It was the summer of 2009, before brightly colored cycle studios took over the world. Before music-thumping, trendy gyms sold their brand of youth, hustle, and sex appeal to the masses. Before athleisure was a word. At the time, my sister was a certified CrossFit instructor, and she’d text me a WOD (workout-of-the-day) for free. I was a first-year teacher straddling the poverty line. So rather than blowing $250 a month at a CrossFit gym, I joined the local YMCA. Thanks to a sliding scale membership plan, I paid $40 a month.
Each day, after attempting to educate a defiant crowd of middle schoolers, I’d drive across town to the Y, find a treadmill, and run. Hard. It was a bare-bones gym: beige walls, bathroom stall dividers made of thick plastic, weak complimentary coffee. Florescent lights buzzed overhead, lighting rows of crowded stair climbers, ellipticals, and treadmills. The Y’s diverse clientele spanned all generations and fitness levels. Often an older man, a distance runner, chose the treadmill next to mine. I guess our workout schedules were the same. I can still remember how he smelled — like he never showered or washed his running clothes. Like he was rotting from the inside out. Occasionally, I’d see James Marsden at the gym, too — back then, celebrity sightings in Nashville happened more often, because the city was so much smaller. I enjoyed the mix of awful and awesome, the stench of sweat and possibility all around me. The YMCA wasn’t sexy. But I wasn’t concerned with appearances, only survival.
I wasn’t alone. Those were lean years for many people in America. The bottom had fallen out of the real estate market; the so-called “Great Recession” had only just begun. Instagram had not yet been invented. In 2009, there might have been a few people listening to music on an iPhone or iPod, but if someone stopped in front of the mirror to take a selfie, I’m fairly certain they would have been laughed out of the place.
But in the last decade, something changed.
When exactly did gyms get so sexy?
Was it when SoulCycle turned out all the lights? Or when Equinox first charged for “luxury” amenities? Perhaps it changed when Orange Theory put your name up on a board? Or when Lululemon hawked its first $100 pair of flesh-hugging leggings and said, There, go strut? Or was it when yoga lost its roots and told us to compete with the willowy girl next to us, in 100-degree heat, while holding tree pose?
The differences today are so incredibly stark:
At the sexy gym, girls wear flesh-toned spandex and sports bras. At the gym for regular people, a woman with silver hair on the treadmill next to you walks while reading The New Yorker.
At the sexy gym (SG™), you don’t talk. At the unsexy gym, you don’t have to talk, but people often do — “How’s Bill?” someone asks, “How’s work?” “Are the kids sleeping?”
At the sexy gym, a guy pauses mid-rep to take a photo of himself in the long, convex mirror, bent to make him look ripped. Girls sport full-faced makeup, eyebrows drawn on so dark and thick it’s like they’re trying to look mean.
Meanwhile, at the gym for everyone, childcare is included, and your children play in a little room filled with plastic toys, cared for by two women wearing hijabs; the women are learning English and they smile whenever your child walks in the door.
At the sexy gym, there are $500 Dyson hairdryers that don’t really work.
At the gym for normals, octogenarians walk the track or dance in a class with three-pound weights or gather in the pool for swim aerobics, and it’s good to remember that life always, only, goes in one direction — and that, if you’re lucky, one day your skin, too, will sag.
Here, things jiggle.
Here, a woman walks on a treadmill with tears on her cheeks.
Here, a man in a neon shirt hunches over an elliptical, moving his feet and clutching tight to the handlebars, holding on for dear life.
And isn’t that what we’re all doing in the end?
So — here’s to the year ahead. Whether your gym is shiny or dull, expensive or affordable, young or old — here’s to strengthening, while we can, the muscles that hold our weary bones in place.
Copyright © 2023 by Claire Gibson. All rights reserved. Claire Gibson’s debut novel, Beyond the Point, from William Morrow, was a Book of the Month pick. Her work has been featured in The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, and Marie Claire, among many other publications.