Ugh, the gym. The smelly, loud gym. I love being in a gym now, but when I first started going, I felt the same way most people do. Why on earth would I want to combine public humiliation, obnoxious music, sweating, physical exertion, and not being on my couch? All at the same time? It's the same with anything. If we're familiar with it, we're okay with it. If we're unfamiliar with it, we feel resistance toward it. We feel self-conscious. We know everyone is staring at us and giving us side eye. We're much, much too smart to ever do anything that makes us look awkward. No way are we going to put ourselves out there and look like the beginners that we are. People are watching. We know that everyone is just as interested in what we're doing as we are. We're watching them, and we know they're watching us.
There's a saying that when you're 20, you care what everyone thinks about you. When you're 40, you no longer care what anyone thinks about you. When you're 60, you realize nobody was ever thinking about you in the first place. The gym has a way of accelerating that realization. The better the gym, the buffer the patrons, the more this is true. That guy over there dead-lifting twice his body weight is sincerely not looking at anyone right now. He's just trying to hold his form so he doesn't give himself a hernia. That old-timer hogging the bicep curl machine is just using it as a bench to check his phone. That juicy young blonde still wearing her makeup is rushing to make it to her class so she doesn't have to take the spot behind the pillar. They're not looking at us or thinking about us anymore than anyone at the airport or the Starbucks is thinking about us. As far as they're concerned, we're nothing more than trees or clouds, a generic part of the wallpaper of the world.
My gym is a "super sport," meaning it's enormous and it has tons of members. Literally, physically tons. There are a couple hundred people there at any given time. They range from half-grown kids to distinguished elders who must be 80-plus. They come in every size, from very petite to over 500 pounds, from frail and mobility-challenged to sculpted and massive. Probably the majority are between 40 to 60. College kids, athletes, business people, retirees, people recovering from injury or working on physical therapy. It's a cross-section of humanity. Yeah, people probably check each other out from time to time, but it doesn't work like you'd think.
The fittest people are always looking up to the next-fittest person above them. They want to know, what workout does SHE do? How much is HE lifting? Where can I get an awesome shirt like that? If they're looking at anyone at all, they're just glossing over anyone who isn't at their level yet. We can safely walk past them.
Being the least-fit person in the gym is a privilege. It means you're alive and you're well enough to work out. Some very broken-down people have worked their way back to health at the gym. My mother-in-law came out of cancer treatment, wore a surgical mask, and did one minute on the treadmill each day until she'd built back up to her preferred routine. If you're struggling, if you're having a really hard time, people are rooting for you. If anyone has noticed you, it's with a heartfelt desire to help you or support you in any way. I was taught to do ab curls by a kindergarten teacher who had lost the flap on her esophagus to acid reflux. We have to hesitate before we make any assumptions about the fitter people around us at the gym. We don't know their journey unless they tell us.
There will be people at most gyms who have been athletes their entire lives. They have the right to go to the gym, too. Almost everyone is there, though, because they need to be. We go because when we don't, something goes wrong. For me it's thyroid function. I have to work out at least at a minimum quota each day or my hormone levels gradually decrease until I feel wretched around the clock. I probably look super-fit to some people, and that idea is amusing to me, because I know my medical history. I'm lifting weights, and I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at 23. I'm thin now, but I lost 35 pounds. I'm in maybe the top third of flexibility and balance in yoga, but don't be sad, because I started learning postures when I was a teenager. When you've been doing it as long as I have, you'll probably be better at it than I am right now. I'm a marathon runner, and on my first day of running, I couldn't make it around the block. I ran my first mile at age 35. Never assume you can tell anything at all by looking at someone.
Some women wear makeup at the gym. I've done it. I've done it because my schedule was rushed and I didn't have time to fuss with removing it if I wanted to get the workout in. I wear makeup a couple of times a year. Others spend hours perfecting their look. Maybe they do put on a fresh coat before working out. Good for them. Why would you care? Maybe they just really, really like makeup. Maybe some women see it as war paint, and it helps them feel confident enough to face the world. Maybe some women are really self-conscious about how they look, and they can't do anything until they feel like they look perfect enough. Sound familiar? Until I can honestly say that I don't feel self-conscious doing something, I have to withhold judgment from anyone else who also feels self-conscious. I also have to not care about people who are more attractive than I am, because for one thing, I live within walking distance of the Hollywood sign. Also, it ain't a beauty contest. I'm at the gym to confront my inner self. What other people think of me is none of my business, just as what other people look like is none of my business.
I like being at the gym because in a way, it's the opposite of a beauty contest. It's a safe space. It's okay to have messy hair, to drip sweat, to wear smelly shoes and sloppy mismatched clothes with holes in them. Sometimes you can see people's surgical scars and stretch marks. There's a lot of tattoo art of variable quality. There are also a lot of comically strained facial expressions, unsexy contortions that are never going to make it into a profile pic. The only way to look bad at the gym is to inconsiderately monopolize equipment or idly stand around.
I saw another woman the other day. In street clothes, she might have looked like someone whose book club I would want to join. Cool glasses. My impression was of an intelligent, unpretentious person a little older than me. In gym clothes, well! She had a modestly midriff-baring top and tights. She was cut. Broad shoulders, tiny waist, big arms, about ninety million rippling muscles in her back. I kept sneaking peeks at her. Each time, I would re-evaluate my estimate of her age. At first I thought she was a few years older than me. Then ten. Then I realized she was my mom's age. It was so hard to tell because of her magnificent posture. Who knows how she looked when she was 40? Or 20? I want to look exactly like her at 60. If people are checking me out then, let them. Maybe she's had that wise revelation that "nobody was ever thinking about you in the first place." Maybe it's wrong. She's entitled to her gravitas; she's earned it. Nobody was born that way.
The same night, as my husband and I were finishing up, I saw a beautiful young woman. She was maybe 20. She had a lovely, slender build. She had a yard-long glossy blonde ponytail. She also had a wide sweat trail up the back of her dove-gray tights. I thought, good for her. She's doing what she wants to do and not letting self-conscious anxiety hold her back. She has just as much right to be sweaty as anyone else here. Maybe I wear only black shorts and tights for that same reason, but that's my hang-up. I'm glad she doesn't feel as awkward and weird as I do. Hopefully she, too, will still be at the gym when she's my age, when she's at the cut lady's age.
If I needed an alibi witness on a night I was at the gym, I'd have to count on the guest log, because nobody would be able to vouch that they'd seen me. I know it. The fifty people on the cardio equipment faced forward and never even saw me come in. The two dozen men and four women lifting free weights had their eyes on the mirror, watching their form and avoiding injury. Maybe one or two people using the weight machines noticed me for two seconds, but I'm just an average-looking middle-aged woman with a dark ponytail. I can come and go freely at one of the most anonymous places in the neighborhood. Nobody is watching, not really.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.