In one of his essays, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillardcriticized health clubs as a descendant of the torture chambers of Inquisition Europe. In the same essay, he continues to critique them for catering to the wealthy, narcissistic and ultimately child-like. I think Baudrillard is full of beans. He can’t have it both ways. It’s too easy to call working out a torture and at the same time bad mouth people who work out as wealthy, narcissistic and childish. Yes, gyms can be weird places. The fluorescent lights, the mirrors, and the Top 40 soundtrack interspersed with loud grunts and heavy breathing reminds me, personally, of some kind of soft-core, made for cable movie. But I’m a gym apologist. I like the gym. I think there’s a great deal of value in working out. And science undoubtedly agrees with me. We’re animals and we need strenuous physical activity to remain alive and sane. Also, gyms usually have remarkable characters.
I’ve been a member at one gym or another since I was in high school, so I’ve been to lots of gyms, all around the USA. I’ve been to gyms, literally from coast to coast and the one constant, from east to west and south to north are the characters. I’m not sure what it is, but when people get in their workout clothes and get around weights, balance balls, and treadmills they get crazy. Or crazy people gravitate towards gyms. I’m not sure which.
Once, while working out under the harsh fluorescents in college, there was a big guy lifting weights. As he lifted, he literally screamed with every lift. He wasn’t grunting. He wasn’t breathing heavily. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, the way you might scream if you actually were being tortured in the Spanish Inquisition (Hey Baudrillard, I might want to recant now.) I mean, he was really screaming,loud. It was so loud it was distracting and made me laugh a little. It was so loud, it distracted another gym patron, who politely walked over to the man after he was done screaming.
'Sir,' the distracted man said, 'I respect your strength, but could you please keep it down?'
The screamer nodded a reply, but he had screamed so loud, his voice was inaudible. Only a gravely squeak came out.
On the other side of the gym I watched, a little embarrassed that I was so interested in what was going on, and not concentrating on my own workout. I respect your strength? I don’t know who was weirder: the screaming banshee, the complainer who “respects his strength” (not the strength of his vocal cords, though) or me, the skinny guy in the corner watching the whole thing and taking notes.