The gym gasbag exudes an obnoxious pride in his belief that self-punishment and dietary austerity make him superior to the unenlightened pot-bellied sinners who languish in their life of sloth and gluttony. He is also quick to judge those who neglect the gym’s rigors, accusing them of a particular brand of moral bankruptcy. Convinced of his moral superiority, the gym gasbag is eager to lecture the nonexerciser about his flaws and the burden his unconditioned body imposes on society. Escalating health care costs are the fault of the nonexerciser. As is the paucity of garden burger choices in the supermarket. Failing to conform to society’s belief that fitness is a sort of holy edict, the nonexerciser is a modern-day leper. As Mark Greif points out in his essay, “Against Exercise”: “The person who does not exercise, in our current conception, is a slow suicide. He fails to take responsibility for his life. He doesn’t labor strenuously to forestall his death. Therefore we begin to think he causes it.”
The gym gasbag is not content condemning those who avoid intense physical activity. He must also approach strangers in the gym, presumably workout novices, and give them pointers, which are often stretched out into lectures and longwinded critiques about the novice’s shortcomings. These lectures will include demonstrations of proper exercise method and the insistence that the novice repeat the gym gasbag’s exercise to insure that he can implement the correct form in a meticulous fashion. Out of politeness the stranger often complies with the self-appointed gym sheriff’s instructions. However, this acquiescent gym novice should be warned that if he complains that the gasbag’s method causes pain and discomfort, the gym sheriff will simply dismiss the complaints as the result of the stranger not having acclimated to the correct method and that even though he is experiencing excruciating pain, he should “work through it” because in the long run he will benefit immeasurably from the gasbag’s unsolicited tutelage.
Further distinguishing himself from the world’s bloated infidels, the gym gasbag engages in vulgar attention-getting rituals, such as keeping a workout journal, gulping bright colored “energy” drinks, and photographing himself between exercises with his cell phone camera. His grotesque ostentation is well described in Mark Greif’s essay:
Exerciser, what do you see in the mirrored gym wall? You make the faces associated with pain, with tears, with orgasms, with the sort of exertion that would call others to your immediate aid. But you do not hide your face. You groan as if pressing on your bowels. You repeat grim labors as if mopping the floor. You huff and you shout and strain. You appear in tight yet shapeless Lycra costumes. These garments reveal the shape of the genitals and the mashed and bandaged breasts to others’ eyes, without acknowledging the lure of sex.
These rituals are part of the gym gasbag’s mask of supreme invincibility, his absurd belief that punishing exercise results in immortality. My gym is frequented by several gasbags whose very strict adherence to body conditioning betrays their limitations and their inevitable decay. A dramatic case in point was revealed to me by one of the gym’s personal trainers, Laura. One day while I was running on the treadmill, Laura told me she was in the woman’s locker room when she saw a seventy-five-year-old, artificially-tanned, bleach-blonde woman stripping out of her gym tights while lecturing to the other woman about how energized she was from her carrot juice drinks fortified with spirulina, a blue-green algae. As she rhapsodized about the health benefits of the protein-dense algae, she continued to undress, revealing her spectacular, smooth, milky white silicone breast implants. Laura said that about ten other breast-augmented women, mostly in their early twenties, had their eyes fixed on the seventy-five-year-old’s nude body and all at once their jaws dropped. It wasn’t the upward-pointing, massive artificial breasts that made the old woman such a frightening sight. It was the stark contrast of those missile-like breasts, the appendages of a nineteen-year-old, with the woman’s nicotine-coated, wrinkled, leathery body, her skin’s creases and grooves reminiscent of an aged elephant’s sun-cracked hide.
The old woman ignored the open-jawed looks of horror as she expounded on the “complete proteins” found in spirulina. What terrified the young women, Laura explained to me, is that in that instant that they knew they were on the same path as the old woman. Thanks to their chain smoking, their breast-enlargements, and their frequent trips to the tanning booths, they knew they would someday look just like her. While listening to the retired porn star lecture on the health benefits of spirulina, they had access to a sort of nicotine-stained crystal ball that afforded them a snapshot of themselves a half century later, and what they saw inside that crystal ball made them gasp and shudder with fear.
