Dispatch from the gun-filled frontline of male vanity
My gym recently had a makeover.
Previously owned by a budget chain known for the lowest membership fees in the business – and for its large free weights’ areas – it went bankrupt during Rona restrictions and was bought for a song by a still budget, but slightly more upmarket/expensive and ‘cooler’ competitor. You can imagine my concern.
The gym, in a vast, converted warehouse, had definitely been ‘no-frills’. And I am, I like to think, a ‘no-frills’ kinda guy. Being someone who labours (not very hard) by brain rather than brawn, a member of the pyjama-collar classes, I enjoyed the shop-floor ambience of the place. I liked it’s bright, flat, unflattering strip-lighting. I especially liked the boxing ring and MMA hexagon which of course I never used.
The new chain’s target demographic is 18-24, making me feel even more ancient than I am. Naturally, the makeover when it came late last year, turned the place into a sports shoe shop-cum-nightclub. No windows, dim ambience, with spot lighting, coloured LEDs, and upgraded PA pumping out non-stop ‘progressive dance’ music. In other words: it’s been totally gayed-up.
As someone in his 50s, I should, like Blanche Dubois, be grateful for the kindness of lower wattage. But it annoys me. Because it’s also the case when you’re in your 50s your pupils dilate and constrict more slowly, so it’s difficult not to mention painful to adapt to a dark-then-blinding-then-dark-again ambience.
Besides, the flattering lighting makes everyone look nice. I don’t know where to focus my gayze.
Fortunately, they didn’t reduce the size of the free weights area – which was a big worry. Most of the users were, and still are, men: over 90%. And men have traditionally been disliked by most chains because they tend to come regularly, wear out equipment, and use your hot water instead of letting their Direct Debit take the strain.
They did though replace the boxing and MMA rings on the mezzanine above the free weights with a ‘burn’ class area. The classes are mostly attended by women and led by a shouty person who counts backwards from five, with a mike and amp that goes up to 11.
But the unspoken centrepiece of the makeover, and probably the single most important factor in attracting the new owner’s target demographic, is not the nice new Eleiko Function and lifting area with new squat racks, or the rows of new benches and cable machines. (Everybody seems to want to do everything with cables these days).
In fact, it isn’t even in the gym. It’s in the locker room – or ‘MALE CHANGING AREA’ to use the name on the sign next to the entrance.
It’s the new mirror.
Previously, the ‘male changing area’ was very… institutional. The lighting was so bright and bluish that you could almost see people’s internal organs. But it was sort of democratic and honest. No one had anything to hide. Or rather, you couldn’t hide anything. Now it’s so dimly/sexily-lit with pin-spots that it feels so many kinds of wrong.
And even though hardly anyone one seems to get showered or fully-naked anymore, the place is much more about desire than function. Aspirational autoerotics more than homosocial homoerotics. It really is a ‘male changing area’ now.
Truth is, I feel slightly embarrassed using it. It makes me feel like the dirty old man that I am. But then again, I don’t really ‘use’ it. Like most, post makeover, I don’t shower there, and usually don’t even really change: I just put my coat and bag in the locker, having arrived in my gym gear, and then retrieve it on my way out. Sometimes changing my top.
You probably won’t believe this, but I don’t even use the changing room for voyeuristic cheap thrills. (There’s no steam room.)
In fact, I have had to force myself to observe the phenomenon that I am about to describe. I am such a martyr to journalism and male trend-spotting. I hope you appreciate my suffering.
On the left as you enter, is the focal-point and in fact purpose of the room and, as I say, the whole gym. ‘Widescreen’, smoked, with a row of powerful hairdryers holstered underneath, and artfully-placed pin-spot lighting overhead, everyone looks fabulous and Insta in front of it. Even me. It is ‘aesthetic’. It has, in effect, its own, built-in, social media filter.
It is a selfie mirror. A magical portal into the online world of social media adoration. And the ‘male changing area’ is actually a selfie room.
Used (frequently) for taking selfies, and probably Tik Toks (whatever they are) as well, but mostly for real-time selfie-admiration. The much cheaper-looking mirror it replaced didn’t lie – and probably for that reason it wasn’t nearly as popular.
