of yourself.” I arrange the weights nicely and walk 80 feet back to the locker room, my head up higher than before. The desire to carry on with my day outweighs any anxiety. The shower room entrance is right in the middle, with two mirrors on both sides guarding the way. If the lighting were better, I would even take a selfie — the proverbial cherry on top of this self-effacing yet narcissistic obsession with contouring one’s shape. The cheap plastic that separates the stalls is a toxic white. The hot water from above washes away the metal-cold sweat and brings harmony to my bulging blood vessels. My inhibitions go down the drain between the stalls, only to come back into the flickering light after the high disappears.