SISSY THAT SQUAT
WORDS BY MATT FORD
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that to many in the queer community, the term “health and fitness” is often associated with a hypermasculine, hetero, bro-ish connotation summed up as extreme “commit or no results.” I felt this all my life growing up as a closeted queer boy. Despite my attraction to the guys in the gym, akin to strolling by the underwear aisle at Target, it felt like a space in which I was not welcome. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t feel like enough.
Even in my adult life, after becoming more comfortable going to a gym with a more queer population, I found myself hesitant to go to an unfamiliar gym in South Carolina just last year. As I walked in, I felt those old familiar waves of self-consciousness, intimidation, and the feeling of not being accepted.
I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings, and it makes sense: in its marketing, the whole genre of “health and fitness” is often championed by fitness models with perfectly chiseled bodies and dazzling white smiles telling us their success stories accompanied by their “before” pictures that may or may not resemble a lot of us. It’s riddled with fad diets and workouts that pop up like clockwork, always promising that it’s finally what one needs to achieve the worshipped, unrealistic body. It’s a world built on the heteronormative paradigm of “tough is better” and, ultimately, as rooted in sexism as it is in toxic masculinity. Considering many queer people grow up believing that we aren’t good enough and attempt (with futility) to change ourselves to fit in — be that straight, cis, or whatever we felt society expected of us — it’s not shocking that the genre has merited a bad wrap as yet another form of telling us that we’re still not good enough.
“Considering many queer people grow up believing that we aren’t good enough and attempt (with futility) to change ourselves to fit in – be that straight, cis, or whatever we felt society expected of us – it’s not shocking that the genre has merited a bad wrap as yet another form of telling us that we’re still not good enough.”
It would be remiss of me not to note that gay men have played a significant role in the health-and-fitness stigma in the queer community. In one research article out of Monash University in Melbourne, a disparate relation to body image satisfaction was identified when comparing gay men to heterosexual men, which can result in a fixation on peak fitness. And we can see it in the wild: one has only to peek into the gay corners of Instagram and Twitter to see the multitudes of white gay men with perfect bodies and Ks behind their followings who post almost exclusively near-naked photos of themselves. With those physiques that society has traditionally deemed as ideal, coupled with the disproportionately large amount of privilege that white gay men have, even in the queer community, it doesn’t come across as exactly relatable to the average person who is merely attempting to exercise to feel healthier. Throw in the well-documented comparison complexes that gay men face, and we have a recipe for fitness stigma and self-loathing for the casual queer observer.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the “health” side of things. It is a known fact that exercise helps combat anxiety and depression. (As Elle Woods noted: Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.) That’s easy to say but may be more difficult to implement, particularly for someone experiencing depression, for whom even getting out of bed feels like a mountain to climb. The CDC reported in 2016 that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people, ages 10 to 24 and that LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual peers. The rates are even higher for transgender people.
Clearly, queer folks are disproportionately at risk for depression and suicide, and with the rates of bullying and homelessness queer youth face, anything to make life happier should be an available option.
“But we shouldn’t lose sight of the “health” side of things. It is a known fact that exercise helps combat anxiety and depression. (As Elle Woods noted: Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.)”
I’m not saying working out automatically cures depression or anxiety, but it has shown that it can be useful. One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that 12 percent of depression cases could be avoided with as little as one hour of exercise per week. And there are areas of wellness and personal development with positive physical benefits that can take the place of “health and fitness,” as opposed to focusing on the industry’s endorsed workouts and diets: learning simple exercises that can be done easily, forming social connections with other folks interested in similar activities, and volunteering with social work to help give back. (Don’t underestimate the workout of painting a room or helping develop a park!)
There has been some progress on the fitness front already. Queer Gym, located in Oakland, California, is marketed as the first queer gym in the US and designed for an open and accepting exercise environment for all queer folk: trans, non-binary, LGB, you name it. And OUTWOD, borrowing from Crossfit’s Workout Of the Day acronym, claims to be the largest international initiative for bringing together queer athletes for workouts and philanthropic events. And more gyms are popping up like these. They’re examples of places that enable a love of sports without the narcissistic, hyper-masculine connotations that often accompany the stereotypical gym.
“…there are areas of wellness and personal development with positive physical benefits that can take the place of “health and fitness,” as opposed to focusing on the industry’s endorsed workouts and diets…”
There is progress in sight. Of course, there is always work to be done and places that will not be accepting — that is a sad and harsh fact. But more gyms are available without that toxic bro culture pervading every treadmill, and not just in places like Oakland or New York. Planet Fitness, a nation-wide chain, bills itself as a safe alternative to those types of “gym rats,” and more facilities are following suit.
In South Carolina, as I was halfway through my self-conscious workout, I noticed that, among the various countries’ flags hanging from the ceiling, there was an equally large and center-placed rainbow flag. It didn’t solve all my inhibitions or erase my years of forced performative masculinity, but it did make me smile and made lifting the dumbells in public a little more comfortable. I felt myself relax, and rather that trying to fit in some cis, straight, white guy gym culture, I found myself focusing on my workout and my own personal development.