Gyms are not sites of spontaneity and play…


DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, 20th Century Fox, 2004

From The Baffler:

Despite the pulsing pop music and comfortable clothes, gyms are not sites of spontaneity and play. There are rules beamed out from video monitors, mostly innocuous ones, like no cursing, “staring” at others, or expressing effort in audible form such as grunts or panting. Once, in a Key West gym, which you might imagine to be a somewhat permissive environment, I saw the manager chastise a young woman for moving too freely and rhythmically. “No dancing in the gym,” he announced, nonsensically, as if to underscore the seriousness of our undertaking. A regimented dancelike experience, as in aerobics or Zumba, is fine, but unsupervised dance moves reek of hedonism, and working out is supposed to be a form of work. Most people come with a plan like “legs and shoulders today” or “forty-five minutes of cardio and fifteen minutes of abs,” usually preceded by a warm-up and topped off with several minutes of stretching on a mat.

Working out very much resembles work, or a curious blend of physical labor and office work. Members not only lift weights, for example; they often carry clipboards on which to record the number of reps and sets and the amount of weight lifted for each workout, like a supervisor monitoring a factory worker’s performance. Socializing is rare, if only because gym members are increasingly plugged into their iPods and can be alerted to an attempted communication (such as “May I work in?” or “Are you done with this now?”) only by frantic waving and gestures.

The major interaction that goes on in gyms is not between members or between members and staff, but between the fitness devotee and his or her body. The body must be trained, disciplined, and put to ever more demanding tests, all administered and evaluated by the devotee’s conscious mind. Compared to the mind, the body can be thought of as an animal, usually a domesticated or partially domesticated animal—capable of reflex and habit, though not of course conscious decision-making. The poet Delmore Schwartz described his body as a “heavy bear”: “Breathing at my side, that heavy animal, / That heavy bear who sleeps with me.” We learn from coaches and fitness class instructors that, like any other beast of burden, the body is always inclined to take the path of least resistance unless we can “trick” it with a sudden variation in the work-out routine. Western philosophy has long separated body from mind; fitness culture takes this dualism further—to an adversarial relationship in which mind struggles for control over the lazy, recalcitrant body. I plan to work out today, but I will not tell you exactly what I’ll do, lest my body find out.

And why should the mind want to subdue the body systematically, repeatedly, day after day? Many gym-goers will tell you cheerfully that it makes them feel better, at least when the workout is over. But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body, you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else, and in their work lives that is a large part of what typical gym-goers do. We are talking here about a relative elite of people who are more likely to give orders than to take them—managers and professionals.

“Body Work”, Barbara Ehrenreich, The Baffler