I remember the first time I bench-pressed 225 pounds. As a former gangly teenager who could barely lift 145, I celebrated the accomplishment with far more excitement than the occasion warranted. It isn’t a lot of weight for serious lifters and most professional athletes, but it was everything to me. It was everything because 225 pounds seemed masculine, like the epitome of strength. It was everything because strength is often regarded as the most desirable trait a man can possess in our culture.
I’ve gone to the gym regularly for about a decade. I never questioned the habit; for a long time, it was simply my default. But in an ongoing quest to examine my behavior more closely, I’ve found that I don’t hit the gym because it’s healthy — or because it gets me out of the house, or because it gives me something to do. At least, those aren’t the primary reasons.
Really, I go to the gym because it’s masculine. Because, after years of training, I can drop and give you 50. I can grind through 25 consecutive pull-ups. I can put 225 pounds on the bench-press and churn out a few reps.
I know this doesn’t say anything about the person I am, and I’m not telling you these things because I hope you’ll be impressed. This isn’t a story about how much weight I can lift or how many pull-ups I can do.
It’s about how we hide the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s about how we hide these things from ourselves. It’s about how we react when we realize we’re not who we’re supposed to be, and how we try to find release from that realization.
It’s about hoping that whatever I achieve at the gym will distract me from the fact that I feel deficient in so many other ways. It’s about how, according to some narrowly-defined and mostly-ignorant concept of masculinity, depression and anxiety are unacceptable. It’s about realizing that if I can’t act like a man or feel like a man, I can at least look like a man.