I think many are persuaded that the gym is a terrible battlefield full of soldiers: the lean ones, the buff ones and the fat ones. And in war, only the first two can win. Instead, it should be seen as a safe space for anyone who wants to feel something, like confidence and power. There are many in-betweeners as well, and in fact, I used to be one myself. It was in America, where I lived from the ages of twelve to seventeen, that I started to gain some weight. I wasn’t really overweight – at least, according to my doctor, not by American standards – nor was I underweight, and I was definitely not athletic. I had played tennis for many years, but rarely competitively. As such, I felt like I was the last type of person who should go to a gym. On my first day, I had a crippling fear of looking like someone who had been working out for years without really achieving anything.
“Gymtimidation: the feeling that you’re being watched and judged for your appearance at the gym”
About two years ago, I stepped lethargically into my first ever gym, in a small town in northern Italy. It was a very strange time to be joining this league of life-changers, in late February during an Erasmus placement, and out of nowhere (perhaps because I had started seeing this very ripped guy who is now my poor, mortified partner who will read this article) I was somehow dragged along by my flatmate’s friend, a person I had just met late at night at a bus station in a dodgy area of town. Somehow, she became my first gym buddy at Palestra HealthCity Padova. This gym was cool: a heavily air-conditioned, small black and orange palace of machinery, with perfumed, sweaty, men. It was terrifying. People were performing movements I had never seen before, tiny movements lifting huge weights with their equally as tiny wrists. What are they doing, I thought to myself. It felt a bit absurd, and I was sure everyone could tell that I had just travelled forty minutes on a creepy bus to a Decathlon the day before to buy literally everything I was wearing. I was sure that I was experiencing gymtimidation: the feeling that you’re being watched and judged for your appearance at the gym. Sometimes it’s unfounded but often it’s a very real social practice that no one can escape.
At least I wasn’t alone, which I think was important. Together, her and I built up the courage, and started “working out”, with my partner encouraging me from abroad. We would finish French class at 6pm on a Wednesday, and quickly make it known that we were now “going to go work out”. Together, it had a transformative power.
Alone, it becomes serious, and a bit frightening. We take for granted the social environments that we are used to, and the gym certainly doesn’t feel like a safe space to anyone who thinks they could qualify as average. It can feel like a warzone, but mostly it feels like being a newly-hired intern at a sexy dance company, except the prerequisites haven’t been specified online and your degree is in Literature. It’s also no secret that there is a gender divide: women dominate the cardio room while men occupy every bench in the weight lifting section. Fortunately, this gap is slowly closing, and more and more women are picking up the courage, quite literally, to head over to the dumbbells. It seems trivial, but there’s a vicious cycle perching its head up from somewhere underneath this innocent facade: how is one supposed to acquire practical experience without performing? How to best perform and do it safely, without feeling comfortable? Who to look up to, with few women working the muscle groups you want to target?
I am now at my fourth gym here in Amsterdam, and it’s probably the coolest one yet. It has big marble columns, a protein shake bar bang in the middle of it all and huge mirrors everywhere. Everyone is wearing branded gym merchandise, flaunting their shakers and wireless earphones. The building used to be a bank, so the changing rooms are located inside abandoned vaults. If that’s not terrifying… there’s even an awkward DJ booth next to the gym and I struggle not to make eye contact with the young blond man who’s raving alone on stage on a Tuesday morning. That is a whole different kind of courage.
“I still wonder sometimes if I’m performing a new exercise correctly”
Luckily, I’ve also found a regular gym friend here who performs seriously and spends a good thirty minutes discussing academia and tampons with me on the treadmill. This blend seems to work well: we spot each other, add on more weight, check each other’s form, but we also jokingly test how innovative of a glutes variation we can come up with before it gets too weird.
I still wonder sometimes if I’m performing a new exercise correctly, or how anyone can remember these ridiculously long names, somewhere along the lines of standing-incline-lateral-dumbbell-leg-press-knee-cap-fly-push. In general, though, I have newfound confidence in my favorite gym trend. It’s now cool to be a strong woman with impressive biceps. It’s only a shame that it caught on so late.
With the new hype around body positivity, which in essence is progressive in nature, it might also be healthy to remind people that it is okay to not love every part of your body. That being said, the first step is conquering the social setup that is gymtimidation, not conquering yourself. Remember that you walk in as yourself, and whilst you walk out a little more confident, you’re still yourself.
Flo McQuibban is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.
- Columnist (Winter 2019)