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Austin Chronicle The Naked Gym Ape

An Anthropological Survey of the Denizens of the Corporate Gym

By Stuart Prestidge

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Like so many people around the world, I have fallen for the tantalizing neon promises of the Corporate Gym. I was assured that health, happiness, and muscles the size of small countries could all be obtained in the fun, sweat-ridden, and over-packed environment to which I would have the privilege of belonging for only $18 a month.

There are no guarantees contained in the contract with Corporate Gym-land. After a year of frequenting one such establishment, I am still your average man, still driven by the neon light at the end of the tunnel and the fact that I paid for a two-year membership. Despite my physical failures, the past year has not been a total waste, but has, in fact, opened my eyes to a subculture of people I never knew existed. So my efforts have shifted from the physical/ anatomical to the observational/anthropological, and I give you the definitive guide to the many, varied denizens that can be seen, month in month out, prowling around the confines of your typical Corporate Gym.


The Mere Mortals

Sitting at the bottom of the food chain, these creatures make up the bulk of the clientele within the gym. Consisting of men, women, young, and old, the Mere Mortals have realistic, obtainable goals of losing a few pounds here or firming up there, to be reached with motivational fuel injected into the system by the person who made commission from their membership purchase. The Meres have a high turnover rate, presumably due to being used as nutrition for those sitting atop of the gym food chain. Rarely does a Mere Mortal become a familiar fixture at a Corporate Gym. Although less physically blessed than the rest of the gym populace, the Mere Mortals have the distinct advantage of being able to leave the gym of their own free will and to carry on life in the real world of pubs, restaurants, jobs, and families.


The Perfect Mortals

This group of men and women constitute the few Mere Mortals who did become fixtures and have achieved a heightened level of physical prowess. Still able to leave the gym, their grasp on reality remains, but with more dedication they could be lost, forever to roam the dark corners of Gym Land, striving for an ever-higher level of perfection.


The Thugs

Usually men under the age of 30, these fellows congregate around a piece of equipment like hungry lions around a zebra carcass. The equipment of choice seems to be the bench press, but this can be substituted for anything that allows the Thugs the chance to use copious amounts of weight in a location where their constant yells and screams can intimidate as many Mere Mortals as possible. Training is accompanied by the use of great clouds of chalk powder, straps of every kind to prevent the very real possibility of a knee or elbow exploding like a grenade, and howls of encouragement so loud they can vibrate surrounding walls. This testosterone-fueled spectacle seems to continue not, as one might think, until the muscles give way to the tremendous poundages, but until the throats of the Thugs are so hoarse as to only allow screams that merely deafen.


The Ego Trainers

An offshoot of the Thugs, the Ego Trainers are men, also under 30, who have become disenchanted with the anonymity of grunting with the Thugs and have decided to become the star of their own show. Usually working alone, they emit screams which have a more controlled quality: just enough volume to attract attention but not too much as to scare off the potential audience. The grunts are also a natural product of the ludicrously high weights the Ego Trainers must use in the main event of their one-man shows. The Thugs nurture a healthy competition between themselves, but without this competition, the Ego Trainers discreetly challenge every other person in the gym by jumping on machine after machine and attempting to lift every weight with no concern for form or safety. If anything is about to explode on an Ego Trainer, then it is most likely to be their heads, as they turn purple, hold their breath, and pray they don't let the audience down by failing to lift the whole entire world.


The Fixated

These are the folks who on any given day, at any given time, can be found religiously utilizing the same piece of equipment as if they have been somehow surgically attached. The men of this group usually have a fixation about the arms or chest and can be seen for hours either on a bench or with a pair of dumbbells desperately trying to increase the mass of their chosen body part. The Fixated man is a lone beast with a mission. Rarely will you see two Fixated men together, as the chances of one finding someone else who has the same absolute dedication to the exact same exercise and body part is one in a million. There is an admirable lack of discouragement in the faces of the Fixated man as his years of dedication are often fruitless but, like a priest or soldier, he has given up his life for one cause and one cause only: the continuation of an exercise above and beyond any practical purpose. If, through years of gym evolution, a group of Fixated men do come together in an act of unbelievable fluke, then they may be able to drag themselves from the lonely waters of Fixation and become Thugs.

