Bloke and mirrors: Masculinity and muscle in the gym

‘So far flesh ain’t the truest at all, let’s rip into it.’ – P.O.S, ‘Purexed

I work out at a gym. It doesn’t really feel like a gym though. There is no front desk. No vending machine with sports drinks. No one greeting me or swiping membership cards as people enter. It’s just a room in an apartment complex with exercise equipment, and often I find myself exercising alone. Sometimes the only company I keep is myself, my body reflected back at me in the mirrored walls.

I don’t remember feeling motivated or driven to exercise when I was a boy. I enjoyed it, but on reflection it was my parents’ efforts to keep me healthy and sane that got me out of bed before 6am to swim, or to and from tennis and squash courts. In hindsight, it is easy to see that those organised parental efforts were part of a routine of care and love.

Exercise has a number of widely recognised benefits: improved mental health; improved physical health; an outlet for pent-up energy; stress relief; social contact with others; if you’re lucky, a strong sense of belonging and community. My parents were helping me experience those benefits, where I otherwise may have spent most of my spare time in front of a screen, and I love them for it.

But all of that time I rarely, if ever, lifted weights.

It is hard to lift weights without thinking about your appearance, both during exercise (how do I look, am I doing this right, do I look like I belong?) and after (are my muscles growing, am I fitter, is this making any difference?). Thinking about my physicality at the gym often causes me to wonder: are my efforts worth it? More broadly, this causes me to struggle with the why of the gym – and primarily, this struggle is rooted in how I perceive and relate to other men.

Part of this is to do with the architectural space of gyms. Even in my residential gym it is impossible to escape mirrored walls. At most commercial gyms, this seems to be the same. And while mirrors reflect the self, they also reflect others. You can literally see the other people working out at the same time as you, whether you’re facing them or not. Rather than your view extending only to your peripheries, it bounces off walls and encompasses a much larger portion of the room – if not all of it.

There is a functional justification for this: mirrors help people to analyse and correct their form, and in particular contexts, they may also help people develop self-belief and a sense of self-efficacy. After all, there is pride in working towards and mastering an efficient, well-formed movement. But there is no need for a mirror in front of a treadmill, a rowing machine or a bike; there is no need for mirrors to cover the entire length of the room; there is no need to make mirrors inescapable. Because mirrors – especially when they completely permeate a space – encourage us to compare ourselves to others much more frequently than we otherwise might.

When I see men who are fitter than me, or lifting more than me, it is difficult not to evaluate my progress and efforts in comparison to them. If I am not as ‘advanced’ as they are, then their achievements, progress, they themselves, become something to aspire and work towards. Meanwhile, if I am ‘more advanced’, the comparison of bodies, progress and work allows me to self-congratulate: look how far I have come, how fit I am.

Neither aspiration nor self-congratulation are bad. But in both cases, when mirrors reflect people upon people, when they are inescapable by design, the space of the gym encourages us to see and valorise only the most external signifiers of our efforts: our bodies. In that space where we become ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ (rarely ‘the same’), it is primarily physicality which has value. Worse still, it is often through this lens that we judge ourselves. A sense of achievement can often hinge on an implicitly negative assessment of others, just as a negative assessment of self can often be the product of others’ success.

It takes a persistent and exhausting kind of self-awareness to realise that this is happening, and that your view of your body, or others’ bodies, is becoming increasingly relative. It is exhausting precisely because such mirrors are ever-present, and because images of others are thrust in front of us so often. It is hard to remind yourself that you are actually exercising for your own sake, and that the benefits that come with that exercise can only be understood and measured in relation to yourself. It is tough to remember this, and even tougher to feel it.

Gyms have a long and storied history. They didn’t always exist in the form that they do today, and the social, cultural, economic and health-based elements driving particular exercise regimes (including weight lifting) have shifted over time. Social scientists Jesper Andreasson and Thomas Johansson trace this development, exploring the connection between industrialisation in the early 1900s and its link to the “need for physically capable male bodies”, which shifted the domain of strength-building and athleticism to include both “the aristocracy, but also workers”. What was valuable for capitalism then remains valuable now, albeit in slightly different ways (for many, core strength might now be more useful for maintaining correct posture at a computer all day, where a different kind of manual labour is performed).

