The Gym, the Gaze, and the Cancelled Direct Debit

I have thrown in the towel. The same towel that for the past three months has wiped sweat from machines I never really understood, in the gym where I never really belonged. It was inevitable that sooner or later my mental resolve would weaken but ironically it occurred when my body was finally showing signs of strengthening. For the first time in my life, I have defined muscle: I have biceps, triceps, and some other ones that I only know by the dull aches that last for days. So why have I quit the gym?

There is a bald man who looks like Litvinenko, post-polonium-210, who has the strangest eyes, unsettling, piercing, evil. There is an atmosphere of strangeness that hangs around this man, the kind of aura that Victorian gothic writers attributed to vampires. An instant uneasiness spreads over me whenever he appears in the gym, walking around the treadmills, staring at me, in his dated tracksuit bottoms and thin fabric vest-top. He is a murderer, I am sure of it.

I think this man is typical of my main issue with the gym; it is the look, the omnipresent fix of the male gaze. Most of the men that inhabit my gym, and probably most gyms in the world, are fixated with their physical appearance. They go to the gym to sculpt their bodies, spending hours pushing themselves to the limit, striving for physical perfection. Built into the psychology of the gym-man is the need to impress and be admired, in particular by those that know what it takes to attain these physical results. Therefore, as they examine themselves in the mirrors, of which there are hundreds, they too are displaying their bodies to other men, saying look at me, I am buff, just like you are buff, high-five. The fact that this has resulted in grown men prancing around in the changing rooms, completely naked, tweaking and tensing themselves in front of the condensation-dappled mirror, is too much for me.

These changing rooms are disgusting for so many reasons. They are ripe with sweat and aerosol deodorant; every surface dripping with condensation and smelling like a whorehouse. It is a claustrophobic temple to body odour – an olfactory experience not unlike being imprisoned in a huge testicle. I am the prude in his boxers, watching the floor, as beef-cakes strut about in their birthday suits like peacocks at a Roman orgy, assessing each other, aspiring and admiring.

The women in the gym are either trying to shift a few excess pounds or lithe Lycra-clad muscle maidens. The gaze of the former is one of mild disinterest; they are not getting thin for the likes of me. They are getting thin for those that pump and grunt in the ‘Iron Works’, the bench-press weight room of doom. A room that I have stepped foot inside but once and that was in a moment of extreme faintness, stumbling after a cycling work out up a number 10 incline, the equivalent of a small grassy hummock. The muscle maidens, taught, tanned, and slightly androgynous, look at me with outright disdain. I am a worm, a maggot. These women are already going out with those that pump and grunt in the ‘Iron Works’ and have taken Special-K shits with more commitment than me.

Toned gym couples, I imagine, have the most bizarre narcissistic love affairs. Inevitably, when the mood takes them, they retreat to the bedroom like the rest of us. Yet their bedrooms are dominated by chrome, mirrors and dumbbells. Not only is there a mirror on the ceiling and on all walls, but there are rear-view mirrors attached to the bedside tables. Of course the couple are already naked as clothes only get in the way of perfection. They begin by smearing fake tan over each other’s ripped bodies before snorting lines of deca-duraboll off their gluteus medius’ muscles. Next they find a digital camera and take pictures of each other in various poses. After uploading them to their laptops, they view them to a soundtrack of DJ Tiesto whilst he rubs his tiny penis between his giant hands and she gropes about her chest trying to find her breasts.

Over the time I’ve been there, the gym has got a hell of a lot busier. So much so, that I had to wait around to use the machines. I tell you now, the middle of a gym is the worst place for a tall, skinny and dishevelled sweat-monster to wait around in; especially when the failures of my body are at the mercy of fifty pairs of scrutinising eyes, sharp with the sting of steroids and sweat. The outfit I am wearing does not help. On my feet sit gigantic, cheap, plastic on top of plastic on top of plastic, bound together with plastic, adorned with colourful chunks of yet more plastic, mighty canoe sculptures that are my Diadora running shoes. Baggy surf shorts, that are neither cool nor practical, only serve to exaggerate the skinniness of my legs and the unsurfliness of my physique. My blue plain T-shirt shows sweat marks like a PowerPoint display and rides up unattractively at the back revealing pink mottled flesh in distress. Underneath this ridiculous attire, I may well have some fledgeling muscles, yet for them to appear I have to make like I’m shitting. To the collective gaze, I had nothing to show.

To combat the crowds and the endless peering eyes, I took the steps of going to the gym at unusual hours. Whilst solving one problem, it quickly created another. I found myself alone in a large dark room, sweating and panting, whilst watching a large TV flickering with up-skirt shots of attractive models. Emerging after a twenty-minute row and jog to several sexualised music videos, I had the same desperate far-away look in my eye, the same fringe stuck to my forehead with rancid sweat and the same damp patches showing through my T-shirt and shorts, as a pervert stepping out of a sex cinema. Not good in any one’s eyes.

For the past few weeks, my relationship with the gym has gone from bad to worse. I have decided to end it. Now I wander around flexing my newly developed biceps. It was my way of saying, yes, it has been worth it; my very own, down-scaled ‘look at me’ routine. With my gym membership cancelled, I am now alone. As I examine my muscles in the mirror, I know that no one is looking but, despite myself, something inside stirs, a yearning for an appreciative gaze.


For more body awkwardness read what it’s like to have hayfever when you’re me.

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Tom Spooner

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