On Clean Breaks

I feel rather as though I ended a long-term relationship, but then had to spend the last month living in a shared apartment: I hated to bring to an end something that I loved, but having taken that fateful step, it became uncomfortable to stay, and I was itching to move out, to move on.

For those who have been avidly following my exploits of boycotting, opining, and soap-boxing, the update is that my membership at Equinox is up, and after a careful search, I’ve joined a new gym where, as far as I can discern, the fees I pay for membership will NOT end up funding campaigns for politicians dedicated to harming children, women, immigrants, people of color, everyone in the LGBTQI rainbow, animals, and pretty much the whole planet. 

I gave my notice to quit Equinox 45 days ago. I should have quit on the spot; I should have caused a scene; I should have, at the very least, flounced out with dramatic finality. But instead I quietly and awkwardly rode out the time remaining on my account, until it just quietly and anti-climactically expired. There was, contractually, no way I could avoid paying the last 45 days’ worth of dues without a medical excuse, or without some kind of highly improper behavior. I was too healthy for the first option; and while it’s not AS brave as, say, parading naked across the weight room floor, which is what I really wish I had done as a grand parting gesture but was too timid to attempt – I guess it’s a kind of bravery to act according to my values and leave a place that has anchored my existence for the last 12 years. You can’t change the world if you’re not willing to change your own habits, however gradually, right?

So after over a month of lurking around Equinox with growing unease and reluctance, feeling more and more like I don’t belong there, I’m finally out. 

Not for nothing – 12 years, and a few thousand dollars in fees later, the company made no move to stop me (and I suppose my boycott didn’t do a damn thing to change how, and with whom, they do business either). It’s a sad breakup when you finally get the courage to leave, only to find out that you won’t even be missed.

Right. We carry on.

I had thought of joining the locally-owned gym in my neighborhood.  At about 1/4 of what I was paying at Equinox, this one is what you’d call no-frills: lots of exposed brick and steel beams; photos of body builders on the entry walls; clanking, thumping, and grunting as weights are lifted, dropped, racked;  a subtle-but-unmistakable fragrance of sweat and under-washed workout clothes. No more fancy apps to book an array of classes at the vanguard of fitness innovation, manage workout schedules, and coach (indoctrinate) us to meditate our way to our optimal self; no more fancy shampoo on tap in the fancy showers; no more team of “Maintain” workers trained to politely ignore their own exploitation while they pick up after the optimized, privileged, hoards…These were sacrifices in comfort that I felt I was ready to make in the combined pursuit of fitness and justice.

Except this gym doesn’t have fluffy towels, a steam room, or pilates classes, which items, apparently, are vital equipment for my life as an activist. 

I bet Greta Thunberg didn’t demand a steam room as part of her skolstrejk för klimatet and consequent global protest movement, you might mutter, pointedly. 

Fine. I’ve become a little spoiled. Plus I have weak lungs and get a lot of winter colds, and the steam room really helps. Plus, Greta is Swedish and probably enjoys a good sauna herself.

The next obvious choice was the women’s gym: not as posh or expensive as Equinox, but positively swanky by comparison to the local lifters’ gym. And: not only do they have fluffy towels and a steam room, they have a whirlpool…and yoga with baby goats!?!? I have no idea how they get goats into an urban yoga studio – but the prospect of capering with caprine kids, then (showering, because: goats??) soaking away a bit of eco-anxiety in a hot tub…Sign me up! 

Am I losing sight of my activist goals here, distracted by the comforts of the pampered bourgeoisie? Unlike Greta, I’m not 17, and protesting is hard on the joints. Plus: baby goats! Plus: some of the predictions about our collective future are pretty dire, and there’s a case to be made that enjoying a bit of comfort now is forgivable in the short term if it helps us keep up the struggle. Plus: I think every day about living off the grid in a yurt as a realistic form of protest and/or survival, in which case I’ll be grateful that all that pilates gave me good core strength.