In addition to this, Andreasson and Johansson note that gym and fitness culture is tightly intertwined with American values around “beauty, bodies and the individual’s responsibility for taking care of and cultivating the body”. There is an imperative being described here, which centres each individual’s ability and willingness to maintain the physical condition that allows them to work for as long, and as efficiently, as possible. The responsibility to achieve this condition is placed squarely on the individual (as opposed to it being seen as a joint social investment in public and personal health by someone’s community or the state), and this is enacted not just socially, but at the structural level of policy too. In Australia, an individual who cannot achieve the physical condition required of work, such as due to a disability or health issue, often experiences the state’s limitation of appropriate support via cruelly opaque, inefficient, bureaucratic and austere welfare systems. Systematically then, an individual who cannot maintain the physical condition required is often punished and marginalised by the state, rather than supported.

Due to the “blurring of the relation between health and beauty”, Andreasson and Johansson write, fitness has now become a kind of “folk movement, but not one comparable to the old 20th-century movements, often connected to national sentiments, but instead a highly individualized and personal task.” We should not be surprised, then, that gym culture shifted from focusing largely on the masculinised activities of bodybuilders – a niche – towards a massive, rapidly commercialised conception of fitness, broadly conceived of as being something ‘responsible citizens’ engage with. Masculine norms which value muscular bodies have rarely been straightforward or easy to analyse (for example: according to Andreasson and Johansson, the 1990s saw bodybuilding tarnished with a poor reputation and “associated with a fragile, weak masculinity and steroids”), but they are norms that nonetheless still pervade popular culture. They are tied to a sense of individuality, personal responsibility, and historically – via industrialisation – to competition between individuals for jobs.

It seems obvious but important to note that comparison, competition and a disproportionate valuing of the physical are likely compounded by the vast feed of images we consume across the internet, TV, print media, advertising and social media, which subtly (and not so subtly) mold our perceptions of what is and isn’t deemed attractive and ‘normal’. (Instagram is a major offender in this sense.) This is something all people must deal with – men, women, queer, trans, non-binary – but the dynamics of those personal struggles will necessarily differ.

In the American Journal of Men’s Health, Lefkowich, Oliffe, Clarke and Hannan-Leith have argued that it’s through these media and images that men are “pitched” muscular body ideals – for example, through men’s health magazines. One of the most pervasive pitches made is that a male body which emphasises lean, visible muscle is the most attractive and ‘masculine’, and that this body is achievable for all. These pitches, which often intersect with and part racial and sexual lines, will affect different men in different ways, and may not appeal to all. Men who “purchase” or buy into these ideals often find ways to performatively express their commitment to them – such as by joining a gym or playing a particular sport, taking up a particular diet or wearing certain clothes. For example: we’re led to believe that a man who plays badminton or netball is a ‘different’ type of man than one who plays rugby.

However, some of these pitches and adopted “norms” can result in the expression of dangerous, harmful behaviours (for example, obsessive exercise regimes). As Lefkowich et al. note in their research:

Men’s perceptions of other men’s bodies and behaviors also contribute to how they evaluate and assign meaning to their own appearances, body practices, and subsequent social positioning or currency.

The way that we understand our bodies, and the meanings we attribute to them, rarely ever make our bodies just ours. We often negotiate our understandings and our sense of self with the media we consume, with the images we see, and with the people we observe around us – including the bodies of those we see at the gym.

Robert Crawford, a scholar at the University of Washington, argues for us to understand this more completely – and to see that “health and the body … are not only biological and practical, although they are meaningfully these, but are also metaphorically layered, packed with connotations about what it means to be a good, respectable, and responsible person. These meanings are in turn connected to prevailing images of class, race, and sexuality.” Crawford’s point is that we assign meaning to our bodies in dense, complex ways, particularly around what it means to be a ‘responsible’ or ‘good’ person.

