Why I Go to the Gym

I might not feel like a man, but I can look like one

Charlie Scaturro
Human Parts


Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

II remember the first time I bench-pressed 225 pounds. As a former gangly teenager who could barely lift 145, I celebrated the accomplishment with far more excitement than the occasion warranted. It isn’t a lot of weight for serious lifters and most professional athletes, but it was everything to me. It was everything because 225 pounds seemed masculine, like the epitome of strength. It was everything because strength is often regarded as the most desirable trait a man can possess in our culture.

I’ve gone to the gym regularly for about a decade. I never questioned the habit; for a long time, it was simply my default. But in an ongoing quest to examine my behavior more closely, I’ve found that I don’t hit the gym because it’s healthy — or because it gets me out of the house, or because it gives me something to do. At least, those aren’t the primary reasons.

Really, I go to the gym because it’s masculine. Because, after years of training, I can drop and give you 50. I can grind through 25 consecutive pull-ups. I can put 225 pounds on the bench-press and churn out a few reps.

I know this doesn’t say anything about the person I am, and I’m not telling you these things because I hope you’ll be impressed. This isn’t a story about how much weight I can lift or how many pull-ups I can do.

It’s about how we hide the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s about how we hide these things from ourselves. It’s about how we react when we realize we’re not who we’re supposed to be, and how we try to find release from that realization.

It’s about hoping that whatever I achieve at the gym will distract me from the fact that I feel deficient in so many other ways. It’s about how, according to some narrowly-defined and mostly-ignorant concept of masculinity, depression and anxiety are unacceptable. It’s about realizing that if I can’t act like a man or feel like a man, I can at least look like a man.

I can’t define masculinity in a few coherent, concise sentences, but I know what is not.

Depression is not masculine.

Feeling like life is pointless and wanting to give up is not masculine.

Panic attacks and anxiety are not masculine.

Being terrified of crowded subway cars is not masculine.

There’s something particularly emasculating about a panic attack. About your mind taking control of the wheel and driving your body off a cliff. If I were stronger, the narrative goes, I would be able to stop this from happening. A real man isn’t supposed to have panic attacks. A real man is supposed to fight through anxiety and stop being such a pussy.

Something emasculating about depression, too — about feeling like there’s no point in being alive, or that everything is hopeless and ridiculous. If I were stronger, this narrative goes, I would be able to stop myself from feeling this way. A real man isn’t supposed to get depressed. A real man is supposed to get angry.

A real man is also supposed to devour a gigantic bloody steak and hit something really hard with his fist and yell about what just happened on television and then maybe objectify a woman real quick before getting on with his life.

Does Clint Eastwood get depressed? Fuck no. He rants for a while and then tells everyone to get off his lawn.

Does the hero in an action movie have a panic attack before he saves the world? Fuck no. He kicks ass, takes names, and gets the girl.

If you view masculinity through this narrow and ignorant lens, anxiety and depression are everything a man is not supposed to be. There’s nothing masculine about needing help.

I had a coach in high school who said depression wasn’t real. That there was no reason someone should stay in bed all day; couldn’t they just eat something?

“Just get outta bed. Just eat a fuckin’ sandwich. It’s not that difficult,” he would say.

I’m only 30, but the conversation about mental health we’re having today was not happening when I was growing up. Still, while things have improved, many boys and young men will continue to hear the wrong messages about depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The result is a desperate struggle to avoid… whatever the opposite of power and strength and masculinity is. The result is denial, or refusal to ask for help, in the name of masculinity. The result is fear.

There’s something mysterious about anxiety and depression. About how difficult it is to understand why it happens, or how to feel better. About why everything is fine today, but awful tomorrow. There’s a level of powerlessness that’s extraordinarily daunting and frustrating, that leaves me feeling weak and fragile and a hundred other things that are in conflict with what a real man is supposed to feel.

But there’s nothing mysterious about the gym. When I’m there I feel like a man, however the hell a man is supposed to feel. For that hour, I am not my depression or anxiety. The gym provides a reprieve from the shame and fear of not measuring up.

There’s also something about the gym that makes me feel in control, like my feet are on the ground and I’m getting stronger. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of how it feels to be anxious and depressed.

Given the way we talk about masculinity, the word itself might as well be synonymous with strength. Being a man and being strong are so intertwined that it seems impossible to imagine one without the other. But I don’t think the issue is that those two words are inseparable, and I don’t think the issue is how much emphasis we place on men being strong.

The issue is how we define strength.

The issue is how we define weakness.

The issue is what we do to achieve that false sense of strength, and what we do to avoid being seen as weak.

The issue is that so many men aren’t getting help because they’re unable or unwilling to admit that they need it, for fear that it says something about their masculinity. That they choose silence and suffering, instead. That eventually, they might start to believe that the only strength they need can be found at the gym.