At the moment I’m away from home and I’m going to two gyms. One is at a university and one is an old fashioned YMCA. The rules of the changing rooms fascinate me. Perhaps because I grew up a sissy I always visit masculinity as one visits a foreign land. I observe the customs, try to learn not to be offensive and quietly chuckle to myself at what seems funny.
The university has a ‘recreation centre’. It is a kind of temple. You walk along a long corridor. On one side are offices for the trainers. On the walls opposite are framed jerseys of notable sports personalities. There is also a long - a very long - board which names various sportsmen and women of note. Not a name rings a bell with me.
I am heading to the weights room.
To myself I am beautifully incredulous. As a young sissy of twelve or thirteen nothing could have been more out-of-character. At grammar school, the weight room became a kind of heightened homo-erotic zone which I knew not to enter because it was enemy turf. (I would be called names, probably physically man-handled in a way which was somewhere between a brutal caress and a pummelling act of denigration.)
But today, as an aged mortal freed from so many obsessions, I brazenly walk into the weights room and begin my isoteric stretching exercises. Around me are a collection of what were once called ‘young bucks’.
These are young men in their early twenties. Their bodies can be sculptured to an ideal. They spend hours here, sharpening profiles, gazing at themselves not even covertly in the mirrors. Packs of young men help each other, admiring - never the physique of the young man lifting weights - but the prowess in the amount of weights that can be lifted.
These are the young men, I think to myself, who are snatched away in wars. They are easily killed, come home, if lucky, wounded physically rather than psychologically. They have a simple splendour about them, an ease of movement, even vision.
In your early twenties, it probably appears straight forward. Or is it that the gym actually opens up one of the few uncomplicated testing grounds for young males?
But what fascinates me is the code of the dressing room. Of course as someone homosexual, I find the act of undressing in public among other males a coded act. But here, at the university, nobody undresses in front of anyone. There is no nakedness, not even any near nakedness. In fact the accepted code is that you arrive at the gym dressed to exercise and you leave wearing the same clothes, only drenched in ennobling sweat.
What is unsaid here fascinates me.
I compare this with the YMCA where I also exercise. It is just down the road from where I am renting, so it has ease of access. The room is large, battered and not particularly clean. Compared to the almost unanimously trim young men at the university, there is a wide variety of body shapes and ages. Old suburban woman sit on rowing machines. There are Maori here who look like they have tough lives elsewhere: but here they sculpt, attain, and work to a definite principle.
But it’s scuzzy. The television plays what seems like terminally 80s and 90s rock videos. Even the colour is faded. There are men with pot bellies. There are also extremely masculine men of a sort not found at the university gym.
By this I mean men who wear their masculinity easily, but as a form of armour.
But what really fascinates me is the YMCA changing room. There are some lockers but by and large they are not used. The men come in, undress untidily and leave their pants, underpants and shoes in the sort of pile, by inference, a dutiful wife will pick up. Men also undress until they are completely naked. More than this, they stand around naked.
The showers are a long run of nozzles in a completely open shoe-box space. There is no room for modesty, even false modesty.
Hence in the changing room you see the ordinary damage of time on the male body. You see the usual range of penis-size. Some men glance at themselves in the tiny mirror square, to adjust their hair before leaving. But it is the changing room as an old fashioned male space.
My father who was born in 1910 and died twenty two years ago would have recognised it.
What fascinates me is the difference in codes. The YMCA changing room infers that nobody is homosexual. Everybody is assumed to be heterosexual, therefore there is no problem. At university, everybody, by contrast, is assumed to be homosexual. Everybody is assumed to be obsessed with watching, with ‘harassing’ by glance if not touch. Everyone refutes nakedness as an explosive idea - but one which, above all, must remain unspoken. There is a falseness to the modesty. An inhibition.
One - the old idea of communal nakedness - comes from a starkly homophobic time - but one which, ironically, allowed greater access to homosexual pleasures. The other, more acceptably ‘neutral’, seems to underline a kind of homosexual panic or fear.
It doesn’t worry me. It doesn’t phase me. I’m not about to picket the recreation centre with a placard reading ‘I want to see more cocks!’ But it does amuse me: the changing rooms at the recreation centre are as tiny and covert as a lady chapel to the side of the great cathedral of narcissism, which is - the weights room - where male beauties sculpt themselves into doubles which they watch carefully in the mirror.
I sometimes wonder about these duplicate beings. Are they making themselves splendid so that when they undress their girlfriends have a frisson of utter delight at their physical perfection? Or is it so their mates can admire the amount of weights they can lift? Or is it that this is the form of 21st century male armour: musculature, without which one leaves home feeling - dangerously - naked?