Perhaps the most glaringly obvious example is the culturally situated inverse of the ‘athletic’ or ‘muscular’ man: the man who is overweight, who perhaps holds a bit too much weight around his middle, who has a ‘dad bod’ or who doesn’t fit his clothes as well as he used to. We only need to look at popular media representations of these men (or young boys, even) to see how they are often represented and ridiculed as lazy, unable to care for themselves and inefficient at completing the most basic of life tasks, let alone holding down a job. We don’t need to search far for these representations, Homer Simpson perhaps being one of the most iconic and well-known male fictional characters of the past 50 years. But even Homer’s body is layered with metaphor, meaning and connotations about what does or doesn’t make him a “good, respectable, and responsible person”.

It is rarely simple – although it is frequently portrayed as such – but when we view these representations in the aggregate, patterns of meaning often emerge. The ‘muscular’ or ‘fit’ man is often understood as responsible, capable of looking after himself and others, and able to contribute to society in a productive way. The danger of “purchasing” or buying into this illusion, and there is often a specific monetary ‘buy-in’ required via gym memberships, supplements, personal trainers, activewear and so on, is that it risks only fuelling a desire to compete with other men, using physicality as a lens through which value can be gauged. When we compulsively compare bodies as measures of progress, effort and value, as markers of what make us ‘good’ or ‘responsible’, the danger – as I’ve experienced it – is two-fold.

First, we become competitive. Our reference points for progress become dynamic and constantly shift. We lose sight of a job well done, a solid effort put in. There is always someone ‘better’ to whom to compare ourselves, and because we are always reminded of this, there is always someone to ‘beat’ and we must always ‘try harder’. We end up in a competition that has no winner, no finishing podium and no end in sight. If, as men, our self-esteem or sense of self is tied to our physicality, this competitiveness can threaten our understanding of ourselves as ‘capable’ or ‘valuable’, or as meeting the standards required to be ‘good’ at being a man; when this happens, some feel a need to compensate, often in predictable, damaging ways. Such an environment, along with media that heavily pitches men idealised and unrealistic forms of ‘masculinity’, might also contribute to the experiences of those who are dealing with muscular dysmorphia and body image concerns – those who often feel that they personally are at fault or ashamed for not being able meet such highly unrealistic standards.

The second thing that happens is that our capacity for compassion and empathy towards those around us is diminished. The likelihood that we will genuinely congratulate others for their efforts and progress suffers, because on some level it either makes that person a stronger competitor or knocks us down a rung. Many of us like to think that we’re good sports, and that this doesn’t apply to us – and maybe for some, it doesn’t. The most common exception here might be those who compete physically at a professional level, and who therefore embody a different mode of confidence than that of an amateur. But for those of us not in this position, there is a danger in myopically focusing on physicality. To be compassionate, empathetic and a good sport – genuinely, and without concern for ourselves – we need a balanced approach to exercise, and we can’t feel as if the entire value of our efforts rests on perceptions of our physical body (or anything else, for that matter).

Rather than focusing on competition, we have to recognise that anyone at the gym – ourselves included – is there because they experience benefits to being there and doing what they do. The first step toward this, before covering some of those mirrored walls, is to re-think how we talk about the gym, about exercise, about muscle and about strength. If we can begin to talk about those things in relation to vulnerability and self-care, we can begin to relate to our bodies in a way that makes exercise and the gym less about externalised physical progress, and more about looking after ourselves, taking care, showing love for the bodies and minds that carry us around all day – the same bodies and minds that let us talk to our friends and hug our family.

