The Locker Room

YMCA office in (Ulan-Bator) Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
This one's in Mongolia! Image via Wikipedia

I work out and take classes at a local YMCA, which guarantees a wide mix of ages and income levels. A life-long jock, a veteran of boarding school and summer camp, I’m used to being around other people in various stages of undress.

But it’s the naked emotion that often surprises me there, not the glimpses of others’ flesh.

I learn a lot in the locker room and often leave it in a very different mood than when I arrived:

— the mentally disabled children who come to swim, bound up in splints and diapers, laughing and playing with their caregivers

— a diabetic woman my age who needed the EMTs after going into sugar shock

— the woman who casually announced it was her 83d birthday the next day, the one whose vigor and tart wit made me sure she was 20 years younger

— the scars of surgery

— what a woman’s body really looks like in old age

I value the very few places in American culture where little children and people in their 80s or 90s mingle freely, sharing space and ideas. One is church, the other is the Y. I don’t have children or nieces or nephews and lost both my grandmothers when I was 18, so I hunger for cross-generational contact.

A few weeks ago I was worn out, weary of holding it together. A conversation that began in the locker room after swim class with the 83-year-old was, suddenly, the most honest and helpful I’d had with anyone in months…Then we kept talking in the parking lot, even after I burst into embarrassed tears. Her unexpected advice was blunt but kind.

I’m used to being visible physically, not emotionally, a common theme in my life. I tend to keep feelings bottled up, not wanting to burden friends or family who have, of course, their own challenges as well.

I know you change in the locker room. I didn’t know it might be more than your clothes.

Why Do Gyms Have To Be So Disgusting?

Gym Cardio Theatre Category:Gyms_and_Health_Clubs
Image via Wikipedia

So, feeling lazy, (pooped from my bike ride, OK?), I Googled the words “gorgeous gym” and dug down three pages. In vain. I found gorgeous gym clothing, mats, men and women in gyms. But those are two words, Google be damned, that do not go together.

I’m speaking here, specifically, of public gyms, not the shrines that might exist on some Ivy college campus or in a pricey spa or hotel.

The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnos, meaning naked, which is how those using gyms in ancient Rome showed up. Sadly, now, the more accurate word is gross: banks of fluorescent lights, ugly machines, worn-out mats, sweaty surfaces, lots of dirt and dust — and icky locker rooms where you can pick up all sorts of infections. The appearance of most gyms remains totally thoughtless, a sort of visual f—k you to all of us who keep showing up, like fat little lemmings, (or crazed skinny lemmings), to do whatever we can, whatever we must, to battle obesity and/or waning muscle mass.

What’s the problem here? Too many people? Not enough manners? Too-low fees? (Sorry, but $80 a month, which is typical in New York, and low for nicer clubs seems like a lot to me.)

Think about almost every other public space where people pay, let alone commit to a monthly fee, to go there: restaurants, hotels, bars, nightclubs, to name a few. We look forward to the choice we’ve made, confident that — except for the most low-budget and utilitarian of spaces —  the carefully chosen lighting, furniture, flooring, ceiling, sound and accessories will make the space welcoming, relaxing, elegant. Because they are designed to be that way; some designers focus exclusively on these spaces, trained in selecting colors, fabrics and materials that are both attractive and durable. When a space is well and thoughtfully designed, we want to go there and, once we’ve arrived, we want to stay there. And we want to return. And we do, happily.

I swear, I would go to the gym every damn day if it were clean and beautiful.

The key word is designed. Katie Drummond blogged here yesterday about a Manhattan gym, David Barton, which has made an effort in this regard, and found another gym in Paris (quelle surprise) that’s actually attractive. But why is this such a rarity? It’s as though creating a good-looking workout space — and a gym is truly a place where people really need to feel comfortable, welcomed, energized and encouraged — is just too difficult. Instead, they all look drearily, depressingly, don’t-make-me-go-there the same: slam in some mirrors, some fluorescent lights, a bunch of machines and…you’re done.

I studied interior design at a great school, The New York School of Interior Design, and learned a lot about what makes a great space. One simple yet cardinal rule most gyms break is this:  experience the space as the user(s) will. What does it sound like? Smell like? Is it spotlessly clean? How will those sexy materials actually stand up to daily use and daily cleaning? Every single time I lie down on one of the worn-out, pre-flattened exercise mats in the gym at my local Y I’m eye-to-eye with streaks of grime on the baseboards. Eeeeeeew! (And, yes, I’ve complained so often the Y director knows exactly who I am.)

The reason I rant so much about fluorescent lights is this. They’re ugly! And blinding. At a gym, it is highly likely you will be lying on your back for some portion of your time there, and staring up into a bank of glaring white light is simply grotesque. I can’t believe people find this experience pleasant. It’s boring and painful enough doing all those damn crunches. Can you make me a little less miserable, please?

Have you ever, anywhere, been to a gym — not a fancy shmancy spa or private club that most people cannot afford — that was gorgeous?

Do tell!