Monday, May 21, 2007

On Men's Rooms: Locker Rooms and Weight Rooms and Masculine Anxiety

Like my academic title? I'm horrible at academic titles, so let's call it practice. Or a way to distancing myself from this itchy subject. But to get to the point:

Today, for what I think is the first time in my life, I walked into the free-weight room at the campus rec center, by myself, to work out. Oh I've been in before to look for someone (Willow haunts these quarters regularly) and I've recently (in the last two weeks) ventured in with her to learn the ropes if you will, but this is the first time I've ever gone in by myself, and I have to say, it is one of the weirdest experiences of passing that I've ever performed.

Passing as what? you ask: as a Real Man. I'll get to this in a second. Most of my exercises in passing have been class-based, and I am infinitely better at passing "up" the class ladder than "down" (though my family of origin is much closer to the "bottom" than the top). A couple of times in college I also did a little gender crossing, although only one of these was an actual attempt to pass as female: the others were exercises in actual theatre or in a trendy androgyny, and at 5'11" and 127, I can say with some pride, that I looked fabulous in that kicky pleated black skirt and black tights. I also had a black beret, blackberry lipstick, and a daisy in my lapel. Can anyone tell I was listening to Morrissey at the time?

But I digress. Those boundary crossings were more fun and less anxiety-producing than the one today, of Manhood (or more specifically, hetero-manhood). David Savran, in discussing the title of Taking it Like a Man, his book on masculinity in performance, locates in the titular phrase a notion that even men must act "like a man"--that manhood is never innate, and can only be approximated. And manhood is a strange kind of stoic masochism to boot. This is the case of the weight room, where 12 white men (myself included) and one fierce black woman shaped their bodies and displayed them in the not painless (see? masochism) process of shaping.

It is the looking and being looked at that to me define the weight room, and its companion, the locker room, and the spectacle of masculinity, or more accurately, the spectacle of performing masculinity, that produce generally, and for me specifically, the anxiety of hetero-masculinity.

The central paradox of this theatre of gendered bodies is that the act of being seen is imperative to the performance--one cannot be seen as a man if one is not looked at, observed, ideally even admired. However, the act of looking, the very looking that predicates being looked at, is suspect, submissive, and potentially queer. The skinniest boy is compelled to look at the buffest body and desire it. It is virtually a precondition for the skinniest boy being there in the first place. That boy observes the body builder's muscle configuration, his size, his porportion, his definition and wants that body, albeit for himself, yet that desire to have that body himself is not entirely different from having that body to himself.

And yet, skinny boy cannot be caught looking, for to be caught looking is to be caught desiring, to break the silence on the homoerotic transaction. Similarly, the body builder wants to be desired, and he does his own looking, not only to see who else is looking (he desires the gaze of all the eyes in the room, but particularly of those bodies he desires), but to see who looks less desirable.

And as the skinny boy aspires to masculinity by looking like the body builder, the body builder
approaches it by being desired, by being looked at. But it is no secret that the perfect body and the body builder who has sculpted one for himself, is itself associated with the feminine, the the object of the gaze, with primping, with vanity.

The ante for all of this is upped when we talk about the locker room, where the spectacle includes naked bodies and the anxiety extends to, where else, the nether regions. I've been using the locker room on campus for a year or so now, and I still feel certain of the same anxieties fairly acutely, of looking and being looked at, of comparisons, of judgments. It's a little worse that students occupy these spaces in droves at some times, though I tend to hit the gym during off times, especially in summer, where many of the center's patrons are faculty and staff. But the spectre of your colleagues' bodies and your body exposed in the same space seems to make literal the metaphor we occasionally use whenever we see a showdown at MLA of two prominent male academic--seeing who's bigger.

Admittedly, these dynamic are specifically hetromasculine, and I'm sure my female and queer colleagues have plenty to say about their own experiences and senses of these spaces (the gay male gym experience is decidedly different, especially in queer-friendly spaces and places, which this campus unofficially, but decidedly, isn't).