Much of lifting weights and building muscle can often feel like an attempt to exert ‘control’ over one’s body. There is a social desirability to this, showing others that you are dedicated or self-disciplined enough to work on and produce a muscular physique. You and you alone are supposedly in control of this. ‘Control’ of what is in many ways uncontrollable is not an uncommon theme when discussing weight lifting. Bodybuilder Sam Fussell described his experience of moving to New York as full of anxiety, with problems adjusting to life in the city. When he started lifting weights, he noted: “The harder I worked, the better I felt. My routine brought order amid chaos.”

This sentiment is felt in different ways across lines of class, gender, race, and nationality. Susanne Lanefelt, who developed a Swedish exercise regime inspired by Jane Fonda, wrote: “I want to be in control of my body, and I want to feel that my muscles behave the way I want them to. I want to decide where my ass should be, to have well-trimmed legs and a flat stomach.” We can pretend otherwise all we like, but ultimately we know this is only an illusion of control, and that we can only do so much to decide where our ass is, so to speak. This is not to diminish anyone’s efforts at physical exercise, nor anyone who feels a sense of control when exercising and practising a command of their body – but everything is always changing, life is complex and unpredictable, and control is rarely ever something we completely have. When we let go of the idea of controlling everything, we create space for vulnerability, and true self-care, to emerge.

The second step is to reflect on how we relate to the gym and those in it. When we can practice relating to others with kindness – saying hi, introducing ourselves, becoming familiar with a community and supporting one another – we begin to reap these benefits. It’s much harder to feel like you’re competing with people when you know them and when you’re friendly with them. In Mark Greif’s Against Everything: On Dishonest Times, he questions the public nature of our exercise in gyms:

Our gym … is the atomized space in which one does formerly private things, before others’ eyes, with the lonely solitude of a body acting as if it were still in private. One tries out these contortions to undo and remake a private self; and if the watching others aren’t entitled to approve, some imagined aggregate “other” does. Modern gym exercise moves biology into the nonsocial company of strangers. You are supposed to coexist but not look closely, wipe down the metal of handlebars and the rubber of mats as if you had not left a trace. As in the elevator, you are expected to face forward.

This type of isolating “coexistence” in my gym cannot be denied – there are times when Greif’s description rings alarmingly true – but it would be wrong of us to assume that it is a necessary state of affairs. We can use the gym as a space, and exercise as an activity, to look deep within ourselves, to make changes beyond those of the body, and we can also use exercise to forge healthy social connections with others, should we choose to.

We cannot make the mistake of assuming that all exercise in the gym does is change an outer layer – we work on will, safety, humility (‘check your ego at the door’), planning, self-discipline (which is not to be confused with exerting ‘control’ over the body and its shape or performance); we problem solve, we think, we extend those skills to other parts of our lives if we choose to. To truly do this we have to support one another, and we must move beyond outer physicality, beyond quantifiable metrics of success or ability, and beyond the implied social contract and expectations Greif is describing.

If we can do this, we can radically reshape the meaning we give our bodies and the way we understand them – exercise can become less of a thing that signifies a ‘good’ and ‘respectable’ person, and instead become a good, respectable, beautiful act of kindness and care in itself. Writer Nick English from Greatist summarised this approach in an article on the absence of body positivity from men’s fitness:

The most popular women’s blogs acknowledge insecurity; they commune with it; and they frame strength training not as a way to find validation, or perfection, or a body worth loving, but instead as a way to honor and love their bodies. And finding self-love through weightlifting is something I just never hear male trainers discuss.

That self-love and care is incompatible with an entrenched culture of competition and comparison. To fully recognise our own efforts to care for ourselves, we cannot view the worth of those efforts in relation to another.

Gyms themselves can take steps toward furthering this cause. Social events – classes, group training sessions, meet-ups – designed not just as ‘turn up, exercise, and leave’ events, but as events designed to foster a community of people who know each others’ names, who might even become friends, would be an easy way to get started. Mentoring programs designed to partner new members with established ones, helping them buddy up, get into a routine and train together would do wonders. They could organise monthly meet-ups outside of the gym for members – bowling, snow trips, movie nights. They could run seminars on the non-muscular benefits of the gym, like improved mental health, self-confidence or sleep quality, which could help shift the competitive and physical focus. The possibilities are endless – and if they sound silly or farfetched, stop reading for a moment and ask yourself: why? We know gyms have not always been the way they are now, which means they can change.

