DO I MEASURE UP?
WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS
The frequency with which I attend the gym is directly correlated to my mental wellbeing. When I’m in a productive state, determined to reach all the lofty goals I’ve set myself, resolute in my determination to change the world, I’ll go almost everyday. When I’m in a depressive state, when the emotional mountains in front of me are too big, too terrifying, I retreat to my bed and treat the gym as if it were some luxury that someone like me, with all my flaws and mental immobility, can’t afford. One of the biggest hurdles is how conflicted the space is for me. It’s the space in which I feel most comfortable connecting to my body and in which I constantly measure it against everyone else’s. It’s the space in which the perfectionist in me thrives: I nail my posture and I berate myself for not working hard enough. It’s the space in which I’m learning to wean myself from external validation and the space I go to get it.
“…my best is a multi-tiered approach that includes re-evaluating what I find beautiful in others, challenging my beliefs about what makes me valuable and reminding myself that I am more than the sum of my physical parts.”
Breaking free from an attachment to external validation is hard. We live in a world that places such value on what we look like and which treats better those who might more closely resemble lofty and restrictive body ideals. At the intersection of Black and gay, I’ve found the reduction of my being to my exterior particularly hard to deal with and to overcome, an experience for which I didn’t have the language to describe until reading two books. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that first opened my eyes to the inherited and historical value of my Black body: it is, and has been seen as, both an asset and a threat. And it was North Morgan’s Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read that helped me see more clearly the objectification of our bodies in our sexually-charged gay culture, as the author laments (yet accepts) the reductive way we view and value ourselves and each other, and the energy we expend trying to reach constantly-moving goal posts. Both books had a profound impact: if the value attached to my body as a Black gay man is heavily, if not wholly, dependent upon the exterior, and what it can do in service of others or their desires, it helps explain the mental acrobatics involved in getting to the gym in the first place. On the one hand, it’s an act of self love, a nurturing ritual and a promise to look after myself. On the other, it provokes anxiety, self-criticism and self-doubt: do I measure up?
“On the one hand, it’s an act of self love, a nurturing ritual and a promise to look after myself. On the other, it provokes anxiety, self-criticism and self-doubt: do I measure up?”
It turns out I do because I’m in charge of my own standards. An understanding of the Black body historically, or its devaluation in the present, means I value more highly my strength and athleticism and use them to push myself. An awareness of the reductive nature of gay culture means I value more highly the substantive and nuanced qualities in others and allow for more of both within myself. My relationship to the gym and to my body is changing for the better because I’m conscious of the contradictions, the history and the culture in which I exist, and because I’m trying my best. And my best is a multi-tiered approach that includes re-evaluating what I find beautiful in others, challenging my beliefs about what makes me valuable and reminding myself that I am more than the sum of my physical parts.