The Fixated women are a breed apart from the men. They can be found in one place and one place only: the inner and outer thigh machines. Like bizarre genealogical experiments, these women open and close their legs with a look of such intense misery you know that they have been there for a lifetime. Their efforts are often pointless, but their dedication, despite their misery, remains intact.


The Upper-Body Freaks

From the waist up, these men have bodies to die for. Arms like Arnold and a chest like body armor. From the waist down they resemble chickens, tiny bony legs trembling under the weight of their enormous torsos. It is, indeed, a wonder of the modern world how these men manage to walk from one machine to the next. The ideal physique that most Upper-Body Freaks appear to be striving toward is that of Butch the Dog from the Tom & Jerry cartoons, and most seem to get close. In an act of subterfuge, most Upper-Body Freaks steer away from the traditional gym attire of shorts, instead preferring hideously colored sweat pants that only highlight the ruse to the trained eye. Some Upper-Body Freaks, having failed to achieve the goal of the Butch physique, may stray into the realm of Fixation in a vain attempt to be like Butch. From that point onward they are forever lost.


Anatomy-Defying Trainers

When approaching the treadmill for a mind-numbing 30-minute run, I hope and pray that one of the Anatomy-Defying Trainers is going to be in the vicinity. Give them a dumbbell or cable and they will come up with 1,000 different exercises for each body part, each more bizarre than the last. They may, in fact, be an elite group of ninja warriors training in the "way of the seizure" or some other forgotten form, as limbs, cables, and other aids contort this way and that for reasons that only the seasoned Anatomy-Defyer is entirely clear. I strongly suspect, however, that far from being martial artists, these people are, in fact, simply clueless. The strange thing about these folks, however, is that despite their rain-dance-like maneuvers, they actually seem to make progress.


The Perfect Women

Probably planted by the gym owners in a glorious attempt to attract more male Mere Mortals, these women are usually only seen in magazines and dreams. Everything is perfect, from the clothes they wear to the proportions of their fantastic bodies. On closer inspection, however, there is something quite disturbing about the Perfect Women: They never seem to work out. They may jump on a treadmill for a while or even lift some modest weights, but in comparison to the Mere Mortal women, they do very little. It seems that, indeed, these women are specially selected by Perfect Talent Scouts to train in some clandestine underground gym only to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting Mere Mortal men when memberships are down. It is the continued presence of these women that may just be responsible for production of the few Perfect Mortals.


The Perfect Men

Unlike the Perfect Women, these men have to work for their perfect physiques. Slowly, deliberately, definitely in front of a mirror, and with as little on as possible is the only way to train if you are a Perfect Man. Despite their semi-vigorous workouts, Perfect Men never sweat; it's just too common. Instead they merely shine, enhancing their already Perfect bodies. There is a sinister side to the Perfect Man, however, and is the first real evidence that there is a direct correlation between the size of your body and the tastelessness to which your workout appearance can stoop. The Perfect Man is not averse to having hairless legs, having a crap fake tan or even wearing Lycra.


The Gods

The top of the food chain -- The White Shark of the pumping iron environment -- Men so big they must have been engineered in the same secret unit that produces the Perfect Women. The Gods have muscles on their muscles, forcing anatomists in laboratories everywhere to think up new names for these enormous hunks of flesh. They eat three Perfects for breakfast, lift weight by the ton, and must lead colossal lives in specially built houses. Not only are the Gods unique for their mammoth bulk, but their tell-tale appearance makes them a standout: Nowhere else in Western society can you witness the combination of huge man, the color pink, and Lycra. It is as if the preponderance of muscle has made these men guilty to such an extent that they feel drawn to self-abasement via the modeling of such awful garments. Electric pink and lime green Lycra shorts hugging a God's every fiber so tightly it reminds me of the small, thick rubber bands farmers use to castrate bulls is not a pretty site. But who will point out this deficiency to a man twice the size of the family car? The Gods probably wear such clown-like clothing for the same reason a dog licks his arse: because he can.

Upon starting my quest for perfection, the Instructor told me not to worry unduly about body weight and composition but to judge my progress by much more practical means, such as the way I felt and how well my clothes fitted. On the whole, his advice was correct, but he left out one important point that only a year of pointless observation can provide. It is not how your clothes fit that matters, but whether you have fluorescent pink Lycra clothes that fit, that really counts.


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