We know, for example, that mirrors can have a psychological effect on those exercising. Research found that sedentary women’s feeling states are affected by exercising in mirrored environments, with those working out in mirrored conditions feeling worse post-exercise than those in mirror-less conditions. And while it might sound unlikely that your gym will remove its mirrors, it is not without precedent. The Queer Gym (formerly The Perfect Sidekick), a LGBTQI-inclusive gym in Oakland, has no mirrors as part of an effort to reduce the physical pressure to look or present a certain way. Others have launched similar initiatives. Gyms can change for our betterment, and we should expect them to actively do so – we’re paying for them, after all.

So rather than members only getting a phone call when it’s time to renew their membership, how about gyms call up those who are new or haven’t been in a while and help them become part of an actual community? If your gym already does some of these things, brilliant – but if it doesn’t, maybe run some ideas by them and see what they think. I attend a men’s yoga class on a weekly basis now, and it is designed to build community. After each session, we sit around the table and chat, sometimes for hours into the night. Usually some tea, beer or wine is shared, laughs are had, and we debrief with each other about our week, making sure to include both the beautiful and the tough things happening in our lives. There are no mirrors in this studio, there is no competition between us, and I have made some wonderful friends there. It captures what typical gym environments seem to so often miss.

I used to go to a commercial gym with my best mate years ago. We would go a few times a week and lift weights together. This relationship, this friendship, was not competitive. There was no winner or loser. We were encouraging, even when the most we’d done was get out the door and move our bodies for an hour. We celebrated each other’s efforts, each other’s small wins, and the very act of getting to the gym. At its core, we were celebrating and encouraging each other’s capacity for genuine self-care and self-love.

I don’t want to imply that all people who exercise at gyms have an unhealthy or tainted relationship with the space and the people in it. This is far from the truth. But many gyms, alongside contemporary media and body pressures, only encourage us to compete and physically compare, and something must change to push back against this. There is enough competition in the world already; we do not need it to encroach upon spaces where so much personal growth and joy can occur.

Back at my gym, there is a sense of camaraderie and genuine care when others take the time to say hi, ask how my day is going, when I ask them the same, or when they take time out to chat or give advice. Such offers feel genuinely rooted in care and desire for another’s wellbeing. I have had frank conversations with some of these men about how exercising at the gym is a part of their mental care routine. It helps them quieten the mind and relax; it helps with alleviating some of the day’s anxieties; it helps to maintain that routine so that even on the bad days, there’s something to get out and do. For them, it’s about showing up for yourself and doing what makes you feel good, in all senses, physical, mental and emotional.

Structural though some of these issues may be – like pervasive, unrealistic representations of men’s bodies in the media – the solutions start, one way or another, with us and the decisions we make every day. To change this will be a collective effort, and it will be one rooted in the open, truthful conversations we have with one another about exercise and our bodies; in the demands and expectations we set for gyms to be more than rooms full of heavy weights and machines; in the acts of kindness we consciously show one another; in the media we choose to pay for and consume; in the ‘control’ we choose to let go of; and in the seeking out and building of community, friendship and connection, where competition and comparison are left behind.

This is vital for the gym to become a place where more than the body can be transformed. The gym is a place where a hardened, isolating masculinity can be shed – along with our preconceptions about how we need to look or be in the world – in favour of something greater, something vulnerable and meaningful. As it turns out, the gym is not about discovering what our bodies can do for us. It’s about understanding what we can do for our bodies – and by extension, our selves, our friends, our families and our communities.

 

[The header illustration for this article was made custom for Homer by Samuel Leighton-Dore. If you like it, grab yourself a tote bag with this image on it (and a little more, too) at homeronline.com/merchandise.]

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