The Ballad of the Sweaty-Arsed Man
I am in the gym. I am about 26.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” said Big Joe, grinning like a maniac. “They made me promise not to.”
“Who? Tell me what?”
“Those girls that train here, the ones that were in the racks over that side today” — he indicated with a hand the size of a fraternity paddle.
“I guess I know the ones. What about them?”
“They have a nickname for you. They call you the Sweaty-Arsed Man.”
Imagine that, people who I’d never met and had no interest in, laughing at me behind my back. Maybe for years. Enough to give me a nickname. Within eyeshot, within earshot, right next to me. Silently laughing. Mocking. Maybe audibly laughing, when I wasn’t paying attention.
I was absolutely delighted.
“Tell them I said thank you, that’s a great name.”
Big Joe looked briefly puzzled.
“I guess they thought you’d be mad.”
“They thought wrong.”
“Health”, “healthy”. It’s a disaster. What is a ‘healthy’ thing?
It’s become a lot like Potter Stewart’s pornography. “I don’t know WHAT it is, but I know it when I see it!”
There’s only two problems with that.
1) If you wait long enough, pornography becomes history. And then it won’t start your motor no mo’. In other words, a Victorian daguerreotype of some confused looking woman rummaging through her petticoats won’t do much for any sweaty-palmed teenager.
Or, more specifically, have a look at a malted milk ad from a hundred years ago.
Are you a thin, shrewish, pallid harridan?
Drink McStumpo’s Malted Milk Beverage!
Be the very picture of radiant health!
Get lumpy! Get hammy! GET HEALTHY!
The AFTER photo is a woman with fuller cheeks and an arm like a prosciutto.
That’s healthy — it’s a busted flush of contemporary expectations.
2) Confusing how things look with what they are is a horrible mistake.
There is a curious desire to codify the trappings of health. We conflate being healthy with looking healthy, because there’s not much else to go on.
There is a promotion at my gym right now, you take photos of yourself, and you put them in the public domain with a hashtag:
“How do you do, fellow kids?” Another marketing gonk takes a swing and misses. Smells a bit 5 years ago to me. I have no idea if people use this hashtag. Probably not. I’m not looking it up.
What’s hilarious is that the whole campaign is advertised by people who are naturally very good looking — and the women in particular are really tall.
#IWasBornLikeThis doesn’t quite carry the same message, does it?
One woman in the ads is my height, but is the width of a Biafran mouse. She has the aspect ratio of a carpenter’s pencil. She didn’t “make” a damn thing, and will be slim forever barring some kind of inventive industrial accident where car parts, shrapnel or heavy machinery end up irreversibly lodged in her.
(And more power to her, she’s managing to make a living off genetic virtue… the only way I’ll be doing that is if there’s ever a business in getting things down off high shelves for people.)
SHOW us your health, your healthiness. Show the world. Buy the healthy clothes. Externalise. Codify. Imagine the denial of a world where Men’s Health is called Men’s Health.
What are they selling this month? Let me guess: big arms, abs and something about how to work your dick. Probably which end to use.
What, again? Surely that was last month.
“This Month, An Interview with Ryan Reynolds/Adams/Gosling… (we’re not sure which yet, but he’s awfully pretty)”
“Yet Again, We Recommend The Bicep Curl. The Suspense Will Kill You.”
“8 Exercises to Turn Your Triceps into NINECEPS. (It’s Triceps SQUARED).”
The congregation stands:
“Biceps, abs, your dick, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I’d have a much lesser problem with a rag called Men’s Vanity, Men’s Fragility, Men’s Burgeoning Self-Image Crisis.
Funnily enough, some version of those magazines exist.
I was waiting in a beautician’s once, inspecting the parade of the sanded-back-powder-coated-and-primed participants going in for chemical peels and nipple inversions, and flipped through the magazine stack. There was one just called COSMETIC SURGERY.
It was fascinating. It was just a catalogue of all the bizarre shit you can have done to yourself. To my infinite curiosity, I found it less distasteful than Men’s Emergent And Tentative Feelings, because absolutely zero pretense was offered. It would have been monstrous to call it Cosmetic Health, or Wellness Surgery — and they didn’t. It was basically Flesh Plumbing 101.
CUTTING OFF XYZ, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW.
THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF ABC SCRAPING & TIGHTENING.
ALTERING YOUR FACE WITH CHEMICALS, A USER’S GUIDE.
HOW THE SCROTAL LIFT WORKS
(^ That last one wasn’t in the magazine, but it IS a thing now.)
Pure unadulterated surgical honesty.
At no point in this catalogue of priming, stapling, cauterising and sandblasting was I told to ‘be the best you that you can be’. They never appealed to any ideas they never defined; ‘progress’, for instance, the favourite nebulous goal of people everywhere who think they can win a kale and lemongrass smoothie if they smile more. They were just advertising the fact that you could pay someone with a laser or a scalpel to panel-beat you, and how much it cost.
