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Making your masculinity in the gym

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 29 November 2006


When I moved into Bondi Junction from the suburbs I had to do something to exercise my rotten old drooping, hunch-shouldered academic body. My physio-terrorist used to say "Exercise, Mr West, exercise those poor old shoulders and back! That’s what you need!"

So what does a 40-year-old man do (OK, I admit it, I’m over 50 and then some) in this post-feminist age? Join a boxing club? Become a lifesaver? Join a football club? Do they have such things for geriatrics?

So I went to the gym.

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The first I visited was Power Gym. (Please note that all names have been changed, mainly to protect me from being thumped by people four feet wide.) Power Gym was brisk and efficient. There was strong but subtle pressure to sign up and it was made clear that if I did so I would save a lot of money. But people in the gym were a bit surly. Some guy snarled at me when I was using his equipment (I wondered about making a little joke of this, but didn’t want to touch that one). And so I dropped out after a couple of visits.

I was glad I didn’t sign up. The gym closed one day without a squeak of warning. All those who had signed off were shunted off to another gym elsewhere in the Junction.

So I went to another gym around the corner. This worked out for a time. There was a huge room where all the big boys worked out, with a great deal of grunting and groaning. Occasionally I would come in to find a mirror had been smashed or there was a hole in the wall, but I never witnessed any aggression myself.

When I went upstairs to yoga classes there seemed to be some tension between the yoga aficionados and the bodybuilders. As we came down the stairs from yoga one day, a woman snarled "Look at those guys with their massive legs and arms. They couldn’t do yoga, the PUSSIES!"

I spoke to the guy behind the counter. Most of the guys in the gym were 25 or thereabouts, he said. Only about 75 per cent of them were on steroids, though there were a few bits and pieces of other stuff. Bodybuilders call this the grey area, the stuff that hasn’t been banned yet. I heard fragments of conversation about "Now I’m taking half a tablet of extract of bull’s penis every day I’m really seeing my arms change". Although I lived in daily expectation that someone would offer me a cheap deal on eye of newt or toad’s testicles to improve my tiny chest, this never happened.

I struggled through my exercise routine, often worrying about paying bills, getting retrenched, the usual stuff. As I did so some great lunk twice as wide as me would sometimes lumber across from lifting 1,500 pounds on bench press and explain that I was using the machine backwards, or not squeezing my biceps sufficiently. They seemed reasonable enough at first and nobody ever seemed to be nasty.

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Then I began to look around me. The people in the gym strode past me as they went about their quest to be bigger, stronger, bigger. They had discreet tatts in the right places, muscles that bulged from their carefully cut tank tops, amazing abs that gleamed as the muscles shifted beneath hairless skin, muscles that burst out of their shorts.

That was just the women.

You should have seen the men! Some of these guys had chests that you see in bodybuilding magazines. Their legs were so huge they had to waddle around, legs placed far apart so the muscles didn’t impede each other as they lumbered along. Their lives were carefully moulded around the gym: chest today, legs tomorrow, abs Thursday, carb up, pig out, rest up, start again.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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