I was at the gym yesterday. I did a ‘Total Body’ class – a lot of squats, weights and sit ups. Then I mooched about in the sauna. Lovely. While I was getting dressed again I overheard a big row about something that had apparently happened underneath our noses in Total Body. One woman, in her matching underwear ensemble, was saying: ‘She came in late and moved my step! My weights were on it! It was obvious I was there!’ Someone else (already in her very tight jeans) asked: ‘Did you tell her it was your space?’ The woman had, indeed, told the offending and, in fact, latecoming, Total Bodier that the space was hers but the intruder had rudely said: ‘Why don’t you move over there?’ The listeners were shocked. Bra straps snapped, cream was slapped on irritably. There was an atmosphere of prickling outrage. ‘What did the teacher say?’ someone blustered.
This made me laugh, even though I had lost a sock and was looking at having to wear a smelly gym sock all day long. Also, the woman next to me had sprayed some really horrible deodorant all over the place. What did the teacher say?! The teacher is a 22 year old fitness instructor being paid almost nothing to traipse round the gyms of London with her huge sports bag running classes for the bored and wealthy when she once dreamed of doing back up dancing for Lady GaGa. The idea of her intervening in the dispute of two idle fifty year olds bickering over the position of a plastic Reebok step is beyond absurd.
‘There should be rules about this!’ someone else shouted above the roar of her hair dryer.
I don’t speak to anyone at the gym and I skulked out silently wondering what it all meant. They were behaving like thirteen year olds, completely infantalised, seeking guidance from authority, outraged that their narcissism had been threatened in the privacy of their own…gym? Oh, but that’s right, that IS what we’re all doing.
Going to the gym gives the same structure to otherwise structureless days that school once did. And school, of course, mimics the maternal relationship as a transition to adulthood. At school the child is kept safely contained, is helped to develop (educationally and emotionally) and can be disciplined. So many people effectively go back to school after school, not quite ready for the world. They go to university and then, afterwards, they might find similar safety in an office environment with all the rivalry, hierarchy and authority figures. These things are all a way of leaving mum without ever really leaving mum, or at least the atmosphere of her. For people who don’t have an office to go to and aren’t in education…well, we go to the gym.
Having felt so contemptuous of the people having this ridiculous row, I realised that what I’m doing at the gym is not much different. I don’t look for guidance or discipline from the instructor, but, then again, I didn’t grow up with siblings as the woman whose step got moved very obviously did! She sounded just like one of my kids when the other has taken something from their room. What I do love at the gym though is the complete abdication of responsibility and the complete safety. Someone else is in charge, someone else is looking after my needs, and I am developing physically (getting fitter) and emotionally (getting happy high on the endorphins). I have the same feeling of well-being in hotels. More, in fact, than I ever have at home.
So, there we all are following the routine, moving as one (provided it’s not too complex an arrangement – no turns) and not having to cope for a while with any other aspect of our lives. I read recently that dance is present in all ancient and modern cultures because, as social mammals, we enjoy moving together, bee-like, as one (not that bees are mammals but you know what I mean). It is part of social bonding in some straightforward way, whether ritualised or not. Then off we go into the womb-like, slightly overheated pool, the sauna, steam, Jacuzzi. Actually, I don’t know what the Jacuzzi stands for, but it’s hot water so it can fit loosely into the womb theme.
Suddenly, having been appalled by the behaviour of this glossy, middle-aged woman with nothing better to do than complain in a high, whinging pitch, I felt sorry for her, seeing her as a little girl whose sister had taken something precious from her and nobody had seen or cared, Mum hadn’t stepped in, people had just selfishly carried on with their lives and completely ignored her outrage. I suppose we are all playing out our ancient, infantile stuff all the time, our sibling rivalry, our fear and loneliness, our Oedipal issues (the Lord knows) and our rage at real or apparent neglect. But at the gym we are thrown together, naked or half-naked, exposed and vulnerable and what we’ve paid for is the care and protection that’s lacking elsewhere.
Yesterday evening I bought myself a bottle of Sancerre and some pistachio and date cakey things from a Lebanese shop. I have this self-mothering thing completely down.