Interestingly, I have never seen this magazine anywhere else. Only in this alien environment with its bizarre dead-eyed china-doll clientele do we have the collective honesty necessary to stare unabashed, expensive, upper-middle class vanity in the face.
Only here can we call a spade a spade. Rather than “the hottest new earth-inversion equipment based workout to get your booty shakin’!”
See, I’m really bad at this external cultivation of looking healthy thing.
I don’t want the trappings of health. I don’t want to look ‘fabulous’. I can’t codify anything for myself, a process I can’t even begin to start.
I’ll play along, sure. I’ll do the same stuff. I’ll do what you do. I will go to your places of exercise, lift your weights, push against your bicycle wheels, run your courts.
But I will do it ugly.
I will gob on my own shirt. Blood, snot, chalk, skin divots, absolutely unprintable language. I will wear clothes that should be in a charity bin that were freebies from horrible things I did: GRIM MALONE’S TRUCK TYRE EATING CONTEST 2006. NUN-PUNCHING REGIONAL FINALS 2010. ‘KILL ALL THE THINGS STONE DEAD’ MUSIC FESTIVAL.
And, most importantly, I will sweat.
Off my nose, down my face.
All over my arse.
Not ass, EHH-SSSS. Not the sanitized American ass.
Dear Lord, you might as well just call it a ‘fanny’, you mooks. ARSE. Dig into the word, enjoy the R. Like a pirate. ARRRRSE, Jim.
Say it with me, He Is The Sweaty-ARRRRSED Man.
And I am.
I will come in smelling of Era Active Stainfighter and eucalyptus fabric softener and leave smelling like a Calcutta trash fire. My hair will go in my eyes. I will wipe my nose on a towel. I will occasionally check that towel to see if it’s full of blood instead of dry air snot. I will not be lean, elegant, or sexy. I will pull faces, and mutter loudly about truth and justice, and occasionally I will call the weight a big fat communist bastard for having the temerity to disobey me. Frequently I mutter lyrics from songs I listen to. Very occasionally, this has been a problem, because they are awful.
I will fill your bar with skin divots.
I will fill your bin with dead calluses.
If people interrupt me, I will be very short. Go away.
Occasionally, if someone gets in front of me while I am very, very obviously working with a sled, I will speed up and try to run them over with it. Go away.
If you step over a rope I am using, I will try to flick you in the balls with it.
Yes, balls. It’s always men who want to talk to you. It’s always men who are in the way. Women are too considerate and too self-aware. And too hygienic.
Go away, men. Leave that woman alone. Leave each other alone. Leave everyone alone. And shut up, for the punch-drunk love of all that cries havoc at midnight, shut your flat tin head.
I will break all your rules about protein timing and nutrient delivery and thermo-bollocks. I will work on an empty stomach and forget to eat afterwards. I will go on a full stomach. I will go drunk. Yes, drunk. I will simply append the word recovery to anything I drink afterwards.
“Recovery glass of milk because we don’t have anything else.”
“Recovery bits of a roast dinner from last night.”
“Recovery eight flank steak tacos because shut up you’re not my dad.”
“Recovery glass of water followed by playing Murder Hand with the cat.”
There’s my ‘ancillary nutrition’ advice — cook. Easier than having another argument about whey protein, isn’t it? My patience with the vomiting firehose of fitness preciousness around this stuff is exactly zero. Print out your free guide to Rapidly Burning, Flaming, Torching, Fingering, or Evicting the Fatzors, glue it to your shoes and fling them over some powerlines.
Very occasionally, I will throw up. This is not laudable or desirable, it merely is. More occasionally, I will dry heave, and produce a kind of spit froth. When this happens, I will have a ridiculous and disgusting second of feeling robbed out of a good story.
No vomit? 90% of the effort, for 0% of the story.
No matter what fluid comes out of my head, I will lie down next to the bin for a while and make a sweat angel.
I recommend short rowing intervals. 6 * 500m for a decent minimum time, after you’ve done all your other stuff. Then make sure both your upper arms have good contact with the floor, and don’t move them. It ruins the shape of the stain. If the sweat angel is a particularly good one, only then will I feel compelled to take a photo.
Not of me. Of the puddle.
(Don’t worry, I clean it up afterwards.)
The external cultivation of health is a nasty wrinkle of modern life, the moral imperative of ‘choice’ all grown up and unpleasantly metastatic, creeping into your corporeal self. Rightness and purity. Building an exoskeleton.
I am not trying to cultivate my body, I am trying to kill my consciousness.
If you train so you can be bigger, or smaller, stop.
Train to disappear.
It’s hard, and you’ll have to sweat.
All over your sweaty,