Week 2: The paradox of wanting to be in shape before going to the gym
Gyms weren’t really a thing when I started “working out”. Gyms were leisure centres. And leisure centres were places where you got verrucas. One of the first gyms I went to as a teenager was at the local college where my mum worked. This “gym” would be better described as a hut with a rowing machine in it.
Even in my late-teens, early-twenties, gyms were a different beast. Everyone in there somehow looked like someone’s dad (even the women), and the only semblance of activewear you’d find were raggedy old charity t-shirts from a local Fun Run in 1996, or shorts that the wearer clearly also used for grouting.
Today, gyms are like a migraine of blaring David Guetta, primary school playmat workout zones and garish wall art reminding you to “Lift, Laugh, Love”. No one in there looks like anyone’s dad - not even the dads! And I’ve never seen butts, abs or arms like it. Some of these guys are so massive, they literally have to punch each others’ rippling bodies into those weird tube things they use as entry gates just to be able to get in. And it’s not just the blokes. Errrrbody be out there looking like they were carved by God herself. (If God had a rolling monthly contract at Pure Gym and 20K followers on Insta). And you can forget all about your grouting shorts. I can only assume everyone in there is sponsored by Fabletics, Under Armour or those weird TikTok leggings that make your butt crack look like the first 15 folds of an origami crane.
OK, I know I am being facetious. Not all gyms are like this. And I 100% do not judge anyone who effin’ loves this kind of vibe. You go get it, hunnay!
What I am trying to say is that, on the whole, I find gyms these days (alright, Grandma) incredibly intimidating. Absolutely this is my insecurity. But, even the other day, I saw a TikTok where a woman was making fun of another gym goer for not wearing proper weight lifting trainers. I mean, for God’s sake, can we please not make moving our bodies part of an elitist agenda. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete, trainers are trainers are trainers. And a decent pair, that doesn’t hurt your feet, should suffice for most activities. Take it from someone who wears flip flops 10 months out of the year, don’t let a pair of shoes hold you back.
Logically, I get that gyms are for everyone. For the most part, we can all pick stuff up and put it back down again. But any time I’ve been to the gym in the last few years, people like me - people who are at the beginning or middle of their journey, people who don’t especially care to look like an Instagram gym-fluencer, people whose faces flush bright red as soon as they even look at a kettlebell - seem to be in short supply.
It’s not a great colour on me, but a part of it is that I miss the days where the standards were so low everyone would think you were a WWE Wrestler after doing just 15 dumbbell curls, and you’d be the hottest dad in there just for pairing your grouting shorts with a sleeveless vest top. The other part of it is that I simply just don’t feel like I belong in that environment. That, without rippling muscles, I’m not worthy enough to use the squat rack.
What a horrible physical and emotional catch 22. (Like the time I was too chubby to fit into my sports bra. Just buy a new one, honey!)
Something had to change so, determined to put my health before my insecurities, I stumped up four credits on Class Pass (an app I had primarily used for nail appointments and massages), and booked an “Open Gym” session at a Fitness First in London Bridge. I packed my non-weight lifting trainers and my faded Leavers ‘09 t-shirt that I sometimes use for pyjamas, and off I went.
As it turns out, the way I looked was the least of my worries. Because my first gym visit in 2023, was a disaster!
Let’s start at the start, with the fire alarm that went off as soon as I had finished getting changed. (Talk about a sign to just sack it off and have a mimosa.) False-alarm issues dealt with, I hit the gym floor, as did all the mud from my one pair of non-weight lifting trainers that I had been wearing for Christmas country walks and every rainy run since November. If someone had made a TikTok ridiculing me for the trail of soil and leaves I left around that gym, I’d say fair play. At one point, while I was on the treadmill, a guy genuinely started hoovering around me.
To make matters worse, about 20 minutes into my workout, I started to get super lightheaded and nauseous as my blood sugar suddenly dropped. Now I know: Haribo Tangfastics are not a suitable pre-workout snack. Despite every fibre of my being wanting to go home and eat some ham, I couldn’t face walking past the super-friendly staff at reception when I’d literally only arrived moments before.
After 60 minutes of distributing mud around the establishment, I called it a day and scuttled back to the changing room. My final insult: it’d been so long, I couldn’t remember the code to my padlock. I tried a few combinations. Yanked at it. Called it a few choice swear words. But the little shit wouldn’t budge. Eventually, I had to escort one of the male trainers - bolt cutters in tow - into the ladies changing room and have him cut the lock off so I could rescue my stuff and, most importantly, my lip balm.
This whole saga ultimately taught me that the universe clearly doesn’t want me to go to the gym (and, crucially, I should probably get a specific pair of trainers for working out). But also, and in all seriousness, that there are so many more things to worry about than what you look like.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a Car Boot Conversation I had with my friend Kate Barron last year. During this conversation on weight loss, she introduced me to the concept of body neutrality. Body neutrality represents a shift away from the unrelenting body positivity we see splashed across our social media feeds, and a step towards bodily acceptance. No one feels great about their body everyday. Literally no one! Body neutrality encourages us to find peace with our body as it is today and, instead, focus on all of the amazing things our bodies enable us to do, think and feel.
Whatever skin you’re in, whatever size you are, you have the right to simply exist. Our self-worth isn’t defined by our bodies. However, as I discovered, it is defined by our ability to remember our padlock codes, so write that shit down, OK!
I want to end by saying that if you are a muscle-y gym bunny, I hope you read this (as it’s intended) as a reflection on my insecurities and not in any way a judgement. Ultimately, I’m probs a bit jealous of those rock-hard abs.
Whoever you are. Whatever your vibe. I hope you find a lovely place where you can move your body and feel like the hottest dad around.