The aging porn star is merely one of several gym members who are, contrary to their self-image, deteriorating both physically and mentally. The gym’s most notorious gasbags are in denial of this fact. A prime example is Regina, the health club’s part-time smoothie bar hostess. If she wasn’t so overtly needy, she might be considered attractive. In her late thirties, she is naturally dark skinned with straight black hair, she has slightly oversized teeth and is noticeably svelte—perhaps too much. Medium height, small boned and presumably blessed with a fast metabolism, she appears skeletal, anorexic and teatless in her white, body-hugging workout tights. Apparently energized from her cardio-induced leanness, she walks very quickly and urgently everywhere she goes with her hands clenched at her sides, signaling great purpose and mission.
Completely sexless with her military bearing, she doesn’t so much talk to people as blurt and bellow insufferable workout clichés at them: “Gotta make it past the pain barrier, babe!” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” are two of her favorites. There is something hostile about her friendliness. She asserts herself on people with such perkiness and intensity that you get the feeling that if you don’t reciprocate her “kindness” with equal enthusiasm she will bare her sharp white teeth and harbor great animosity against you. And you will of course be quite accurate in your assessment.
Perhaps what is most repellent is Regina’s laugh. It is more of an ape-like shriek, actually, a forced sound effect designed to suggest camaraderie with the other employees and gym members. Her laugh is a hideous cry for help, the howling of a wounded psyche. Because she has no life at home and no friends that I can imagine, she is at the gym from early morning till late at night.
Consequently, her forced laughter echoes almost continuously throughout the gym like a soundtrack, the official health club chorus of existential angst and despair.
The gym members, men especially, avoid Regina and appear tense and weary in her presence. It isn’t that she is physically unappealing, as lots of underweight and undernourished women enjoy a certain sexual cachet in our society. It’s that she exudes a strong whiff of neediness that even the most coarse dullard can detect. She can’t help but advertise that she is looking to attach herself to a host with relentless tenacity. The result is a shrillness that breaks through her thin, fitness-hostess veneer and betrays her as the tightly-wound lunatic she really is. For example, she once drenched me with her pocket-sized anti-fungal and anti-bacterial sprays while she was cleaning the treadmills, explaining that, unwashed, they presented a health hazard to the public.
On another occasion, I was working out on the Stairmaster Crossrobics machine and noticed she had all three televisions tuned to her favorite soap opera. When a young woman changed one of the channels, Regina had a tantrum, explaining that she needed all TVs tuned to the same channel so she could see her program from all angles, depending on her vantage point. Once someone turned off the overhead fans in the Elliptical Cardio Station Room and Regina got off her Elliptical Cross Trainer, walked toward the fan breaker switches and turned the fans back on. Then baring her teeth and shaking her finger at the guilty woman, she said, “Only authorized personnel are to have access to these switches. Do you understand me?”
Regina’s status as “authorized personnel” seems at best ambiguous. Her job as part-time smoothie-bar hostess is somewhat sporadic and there seems to be some question as to just what her relationship is to the gym. My feeling is that she has imposed herself on the gym’s management and they pity her to a certain degree so they allow her to do menial tasks, sterilizing the exercise machines, putting away the weights and dumbbells and working the smoothie bar, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t pay her. In fact, she appears so desperate for a sense of belonging that she perhaps pay them to allow her to spend all her waking hours there.
Her status as a marginalized society member was reinforced one day when she passed me by and afforded me the stench of her gamey odor. Immediately, it occurred to me that she spent so much time at the gym that she did not have a clean change of clothes. Her only hygiene came from giving herself a “paper towel shower,” which is to say she was rubbing her sweaty body with dozens of wetted paper towels in the ladies’ room.
The use of the gym as a second home, or even a first home, is common with gym gasbags. Some have them perhaps once enjoyed CEO positions and were axed in cost-cutting measures. Unable to wield their authority in high places, they now haunt the gym and become self-appointed gym sheriffs, telling novices how to exercise and diet. Or they are escaping marital difficulties, finding in the gym a sense of control and mastery they cannot find in their chaotic domestic life. In other words, the gym gasbag suffers from a sense of frustration and personal failure and uses the gym as a fantasy where he is Lord of the Treadmill’s Start-Up Grid.
