by: Jonathan Doucette
What you’ve heard is true: our very own Jonathan Doucette has been attending the local “Fitness Center” in Myjava, Slovakia for the greater part of two weeks. Through a sweat-soaked brow and the disorientation that generally accompanies a body severely and wholly out of shape, I have begun to notice some, well, curious habits regarding gym etiquette in Slovakia.
(It should also be mentioned at this juncture, dear reader, that my point of reference re: other gym experiences are rather limited. Attempt, if you will, to think what an average day at the gym at a small Ohioan liberal arts college may entail. Take this ensuing blog post, then, with a healthy grain of skepticism.)
It may shock the blogsphere to know that, when it comes to physical fitness, your author is not the generalissimo his intimidating physic may suggest. It may also shock a reader to discover that Slovaks in rural Myjava do not speak much English and generally assume a suspicious demeanor when approached by an outsider. So, upon entering the Fitness Center for the first time, my double-outsider status left me feeling just a tid-bit vulnerable.
The layout of the gym—and yet, gym feels like a word much too grand for the humble surroundings in the workout area, equipped with one lone treadmill standing in the back amidst five bench-press stations—is such that wherever you go, the watchful eyes of your fellow gym members may always follow. It is long and narrow, making navigation between the (few) machines all-but-impossible without the aid of a seasoned pro. My squeaky “…pardon’s” are barely audible over the grunts and “uggghs!” and sounds of men making that “chhhhhhhhr” sound as they clear their throat as if in anticipation of hocking a loogie (lougie?).
Which brings me to my blog-thesis (blesis?): I am once again reminded of the ways a particular image of masculinity happens within the visible public sphere of places like a gym. More specifically, how freakin’ homoerotic these places can be when gazed upon through a queer lens (and yet, let’s be honest: it don’t take no special prescription to see that).
Male-bodied, hyper-masculine men in Slovakia are constantly engaging in homosocial behavior (similar for some communities of men in America): the gym stands as one of the most glaring examples of such spaces, filled with teams of men in three or four gazing upon one another with varying degrees of admiration, disdain, understanding and, perhaps, lust—although in this case, it may be a lust that is unspoken, a yearning to emulate the body of a fellow gym-member, a lust that dare not speak its name.
I wish to focus my attention on these men for the fitness center in Myjava seems to be “owned” by the space these men occupy. Their bodies are broad, bulging and boarding on behemoth; in order to snake your way through the narrow openings between machines, one must also contend with the bodies of these men, bodies that are all-consuming and intentionally designed to occupy as much physical space as possible. This space is also, it seems, a cognitive one: these bodies are meant to be gazed upon. They are to be looked at and critiqued and evaluated. The bigger the body—or should I say, the more muscular—the more attention, the more space. It’s as though these bodies demand attention from all our senses at all moments.
How, might you ask, is this different from my experiences in gyms across America? Good question, dear reader. Might I once again remind you of my limited experience with such spaces before I continue.
The biggest difference I have been able to discern is that one type of body is valued above all else: that of the body-builder. As though Arnold had a love-child with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s neck muscles. Stretching does not exist, as far as I can tell, in the male Slovak workout routine. Lithe, agile bodies are reserved firmly for their girlfriends (and while this fact is equally interesting, such a discussion beyond the scope of this particular post). In my time at the gym, limited though it may be, I have seen but one other male-bodied patron use a cardio machine.
These bodies, as stated before, command visibility. You cannot help but stare as the owner of the gym—a stern, forever-silent former body-builder from Bratislava, a former world-champion of weight lifting—dead-lifts 400 pounds using what appears to be only his back, ankle and neck muscles, his veins protruding, mouth expelling bursts of air both violent and sensual, spit dripping down his chin as his face turns red, four other men standing around him urging him on, only to applaud or smack his back when the finale is complete, the show climaxing as he slams the weights upon the narrow ground, a rush of air expelling from his body, the hint of a smirk, of satisfaction, of completion blanketing his face. They talk loudly, these men, the yell-talk of men who know themselves to be around peers, equals. Or, perhaps, adversaries. The equivalent of the feminine “frenimies” so popular in various issues of Cosmo.
Mirroring American fitness centers, there are mirrors everywhere in this fitness center. You are meant, presumably, to direct your gaze at your own body, to evaluate and critique the lacks and limitations (or excesses) of your body in often-detrimental ways. Often, however, you find yourself directing such a gaze upon the other. And, on more than one occasion, you find yourself locking eyes with a fellow gym member, only to avert such a gaze a moment later, as if to say, “who, me?” It’s not quite that gym members are policing one another—or rather, that cannot be the only reason these men (including myself) gaze upon the bodies of their fradversaries (friend-adversary). We are also involved in a process of policing ourselves, of thinking of our bodies as commodities in need of continual refinement and improvement.
And it is within the sphere of the gym—that homosocial institution rife with complex signs and significations of the masculine body—that we learn how such a commodity can and should look. Masculinity happens in groups. The image of a masculine body is no exception. These men touch and look and comment and graze and evaluate the bodies of other men within the homosocial sphere of the gym, doing so in ways that would be rendered incomprehensible outside its walls, as effeminate, as queer, as weird or disgusting, or straight up gay.
This is all to say that the gym in Slovakia—indeed, perhaps in places around the globe—can be a bizarre place for the queer body. Ahem, my body. I like cardio. I like (or need) to stretch. I feel judgment as I pick up the dust-covered 15 pound weights to work my biceps. I have not surmised the courage to approach the bench-press, certain I would be met with gazes of disgust. I feel ashamed and uncomfortable. My body is not the body meant to be in this gym. While I have felt similar emotions in American gyms, this feels unique. The homogeny of the male-bodies in this gym is jarring and unlike anything I have seen. The gym has not become a natural part of Slovak life—it is still reserved for those body-builder types, a place for bulk and biceps. It has not become normalized in the ways it has in the US.
So I do my best to avoid visibility. I turn on my iPod and attempt to get lost in the music. I squint my eyes as I approach various machines, as though my whole body is engaged in the workout. I am too invested to gaze or allow myself to be gazed upon. I will continue to go to the gym and continue to feel healthier, god damn it!
I will never be not-seen within these spaces, try as I might. I can, however, change the way I see myself. I will do my best to queer these acts of looking the space of the gym demands: to reject a gaze that would tell me I lack. I will look myself in the eye amongst the sea of inescapable mirrors with love, with validation and with reassurance.
And if I can’t cruise on anyone else, at least I can flirt with myself.
Jonathan Doucette often wakes up confused and disoriented, forgetting that he lives and works in rural Slovakia as an English teacher. He gets a sadistic rush when yelling at his students, and then feels guilty, allowing them to watch four episodes of the insufferable Big Bang Theory the following lesson. He also kinda likes The Big Bang Theory now. Don’t tell anyone.