“It’s not about the numbers,” the trainer said as she placed a printout full of numbers and complicated charts in front of me. It was my second encounter with the InBody machine, a souped-up scale that measures not just your weight, but also your BMI and the exact percentages of fat and lean muscle in every region of your body.
“The good news is that your lean muscle mass percentage is up!” she continued as I studied the charts. “Yeah, but so are all the other numbers,” I replied, too tired to keep the discouragement from my voice. I’d been unhappy at my gym for a while. I told myself it was all in my head, though, because surely going to the gym was good for me. But here was evidence that it wasn’t working after all—the numbers didn’t lie. I’d been working out regularly for 18 months with no discernible results—in fact, I felt worse about myself than when I’d started.
When I joined Healthworks, a chain of women’s gyms in Boston, I’d just relocated after a painful divorce, and my body was becoming something I didn’t recognize. My weight crept up pound by pound, as though my metabolism had packed its bags around the same time my husband had packed his.
While considering which gym to join, it was the perks of Healthworks—the spa-like locker rooms, the two floors of cardio machines and weights, the on-site massage therapist, the full schedule of group fitness classes—that I found more appealing than the absence of men. In fact, if I’m being totally honest, a little male attention wouldn’t have been entirely unwelcome at that juncture in my life. But in addition to those perks, I was also drawn to the idea of a community of women, a female fitness utopia. What I didn’t anticipate was that this community of women would cause me to scrutinize myself with hyper-judgmental eyes, comparing my body to each and every woman in the locker room, or on the bike or mat beside mine.
During my first meeting with the InBody machine at a complimentary session after I’d joined the gym, the trainer had drawn a convex curve on the back of the printout, showing me how the numbers were reflected in my body. “What you eventually want is a concave curve,” she said, drawing another shape. She showed me a few simple exercises, encouraged me to check out the group fitness classes, and sent me on my way. The journey from convex to concave curve seemed steep indeed.
For the next 18 months, I dutifully showed up to the gym, either in the mornings before work or in the evenings after work. I soon found that even though I felt virtuous commuting to the gym in the early morning darkness, that feeling faded as soon as I lined up my mat for barre class or climbed on a bike in the cycling studio. Though there were certainly women of all shapes and sizes, my mind would inevitably focus on everyone who was younger, prettier, and in better shape than I was. I felt like my squats were never deep enough, my weights weren’t heavy enough, my RPMs on the stationary bike weren’t fast enough.
But being the slowest and least coordinated was nothing new to me—as a child, my lack of hand-eye coordination was so bad that I was sent to what they called “special” gym, an additional gym class where the rest of the functionally “slow” kids and I would throw Nerf balls at targets and skip around orange cones to practice our motor skills. My most vivid memory of these classes was getting hit in the face with a basketball. As a result, I developed an aversion to physical activity that lasted until college, when I learned that exercising on my own terms was a lot more fun than institutionalized physical education.
For me, the real challenge was the locker room—a gauntlet of double standards. The locker room featured a sauna, Jacuzzi, and steam room, along with banks of mirrors, hair dryers, cotton balls, tissues, body lotion, and a clothing steamer. Every shower was equipped with shampoo, conditioner, body wash, shower caps, disposable razors, and clean towels. It was nice, but the message was clear—women should go to the gym to get lean and toned, but only if they can still look pretty afterward.
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I’d never felt less schooled in the ways of womanhood than I did in the Healthworks locker room, getting ready for work alongside dozens of other women. Each morning was like a scene from the backstage of a beauty pageant (or at least what they look like in the movies), as we jockeyed for space in front of a mirror to apply makeup and style our hair.
The juxtaposition of the gym’s message of female empowerment and the display of traditional beauty standards was striking, and for me, confusing. There was something disingenuous about lifting weights, doing push-ups and squats, cycling so hard that sweat poured into my eyes, and then stripping off the spandex, rinsing clean, beating my hair into shape, and smearing on layers of makeup to make sure any trace of sweat or effort was eradicated from my face.
It wasn’t long before I began to dread the gym and its familiar feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t feel strong enough, fast enough, or skinny enough, and on top of that, my hair was all wrong, and I couldn’t afford the high-end makeup and clothing the other women wore (thanks in part to my expensive gym membership). I began to go less and less, which led to the disappointing lack of results at my second InBody session and a downward spiral of guilt.
A week after that appointment, I walked into the gym and declared my intention to quit. After a few half-hearted attempts at getting me to stay (more training sessions, a discounted massage), they had me sign a piece of paper, and it was over—well, technically, my membership was still active for another two months because of gym regulations, but I never went back after that day. I walked out of the gym feeling stronger than I’d felt in months.
Now I roll out my yoga mat most mornings when I wake up and do either a free online yoga video or a barre workout from a website for which I pay a small monthly membership (less than 1/3 of what I was paying for my gym membership). In the corner of my bedroom, I have my own mini-gym—three sets of hand weights, a resistance band, a core ball, and two yoga mats. When the Boston weather cooperates, I go for a run around the pond near my apartment or a long walk through the Arboretum.
While I no longer have a sense of the exact percentages of fat and lean muscle mass in my right arm, I do know that I’m rediscovering the simple joy of moving my body on my own terms, of exercising not because I’m paying a monthly membership or feel an obligation, but because I want to. And I’m no longer competing with all of the other women in the locker room. The only standard I’m reaching for these days is getting better than I was the day before.
Jill Gallagher is an editor and writer in Boston. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Ploughshares blog.