Where do I fit into all of this? Well, I still imagine myself as skinny guy (5'11" and 127, remember?), although I am now a good deal heavier. I grew soft around the middle before putting on the musculature of an adult male, and so was never a specimen of particular admiration in this paradigm. And so I approach these spaces as the inferior, as he who aspires and is judged to be wanting, as opposed to he who is admired and desired, and judges as a component of his own personal anxiety.

To be comfortable in my own skin, with my own male body, is a feeling I wouldn't know how to describe, and part of this process is discovering whether the act of taking control over my body is a path to finding this comfort, or if it only changes the particulars of my own anxiety.


Flavia said...

This is a great post, Horace. I've been thinking for a while now about writing a post about my own uneasy inhabitation of my gender (shortest version: I really, really was not happy being female for high school and the first part of college), but this is much more thoughtful and nuanced than anything I could aspire to!

In my comp class last year we read Susan Bordo's The Male Body, which articulates some of the same issues you raise here--my students, and especially my female students, loved it. They seemed so surprised--and yet not surprised--by the idea that men, like women, are also subject to sometimes crushing physical and performative expectations based on their gender.

Scrivener said...

This post is absolutely brilliant.

Sisyphus said...

Wow! This is great. This makes my mind go in two different directions (besides being curious about you and the class-passing and I want to hear about that) so here goes:

I really like this reading of looking and power, and I would complicate the skinny body/buff body dynamic by throwing in the disgusting body. I know several people who wrote about the whole _Jackass_ phenomenon in grad seminars and there is definitely something about flaunting disgustingness or unfit bodies in the face of the workout paradigm.

Secondly, the idea of masculinity as performance-that-disavows-it's-performance reminds me of Judith Halberstam's work on drag kings and a sort of anti-theatricality. Yeah that's all I really have to say about that point. But this post was really cool, and I hear you about the anxiety of the locker room spaces!

Horace said...

Thanks for the feedback! I was a little afraid that a post like this would be met with chirping crickets... I have another post coming about younger body issues that sort of sets this one up a bit, I guess.

Flavia, I've actually never read Bordo, though now I want to!

Sisyphus, the stuff about the disgusting/abject body does open up a whole other range of thinking about such a space, and reminds me a lot of some stuff I've been reading lately in disability studies, where the medical theatre is a powerful metaphor.

I think could also throw age in here as a powerful factor, because the aged body circulates as visible symbol in really interesting ways that I'll need more time to think about. And I can't even begin to understand (though I'd love to learn) how an older male particularly acts as a spectator in the gym and in the locker room, though my own anecdotal evidence suggests they are much more comfortable with homosocial nudity. I don't know if this is symptomatic of historical conditions or life-cycle conditions, but there's so much to think about.

Anyway, thanks all for the comments.

Dr. Virago said...

Horace -- *Awesome* post. (And sidenote: you *so* have to read my book when it comes out. And Sisyphus makes me think I should've read Halberstam before writing it -- especially the "anti-theatricality" bit -- but oh well.) I know it's rather totalizing to say this, but perhaps the masculinist "being-looked-at, while-pretending-not-to-be-looked-at" thing underwrites all English drama before women were on stage.

But back in our own world, while straight women (and, I assume, gay men and women) do have their own locker room issues, it's different. Back in junior high you might have had the bitchy girl who caught you looking, who then mocked you for being a "lesbo," but I don't think that fear survives beyond adolescence. In fact, I have had whole complacent conversations with half naked colleagues in the locker room. Different women have different levels of comfort in their nakedness, but that range itself suggests something different going on.

And on another topic: I swear Flavia and I were separated at birth, because I had a similar discomfort with my femaleness.

Mo said...

Though I usually don't make comments on your more eloquent and/or academic posts, I just wanted to say this was a really interesting read. After seeing your feedback, I realize that I may be in the minority of those who read this blog as someone who has always felt comfortably gendered. It's a subject I've come to be interested in since discovering (embarassingly recently, really) how big of an issue gender identification is to many (maybe even most? to some degree?) people. Are you teaching any courses on gender studies? I'd bet a class on the subject would be a sleeper hit at BRU. Kudos for open and honest blogitude.

And also, the gym's always friendlier in the Nautilus room.


Anonymous said...

Nice post! I was particularly impressed by the line "manhood is never innate, and can only be approximated".

That resonated strongly with me.