The first thing lads do on entering, before their workout, is walk right up to the mirror and check themselves out, lingeringly and shamelessly. Often zooming in to pore level. Then, suitably motivated to make themselves even more adorable and shareable, they head off into the gym.
Many of the lads work out in packs – the new chain emphasises the ‘social’ aspect of fitness (a big industry buzzword currently), since this works well with youth, and according to the data, the more ‘social’ working out is the more likely people are to join and maintain their membership.
However, more ‘social’ means that, like a nightclub, the place is now more cliquey than in its brightly-lit shop-floor days. Plus, everyone who isn’t in a clique is wearing headphones to drown out the “FIVE!-FOUR!-THREE!-TWO!-ONE!” from upstairs – myself included. At the risk of sounding too much like the old Glasgow queens in Chewing the Fat, I miss the banter.
Truth is, I’m just an incurable nostalgic. When this gym and its – have I mentioned it already? – large free weights area opened c. four years ago, it immediately put out of business the small, friendly, family-owned Big Boys bodybuilding gym round the corner that I used, but which cost nearly three times as much. That place really was bants central. With topless sweaty workouts to trance music in the summer.
So you can see why I loved it. For years after it shuttered, we bros of the bar nodded, slightly guiltily, as we passed one another in the vast, impersonal, corporate chain space we now found ourselves marooned in by our inability to resist an economies-of-scale bargain. Now, predictably, trapped in sports-shoe-shop hell, I feel nostalgic for the lost world of camaraderie of the corporate chain space.
It may be a kind of hell for me, but for those young lads in their cliques, this madeover new world is fun. When they’ve finished their workout – mobbing-hogging equipment in packs of four or more – they spend ages stripped to the waist, or in their designer pants, checking out their pump and competitively flexing and posing in front of the selfie mirror. Comparing and admiring, sometimes grabbing, each other’s muscles, swapping advice and encouragement, with occasional teasing – and bants. And much screen sharing.
In other words: the selfie-mirror isn’t strictly selfish. It also caters for mutual selfing.
They have all the hench moves down to a tee, including the tricky quarter turn – clearly, they’ve been following those ‘inspirational’ pro spornos like Jeff Seid on YouTube. They behave like ‘beach-shorts’ or ‘aesthetic’ category bodybuilding finalists in the freestyle pose-down in front of the judges. Though here the judge is their own – and their mates’ – reflected eye.
I’m genuinely surprised and impressed how working out and evaluating the results can be so ‘social’ and encouraging in a social-mediated world which so often isn’t. Sometimes they seem to spend almost as long doing this as they did working-out.
Lone lads also like to spend ages in front of the selfie mirror, often getting dressed or groomed incredibly slowly, surrounded by serried ranks of product, because they keep being distracted by their own hotness. And they have no inhibitions whatsoever about someone else witnessing their intimate moments with their own reflection.
Which means me, the old guy at the back, pretending to look at his phone. While telling himself he’s doing ‘research’.
Please don’t think I’m complaining. As the ‘father’ of the metrosexual and the grandfather of his offspring, the more ‘hardcore’, body-centred spornosexual, how could I? I perfectly understand why these lads might fall in love with themselves. Indeed, I applaud it. If the selfie mirror had a ‘like’ button I’d hit it, repeatedly, like a lab rat hitting a food pellet release lever.
But I am a relic from a previous, more inhibited, analogue age. If metrodaddy so much as checks his pecs – having first checked that the coast is clear – I immediately have to stop and pretend to adjust my vest if someone walks in. I mean, they might think I love myself, or something.
And as I slink off, that someone will then immediately take my place – preening in front of the mirror.
I’m transitional. I straddle, uneasily, like someone going too heavy on the kettlebell sumo squats, the analogue age I grew up in, and the digital one that deleted it. The pre-metro world of male self-denial, and the multi-mirrored, multi-sensual ‘aesthetic’ one that now dazzles and intoxicates us. (Well, it makes me breathless.) The grinning, laughing lads eagerly sharing the selfie-mirror don’t want or need to ‘explain’ the evolution of male vanity and self-consciousness.
They are far too busy embodying and enjoying it – and checking out the ‘male changing’ results – to waste time thinking about it.