“In this respect the woman’s mind exactly resembles her body; far from being ashamed of her weakness, she is proud of it; her soft muscles offer no resistance, she professes that she cannot lift the lightest weight; she would be ashamed to be strong. And why? Not only to gain an appearance of refinement; she is too clever for that; she is providing herself beforehand with excuses, with the right to be weak if she chooses.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Emile” (1762)
Once, in my teens, I went to the gym.
Which is funny considering that I have always, or at least from an early adolescence, hated exercise with a vengeance.
But, going to the gym was something you had to do if you wanted to fit in and be one of the cool, pretty girls. Cool, pretty girls were “fit” and “toned.” They also had flawless white matte skin because they were worth it, and they always looked and acted cool, calm and collected. They were never angry, frustrated or socially awkward. Most importantly, though, cool girls were pretty. You don’t get a boyfriend by being fat. Besides, ugly geek girls are “just jealous coz they never get asked.”
Not that anyone admitted at the time that in fact the main reason for going to the gym was to become more sexually attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex. All we knew was that Jimmy in 9 C had started running around in the classroom in the middle of history lesson running his curious little fingers across the backs of girls to see who had started wearing a bra and who hadn’t. Who had attained womanhood, and who had not. Who had attained desirability and who had not, in other words, who had attained social acceptability and who had not. The teacher hadn’t stopped Jimmy because hey, you are 12 after all. It’s time you get used to male curiosity! Boys will be boys!
We were not equipped with fully evolved conceptualisation of body image or the male gaze. The only thing fully evolved were our mammary glands and the pressure to fit into the womanly ideal perpetuated by the TV shows we watched, the advertisements we were bombarded with and the socially encouraged curiosity of all the little Jimmies in 9 C’s and all the teachers and parents who kept their mouths shut about our side of things, our experiences, our curiosities. We couldn’t explain “male gaze” as a theory, but we knew someone was watching. And soon enough, we joined the watching game and started watching, too. Ourselves in the mirror, that is. Because we’re worth it.
My problem was of course that I never did want to fit in and I never did want to be pretty, or cool for that matter. I was a geek, I played violin, I was into music and reading. I therefore hated exercise almost by definition, by a natural social necessity. The kids who were into sports were pretty, thin, cool and popular. I was none of those things, and as I grew older, I realised that I was not particularly keen on becoming any of those things, either. Also, our PE teacher was a woman with no sense of humour who hated me because I was scared shitless of the balance beam in gymnastics. Who wouldn’t be? I still wonder about this, actually. That thing was very high up and much narrower than the trees and rooftops I was used to climbing on. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see that for a clumsy 12-year-old, the balance beam is not a pleasant prospect.
A couple of years later, in orienteering, me and the other ugly, fat and/or angry girls would light up a ciggie behind the safety of some bushes while the pretty and/or happy girls were busy trying to follow some map and some yellow ribbons tied to some trees.
So when I made my way to the gym in my teens, I’d already developed a strong dislike for all things considered “healthy” and “sporty.” I remember it was a female-only gym and there was a TV in one of the corners of the room. I remember sitting on the rowing machine trying to figure it all out while glancing at some chat show above me, pretending to exercise, feeling like a complete idiot.
It all felt so pointless. I never returned to the gym after that one time. To sum it all up, I guess I would say that the whole thing with sports and exercise was an utter mystery to me. An absurd, pointless and infinitely boring mystery to boot.
Now, let’s fast forward to this day. I am 33 years old. Last year, I went to the gym for the first time in almost two decades. Two decades. That’s a long time, and it’s safe to say that during twenty years you learn a thing or even two. One of the first things you learn between the ages of 19 and, say, 30 (I’m a slow learner!) is that you don’t need to worry about how other people view you.
These days, I couldn’t care less. Despite my indifference, and precisely because of it, I go to the gym about 3-4 times a week. I do weight training as well as aerobic exercise. I have a little training diary where I write down my goals and progress. I even bought little gloves so as to have a better grip on the weights.
