I spend a fair bit of my week at the gym, roughly equivalent to my college contact hours. Like a particular music scene or age group, gyms have their own values and etiquette. My experience is of classes (rather personal training or working out solo) at the Brunswick City Baths: Body Attack, Body Pump, RPM, freestyle aerobics, freestyle step and Pilates.
Proximity to the fan; whether you can see in the mirror; which side of the room you’re on; the texture of the floor; the tension of a bike: some of these things might sound petty, but when you’re pushing your body, even the little things can matter. So let’s dive in.
Far more developed than just wiping the sweat off your bike after RPM or when you put your weights away in Body Pump, is the question of choosing your ‘spot’. Some people have a designated ‘spot’ or ‘bike’, an unspoken reservation that everyone knows, (except the new people, of course.) It’s considered quite impolite to take someone’s place. This week I was late to one class and my normal spot was still there when I arrived. It turns out, the class had had a discussion and decided to leave it for me because they were sure I’d be on my way!
The flip side of that is that if you are the person for whom that spot is normally reserved and someone is in it, you don’t point out that it’s your spot. Ever. I saw someone do this once – everyone bitched about her for weeks afterward. Instead, you just make sure you’re there earlier the next week to mark it as your place (by a towel or a water bottle).
Getting to know people
In Pilates this week, we had some partner work where you had to hold the other person’s bare feet. That’s quite personal but so are lots of activities in class – sweating, grunting, sticking your bum out, running toward or alongside others. And we do all these things in closer physical space than is normally polite. That’s sort of awkward but it can also be fun and kind of bonding.
Of course, we do it all in pretty tight clothing. Everyone can see every bump, lump and jiggle. And they’re all looking, however surreptitiously. I know, because they’re often willing to comment too, and not just on the positives. When Red Twin turned up, a number of people pointed out to me that she was significantly skinnier than me.
Even though you’re in close quarters with people and doing things that are quite intimate, the opportunities to talk and get to know people are limited. Going out for coffee afterwards isn’t an attractive option when you’re red in the face and covered with sweat so most conversations are small talk snatched 5 mins before the class.
The casual nature of those conversations makes it hard to know people’s names and even if you do get that far, last names are very rare. That makes becoming Facebook friends (or stalking!) much harder which in turn makes taking friendships away from the gym space harder as well. So you make up names for people in your head: tutu lady; girl with the awesome ‘high knees’; the social butterfly, etc.
Weight vs. Fitness
Our society equates eating and exercise: calories in, calories out. At the end of each class, one of my RPM instructors tells us to look at the calorie count on the bike display to see how many calories we’re allowed to have for lunch. Others talk about coming to the gym to work off the weekend’s indulgences. When Red Twin started coming, those same people who pointed out that she was skinnier than me also commented that she must work so much harder than me in class. It’s like a new measure of holiness, one that speaks of self-discipline and dedication.
But there’s another philosophy as well, one that sees working out as about fitness, holistic living, strength and energy. It’s a health based approach rather than an appearance based approach and one that recognizes that a skinny (or muscly) body doesn’t necessarily equate with a healthy mind. I think this approach is more motivating and encouraging over the long term but there’s something of a tension between these two philosophies at the gym. You can often see it by how the instructors talk about the class: is it fun or serious?
There’s a girl at my gym who has that really awful anorexic look about her – toothpick arms, bow legs, very little muscle, super skinny. Another friend voiced to me what I’d been wondering for ages: Should someone say something to her? If not one of us, does the instructor have an ethical obligation to tell her not to work out? Of course, you never know, she might already been dealing with it – exercise often is part of recovery for those with eating disorders. And I certainly don’t want to intrude or be a busybody. But she’s also a fellow human being and I hope that someone, sometime in her life has said something to her.
Those are my observations thus far. Do you do gym classes? What have you noticed?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.