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20 December 1999

We’re all the same on a Stairmaster

Our city gyms are the new arenas of democracy: when they don their lycra shorts, the corporate execu

By Hywel Williams

See how eagerly they run: the diligent crimper and the anxious merchant banker, the toiling builder and the overworked PA, the rarely off-duty rent boy and the ambitious City solicitor. Night and day, these are the ones: toiling workers who have clocked in and reported for duty at the modern factory of physicality.

Come into the changing-room and look at the discarded clothes on the pegs and in the lockers. Gucci, Prada and Joseph mingle with M&S, Next and the Oxfam shop rejects. There they lie – the symbols of a briefly suspended hierarchy of wealth and worldly achievement.

The old social certainties are suddenly irrelevant because around the corner is the promise of new equalities as well as new hierarchies.

There aren’t many institutions that matter any more in our individualistic British lives. Pompous jargon about “civil society” and “associative morality” misses the point about the way we live now.

In church and state stale old gradations perish; but the popularity of the gym in town, country and suburb shows how new institutions develop to satisfy ancient wants as well as a few new desires.

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The gym has always thrown people together – with unpredictable consequences. Hellenised but circumcised Jews in the Graeco-Roman world paid tribute to an alien yet desired culture by going to the gymnasium. Since exercise was naked, some felt ashamed of the way their circumcision marked them as different and embarked on operations to return the foreskin to a place of honour, the better to join in the fun of cultural mingling.

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There’s more to exercise than meets the eye. The gym is a classless society but, in the manner of such societies, it spawns meritocracies that challenge and invigorate. The gleaming corporate gym subjugates the board director and the graduate trainee, the sales force executive and the company secretary, to a common order of winners and losers.

The inner-city gym I go to shows the alternative order at work and at play. West Indians ponder laconically the next move on the weights. Compact Asians race round with tigerish zeal. The international fraternity of Latino waiters engage in languid gossip. Conscientious Brits with skins made pallid by December skies concentrate on their bodily salvation. This is internationalism without the need for a supranational organisation.

“Going to the gym” is a singularly pure form of egoism. No one is harmed by it – although heart attacks for the over- enthusiastic and narcissism for the oversuccessful are ever-present dangers. Like our workplace, the gym is a camp over whose gates hangs the promise that this work will make us fitter and happier as well as freer.

Within those walls we can all go freelance. Which will it be today? Pecs or abs, inner thighs or shoulders, calves or biceps? That gluteal exerciser looks particularly tempting and a touch of the hip conditioner may just do the trick.

The possibilities expand while the frame acquires its chosen leanness and hardness. Free will knows no greater joy. Masters of our bodies, we subjugate them through chosen constraint.

What is on offer is a technology of the fetishised body with muscles honed and toned. The only feelings that matter are the rush of adrenalin and the swoop of consciousness as the strain is tested, accepted and released.

The gym is a state of nature where we all want to be physically noble, but none can afford savagery because we need to come back tomorrow. Freed for a few hours from the constraints of culture, we can taste the charms of both equality and individualism. If only Thomas Hobbes had gone to the gym, he would have written a different book and Leviathan would celebrate the coexistence of peace and competition.

We can’t, though, do it all on our own. As in any factory there are worksheets to monitor our advance and productivity rate. Those mirrors check the progress of others as well as the development of our own six-packs. Competitive individualism needs colleagues in order to measure success and failure.

The exercise of comparison and contrast leads to silent speculation and solitary judgement.

What drives the blank-eyed blonde encased in lycra as she runs the unforgiving daily hour? Is black really her colour? That man’s too-artfully cut shorts seem a clear sign that true artistry lies in concealment, not in display.

Muscular Maries, manicured Marthas and meticulous Marcuses tread and trip the narrow lines that separate pain from pleasure.

But there’s little conversation in this bubble-butted village of equal aspiration and unequal attainment. Guilt-free narcissism leads us back to work. Like the weavers at the loom and the assembly workers at the car plant, we concentrate on manual repetition. Ten sets of exercises, three repetitions of ten, two of 15: the ritual soothes like a mantra or a half-remembered prayer.

In the background the musical rhythms cajole the limbs and instruct the muscles into activity. Techno, house and garage, rap and disco, the rainbow covers the spectrum while mirroring the confraternity of nations and classes gathered round the machines.

The gym is a place of social peace and perfect order. Etiquette is implicitly taught as the literally smooth and the metaphorically hairy move from exercise to exercise and queue to wait their turn. Neophytes are gently inducted and promised in leaflets that “we will emphatically guide you carefully through each stage”. Gym attendants are less “staff”than heroes, inspirational lords of a physical universe.

Divested of grunge, the lissom aristocrats are often the casually and semi-employed so easily dismissed in the life that awaits our return. Intramurally and for the fleeting hour we accept their legitimate supremacy, for we want to be panthers, too, and move up the physico-social state.

There’s a pathos about departure and the difficulty of recognition once the little black numbers and the expense accounts, the tattered jeans and the frayed shirt, are back in place. The handsome and the beautiful, the puny and the flabby, are dispersed and scattered on the streets. Aristocrats of old find themselves as displaced as any Austro-Hungarian countess after 1918. The proletariat are back in the saddle.

But the return to the gym has a compulsive force that haunts the workaday world. For this is the club with no bores who, bleary-eyed, claret-soaked and perishing of inane convictions, badger and holler at the communal table. Although strenuous, the gym has none of the aggression and intolerance that lie behind team games and the communal ethic.

The gym has its own form of class consciousness, but is free of class conflict. It offers a paradigm of how a society of complete individualists might exist without either ideology or conflict to disturb their competing meritocracies. In imagination and in reality it fuses solidarity of muscle with lightness of being.

It is virtual democracy.