I’ve learned that the dividing of people into “artists and bohemians” on one side and “popular sporty types” on the other, the old division we all know from our school days, is about as dumb as the whole dualist mind/body split in the first place. I used to use this division as some kind of a romantic justification for my self-righteousness; that somehow, being the very clever intellectual bohemian that I am, I am under some ancient, universal obligation to treat everything bodily with open contempt. I must avoid all kinds of exercise, smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink hefty amounts of beer and wheeze and cough my way into some kind of a romantic notion of street credibility amongst my self-righteous intellectuals friends. So that we can pat each other on the back and discuss poetry while the silly sport people waste their time on material things like (yawn!) physical health.
Also, I’ve learned that, despite what all the boys in school said about “fit girls” versus “ugly girls”, going to the gym is in fact a feminist issue and a direct antidote to sexism. I’ll give a little anecdote to explain why.
Once I had a sore on my palm, and the sore managed to open up inside my little gym glove. Eventually, I noticed that something around me stank really quite bad. The pus had spread through the fabric onto the surface of the glove while I was busy lifting some weight or another. I looked down at my hand and found myself literally covered in sweat, blood and pus. The yellow pus, mixed with blood and the sweaty fabric of my gym glove, made me reek. My hand stank of the yellow blood-pus mixture while my neck, armpits and back were covered in sweat. It all mixed up together into rather off-putting eau de Shit.
The moral of this story is that when you’re trying to lift up a heavy bastard of a thing with your back thighs, or whatever part of your body it is you happen to be using to lift some bastard of a weight, it’s impossible to pay any attention to smelly pus, blood, sweat or even tears. You don’t care about a bit of stink and sweat. You just keep at it, and you pant and grunt and become red in the face and you probably look hideous or at the very least completely ridiculous – but you’re too liberated from the bullshit sexist beauty paradigm to give a damn. You really can’t afford to give a shit about the male gaze when 50 kg of steel is about to drop on your pinkie toe.
By going to the gym, I feel I am taking what is rightfully mine and becoming part of a sociocultural space which for too many years was occupied by sexist attitudes: a space in which strength was mainly understood in terms of masculinity and women were ornamental objects to be evaluated and gazed at according to their physical appearance, softness and frailty. Crucially, I have not seen any female-only gyms here in Sweden. Before I started my gym hobby, I was looking for one, as I presumed I would feel “better” and “more free” in a women-only environment. A little over a year later, the idea of a gym where women and girls work on their primal strength tucked away and hidden from men and boys, is rather strange and sad in its paranoid separatism.
For me, then, going to the gym is an active and conscious affirmation of my feminism. I affirm my physicality and my body in my own pace and in my own terms. I do squats, deadlifts and bench presses while listening to Deicide not because I want to fit into some beauty ideal of Jimmy in 9 C and his big bros, but because I enjoy the creative aspect of my innate aggression and the multiple possibilities of my own body.
No point trying to be holier-than-thou about it, though. Vanity is admittedly at least part of the reason for anyone to start an exercise hobby. It feels nice to notice changes in one’s body. The main reason for me personally, though, is that I have realised how much the mind / body dichotomy, the good old Platonian dichotomy of “ideas” and “materia” (“I am an artist, therefore I despise sports”) is just a waste of time.
My mind is my body, the two are absolutely parts of one whole. Why would anyone want to abandon yin over yang? Of course, ironically enough, one doesn’t really understand the great thing about physical health until one starts to live more healthily. I should know, I spent most of my 20s smoking cigarettes and drinking copious amounts of beer because I thought it was somehow part of my “identity.”
But, let’s not exaggerate. The fact that I have realised my love for physical exercise does not in any way change the fact that the “lifestyle trend” of going to the gym and “looking fit” is incredibly annoying for a violin playing geek feminist such as myself. Just because some beefcake “hits the gym” 6 days a week and graces the social media with “selfies” taken at the changing room, obviously doesn’t mean that he becomes Marcus Aurelius all of a sudden. He’d need to leave a bit of time for some reading and thinking, too.
It’s taken me two decades to come to believe that the boring-sounding “golden middle-way” may in fact be a pearl of wisdom and not the gutless platitude I once, in my immature rebellion, thought it was.
In fact, I am in no doubt that good old Epicurus himself would have had nothing whatsoever against a bit of deadlifting in his garden. Every now and then, that is. And with a sturdy meal and a cold beer afterwards, of course.