I have been going to the gym on and off – more on, I have to say – for the last 15 years or so. I remember summer 2004, at the age of 28, contracting chicken pox for the very first time and lying in a bath of bicarbonate of soda, peering down at the small, but insistent dome of my belly, thinking, “here we go, then, the middle aged spread I have heard so much about”. Incredible, really, how ready you are to consign yourself to the knackers’ yard at what I realise now is a very young and ridiculous age.
My then-boyfriend and I were mystified by our apparently slowing metabolisms – not for a second stopping to consider the endless pints, or the weekly dinner of a huge pasta and sausage “salad” – and signed up to the local gym, a terrifying grey-carpeted health prison populated by people who did not wash their gym kits enough. Gyms have come a long way since then. Everyone goes to the gym now but back then it wasn’t as common and the quality reflected that. Affordable ones were horrible, and there seemed to be no mid-tier – we reeled as we heard stories of people paying £100 a month (!) for the pleasure of being able to dry their ballsack with a hairdryer at an upper-echelon Virgin Active in the City. We had to go through a compulsory induction. A very impatient man in fluorescent shorts spent a fruitless ten minutes trying to teach me how to pick a dumbbell up off the floor – why off the floor when the weights would always be on a rack, at waist height? There was a knack to it that I didn’t have, and eventually I said we were going to have to stop. He showed me a treadmill which I refused to run on because I had seen far too many comedy sketch shows where a hapless character had a co-ordination nightmare of some description and went flying off them at great speed. After demonstrating some kind of sit-up on what I now know to be a Swiss ball, he gave up and wished me luck in my fitness endeavours. My mind’s eye rolled at his departing back. My boyfriend and I celebrated our new journey to optimum health by nipping into the local pub for a pint and a panini, with curly fries on the side.
The first gym was a disaster. When you are not confident about either your body or your ability to swing a large lump of metal around your head, you feel very much the outsider. I appear to have blocked the changing rooms out of my mind entirely, but I remember the “weights room”, which I would have to pass on my way to the main workout area – it was a windowed cell, much like Hannibal Lecter’s, lit like an airport terminal. All the men inside – I never once saw a woman go anywhere near it – looked like they were training to be bouncers or one-punch manslaughter defendants.
In my early thirties, I finally got into it, whatever “it” was. I tried new gyms, with nicer people, would run on a treadmill for 75 minutes three mornings a week before work (I cannot believe that person was actually me) and pulled meaningful faces while hoisting mucho-macho kilograms of iron in the air. My body looked pretty much the same. When my relationship ended, I moved house and lived by myself, and filled the deathless voids of my calendar with intense runs round the neighbourhood and punishing sessions at the local gym, working out with precision, avoiding eye contact with anyone else – aside from a couple of idle fixations that I would exchange “looks” with, the glamour evaporating immediately when I saw one of them on the bus, dressed in civvies. Some unfortunate souls work best in lycra and under interrogatory strip lighting.
But the strangest thing of all was it worked. I got a body. An actual one, with definition, firmness. Everything was tight. T-shirt muscles and a perky backside – the essential ingredients I assumed I needed. And yet I was still very self conscious in the locker room. They have always seemed like the domain of heterosexuals to me. Straight men would do whatever they wanted in them, and they did. Bored each other rigid with corporate jargon, walked around with their pitiful giblets swinging to metronomic perfection, laughed and farted and made an absolute mess of every toilet cubicle.
I never understood why some gay men said they got a frisson of excitement eyeballing shrivelled old cocks in the changing rooms at the gym. For me, it was like being back in PE lessons, and even if there was a good-looking man in there, I wouldn’t steal a furtive glance. More than my life was worth. You never know how these things are going to turn out and I didn’t want to end up on the wrong end of a gay-panic punch.
More gyms followed, and my attendance dwindled then picked up again to a frenetic rate depending on how I was feeling. The body came and went and came back again and… well, you know the sequence. But I never felt any more secure. In the locker room, I would scuttle in and out as quickly as possible, always waiting to get home before showering. In the main gym itself, I would always capitulate to the ingymidation of bigger, broader men who wanted to use the machine I was on, no matter how far into my routine I was. I knew my place. Sometimes I wanted to joke, “Hey, come on, let me have it a bit longer, I clearly need it more than you,” in the hope the flattery would charm them. But then I remembered people didn’t really smile that much in that gym. They strained, they grimaced, they eyed your kettle bell with unbridled envy. But they didn’t smile.
I changed gym again last year, to one nearer my house. Much nicer than the others. My small treat to myself. I don’t go on holiday and I don’t buy or wear designer clothes, and in the absence of a coke addiction, I plumped for a more pleasant gym to spend my unused vice money. It is rammed to the rafters with the beautiful, and the young. There are some very impressive bodies on display. There are more women there too, and it cheers me to see that they don’t exercise hidden in a corner, like the women in the previous gyms did, away from grunting, leering men. Everyone is gorgeous and the very picture of health and, by rights, this should be absolute kryptonite for my self-confidence, but the strange thing is, I don’t care. They are so other-worldly, that there is no point comparing myself to them, or lamenting my body’s inadequacies alongside theirs. There is still, certainly, as aspirational angle to them and I do, out of the corner of my eye, make note of and copy any interesting floor exercises they do, but knowing I could never have what they have has somehow liberated me. They are a product of genetics, their youth, wealth, and the amount of free time they have to spend in the gym, while I am 43, overdrawn, have a face like I’m answering the door to a debt collector and can just about manage to look okay in a T-shirt.
The locker rooms do not frighten me anymore. I take my time when getting changed now. I don’t strut around with my junk hanging around or anything, but I am fine with padding back and forth to the showers – yes, I finally managed to get naked somewhere other than my own house – or the steam room in just my towel. Nobody is interested in my tired old tits, or sees me as a threat, so I can go about my business quite happily. I close the shower cubicle door and I feel safe. I guess I loathe my body as much as the next average dude who wishes he’d maybe stopped after the second slice of pizza. But as I stand under the shower – water pouring down my face and then onto the smooth skin of my torso, arms soft, but strong, thighs still relatively defined thanks to cycling, knobbly knees still present and correct –I feel glad to still have it, to be in it.
My body can still do pretty much everything it used to but, but maybe a little slower, with more aftershock twinges, but it is mine. Now I know nobody is looking, I feel free. I lift my face up to the shower head above and reach for the dial and turn. The shock of sudden cold water makes me gasp every time, but isn’t it wonderful to still have the ability to be surprised by the inevitable?
Main image is from the amazing Broad City, which I really miss – it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime and reruns are also often shown on Comedy Central.