A more repugnant type of gym gasbag is the so-called “certified personal trainer,” whose personality is born from an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. One such specimen, Randy, embodies the desperate need to assert his masculine dominance. He is nineteen, stands barely over five feet tall, weighs no more than 155 pounds, but walks as if he were gloriously burdened with so much muscularity that if he turned around to acknowledge your greeting, you are supposed to be grateful that he has considered you worth the effort. He exudes a certain hostility that seems rooted, in part, by the fact that he is frustrated with himself—his puny, short-limbed body and his button-nosed baby face, his red chubby cheeks, his freckles, his dull, languid brown eyes. All his affectations are an attempt to compensate for what is essentially the face and body of a nine-year-old boy. He therefore goes for the “butch” look, wearing thick, black leather wrist bands, black Doc Martin boots with a pair of baggy black genie pants to minimize the unattractive squat shape of his legs. He often wears an oversized red flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off or an ultra tight white, crew-necked T-shirt. He also has a gold “pirate” earring and a cell phone attached to a Velcro fanny pack. His hair is difficult to describe, only because he seems to change it from week to week. It is naturally black and straight, but I have seen it permed into curls, I have seen it in corn rows, I have seen it buzzed Marine style, and I have seen it with thick stripes of white, yellow, and blue in order to achieve the “skunk” look. In his most recent styling, he has bleached his hair blond with some “spike” action on top. He seems pleased with himself for having hair that stands up like blades of grass. I imagine he enjoys what he believes is a fearless warrior image, but in fact the patch of erect hairs above his head make him look more like an effete ostrich.
But his far worst affectations are his attempts to compensate for his short man’s complex. For several years he has developed strategies to appear taller. He avoids standing in groups unless he can find a bench to stand on. He is very terrified of water grates as they represent the lowest point on a plane and getting caught on the lowest point is one of his great fears. His most drastic method of compensating for his short stature is walking for prolonged periods on his tiptoes, a habit that bent his spine so severely that I heard through the grapevine that he once required surgery.
Like Regina, Randy is a nuisance in that he is always giving unsolicited training advice, especially to the attractive women. When his exercise expertise fails to impress, he resorts to telling the women he writes children’s books.
Once, while I was running on the treadmill Randy had the audacity to approach me and ask if I was interested in hiring him as my personal trainer. His request was ludicrous. Number one, I am stronger and have more shapely muscle mass than him. Number two, I have less body fat than him. Number three, I know more about nutrition and exercise in my prostate gland than all of him knows. I simply told him I was happy with my training progress and assumed he would leave it at that.
But he didn’t. He told me I should “stagger” my training and my diet in order to “shock” my body into making more drastic gains. I resented his implication that my body was not responding dramatically enough to my training regime. Nor did I have any interest in “staggering” or “shocking” myself into faster progress, so I politely refused his solicitation, hoping he would leave it at that.
But he didn’t. “If you don’t want to go to that higher level,” he said, “that’s your business.”
I ignored him, hoping he would stop talking to me. But he didn’t.
“How long have you been running?”
“You’ve been running a long time. At least an hour by now.”
“After ninety minutes your metabolism will go into shut-down mode and you’ll actually start to burn muscle tissue.”
“Check’s in the mail.”
“Check’s in the mail.”
He shrugged and walked away. I thought our communication would be finished. But I was wrong. Now that he knew I would never hire him as my personal trainer, Randy showed his resentment by giving me a strange greeting whenever we passed. He would tighten his neck and make a mocking growling sound, which in some instances could be interpreted as playful, but which seemed belligerent.
Randy’s growling. Regina’s shrieking. And of course their constant talking. I suppose I should feel sorry for them. They are after all gym gasbags because of fear more than anything else. Kierkegaard was aware of the manner commotion was used to distract people from their worst fears. He wrote about the puritans, recently settled in America, banging pots and pans at night in order to drown the demonic howls they believed they could hear in the dark New England forests. Randy and Regina are compelled to make their own cacophony in order to distract them from their most abject fear, which is that the exercise gospel they preach is a patent lie.
Exercise does not result in eternal youth and immortality. Just take a look at the greasy spoon diner adjacent to our gym. In the blink of an eye, gym members wake up and find themselves tired, aching and incontinent—hapless victims to brutal old-age, indigestion, and decay so that faced with the humiliating prospect of wearing diapers and wetting themselves, they can no longer attend the gym’s grueling workout fests and must, against their will, find exile in at the diner, so accommodating it is to the geriatric demographic that basic table condiments like catsup, mustard, and A-1 Steak Sauce have been replaced with dark brown plastic bottles of molasses-flavored laxatives.
Peek through the windows at the diner and you will see senior citizens, former gym members, with glazed, enervated expressions squeezing liquid Ex-Lax over their runny eggs Benedict. In a stupor and apparently unaware of the bright egg yolk stuck to their gray mustaches, these over-the-hill exercise junkies seem to be asking themselves, “What happened? What happened to me?”