Setting aside the problematic specter of complicit capitalist wallowing, the women’s gym poses an additional challenge to my feminism. I’ve long believed that creating separate parallel spaces for women – gyms, ride-sharing services, co-working spaces – is NOT the way to achieve equality. Women-only spaces are meant to create safety, refuge from a misogynistic world where we have to deal with harassment, aggressions both micro and egregious, and real threats to our well-being. There are places in the world where mixing with men means to risk being assaulted, maybe even killed. But an important part of the struggle for women’s social and political rights has been to demand access to public spaces – to be able to go into a bar without a chaperone or a date, to be able to ride the bus or walk through a city unmolested to run errands or do work, to participate in sports and fitness – all of those “privileges” of freedom of movement have been very hard-won in some cultures, and still to be achieved in many more. Creating women’s-only spaces when we have the legal right to be wherever we like has always felt, to me, like segregation, like self-imposed purdah, like surrender. When we withdraw from some piece of the world, we give the misogynists what they want. 

So I had dismissed the idea of the women’s gym as soon as it occurred to me – I’ve taken it as a point of feminist pride that for the last several years, I’ve been out there on the weight lifting floor with bros larger and younger than me, and I have Claimed. My. Space. 

But.

The day after the 2016 election, I was, like so many of us, stunned, horrified, and – I hate to admit it – frightened. I was also very, very angry. That election had been determined by people who, I realized, hate me. They hate the idea of me: my education, my sexuality, my politics, my gender. I could feel that hatred in the cultural air around me. They hate me. And in this new climate of bigotry and animosity, I knew that “they” were – not exclusively, but overwhelmingly –  men.

In late 2016, as I walked to work, in a busy area in a crowded city, I would pass a man and wonder: “do you hate me? are you one of the ones who voted in hopes of hurting people like me?” A few of my male colleagues made the rounds at the office, checking in on us, which was nice, and well-intentioned, I suppose (because #notallmen…); but I found their reassurances more irritating than comforting. It’s easy for men to say, everything’s going to be all right, because it is more likely to be all right (in the way that it has always been more likely to be all right) when you’re a man – a straight, white man in particular.  

Since then, some of that initial fear has eased up (or has just been diverted into concern for the planet…quick check: yep, still plenty of fear there). But the initial shock left an impression. I had taken a lot for granted, for example, that my equality is protected by law wherever I go, that I have autonomy over my body, that I have a government that represents me, that that government recognizes my humanity, that it’s reasonable to expect that I live in a safe and orderly country…I don’t take those things for granted now. 

A lot has changed in just a few years. 

So I was trying to make the mundane (not mundane) decision about a new gym, as a consequence of boycotting my old gym (because: the straight white man who runs the company is an apologist for the straight white man who invests in the company and then uses the profits to fund the political ambitions of straight white men who are also racist fascists). I walked past the women’s gym, advertising “a community of women” and thought reflexively, if only my feminist principles didn’t prevent me from embracing separatism and segregation. 

Then I thought: hang on.

I’ve had it up to here with straight white men, with bros of any age, reassuring me that things will be all right, doing nothing to help, turning a blind eye to nearly-incomprehensible violence in the world, yelling at one another about baseball rather than the fact that the planet is on fire.

Yes, I know. You don’t have to be a man to be a horrible person. Again: #notallmen. We can all point to this male friend or that male lover who isn’t so bad. I hear good things about Bill Gates these days. But it was a teenage girl who got millions of people around the world out into the streets to protest against the climate emergency; it’s teenage girls who have been looking white men straight in the eye while pointing out that they made this mess, and they’re failing all of us by refusing to deal with it. Human rights, the environment, social justice, political justice – when you think of who has the financial and political power to perpetuate all this violence, if men aren’t the ones making it happen, it’s men who are making excuses for why they’re allowing it to continue. 

Why on earth would I also want to work out beside them?

Decision made.

Never mind my choice of gym: a yurt in Herland is looking pretty good these days. But in the meantime, working on my strength and endurance amongst a community of women, sounds very appealing indeed.

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