I spent the evening in the weight room at my local Y, where I swim and now lift weights regularly. One of the trainers there has started me on a new weight program, as the one I started with was beginning to bore me and I needed some variety (read: incentive) to continue to go in. There is a level that weight training is boring, but I have found that this is part of its appeal. There is something very satisfying about the somewhat primitive act of lifting heavy things and putting them down again in order to make some kind of change. Weight training is generally brainless, and that's what I like about it. The rest of my life is, to use the same terms, "brainful," and having an hour out of the day that is devoted to something I don't have to think about very much is a surprising pleasure.
I suspect that many people would be surprised to discover that I am now a regular in the weight room. A scrawny bookworm in a high school that worshiped at the altar of Football, I'm as surprised as they are. I've hit that point in lifting weights where I like to go in: I like seeing the regulars, I like the sound of the dull clank of metal as it's picked up and put down, and I like the equally dull soreness that my muscles have the day after I lift that tell me what I did something really physical. Truly, it's not an unpleasant soreness; it's more a slight ache that tells me that my body is capable of more than I expected. In all fairness, I do wish that the Y would put on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday afternoons over the P.A. system -- the idea of doing Bulgarian deadlifts to the tune of Cosi Fan Tutte is delicious in its incongruity -- but I'm not making bets that this will happen any time soon.
But the larger issue, weight room soundtracks aside, is that it's working. I am easily stronger than when I started a year ago, though my body hasn't itself changed a great deal. I have been told that this is normal. All of those magazines that tout how your body will change dramatically in six weeks with training are selling false promises, unless you spend a lot of time in the wieght room. A lot of time, certainly more than I have or want to. What realisitc weight training does promise is more strength and, if it becomes a lifelong habit, as it seems to be, change that is incremental. Some changes in my body are obvious, if only because I see my body every day when I shower and shave. My arms have more definition, my chest -- well, it hasn't grown much, but the veins underneath the skin are now visible in a way that they never were before, and I have a somewhat pumped look after coming out of the weight room. It is temporary, but it's there. In the next few weeks, I'll be ramping up my new program a bit, so I expect some more changes. I would like them faster, but as I'll be doing this for the rest of my life, I can wait.
In the meantime, it has been fun seeing exactly what I'm capable of. Some weight lifting gains have been dramatic. I now do chest flies with 30-pound dumbbells, and I started with only half that weight. I lift 50-pounders for shoulder rows, I leg press 225 pounds (up from a starting point of 150). I expect that these are modest weights by serious training standards, but they're not for me at this point. It is one of the pleasures of weight training that you actually do get stronger all the time, and there is evidence of this in that you can keep trying to lift slightly heavier weights, only to find that you actually can handle them. Not necessarily with ease at first, but enough to see that you will be able to down the road. Weights are good thing to do if your basic life philosophy is moderation because it only works if your progression is designed to be very consciously moderate. But there is progress.
I started weights because I wanted to be stronger, but I also must admit that vanity, pure and simple, is fueling my time in the weight room. I swim very regularly and have for decades, and I'm noticing that middle age spread is setting in because I'm in the middle age where it does. I've always wanted bigger arms and a bigger chest, and I wouldn't mind bigger legs too. I have very mixed feelings about this. For many gay men (not to mention straight men, increasingly), physical beauty as defined as the perfect body has been a curse, making men dismiss others based on their lack of pecs or lats or delts and nothing about what really matters. This is an old story for many women, and I don't want to minimize that; but it's really sad that men have chosen to get sucked into this vicious emphasis on looks over everything else, like: oh, I don't know. Integrity. Personality. Compassion.
What makes me feel worse is the fact that to a certain level, I have done just the same thing. I will be the first to admit strength training is a health issue, but if I were truly honest, I would also have to admit that I like, really like the fact that it will make me look better. Not beautiful, exactly, as I never had the kind of looks that would put me in that rarified company. (Thank God, I say in retrospect.) Weight training is in part based on vanity. I 'm not going to pretend it isn't, and I will have to cheerfully accept the hypocrisy that I preach. I abhor gay male physical body culture while I simultaneosly buy into it, three or four times a week.
But perhaps there is a nuanced middle ground here. I hope so. I tell myself that I am not a fanatic about body building, though I am taking on some exercises that are designed to work specific parts of my body that I frankly want bigger. I am weight training, and it is in fact good for you. Doctors say so. In fact, my doctor says so. I can rationalize it all I like, but the fact remains that I chose weight training because 1) it makes you stronger, and 2) it shapes your body more to the ideal of the body beautiful that we've inherited from the Greeks.
Is there something wrong with this? The photographer Tom Bianchi has published a book of male nudes, one of his many books of this sort. It's titled In Defense of Beauty, and in it he offers his suggestion that we have always reponded to beauty in this way, and we should defend it on grounds of the pleasure it gives us. OK, sure, and I have to say that the men in this and all of his books are stunningly beautiful. (And I enjoy looking at them. There, I said it.) But there is a problem with this argument, at least as he frames it: all these men have absolutely worked and worked hard to create the chiseled bodies that are gorgeous in this book, and they have the faces to match. They are consistently stunning. But some of this stunning beauty is controllable (the body building) and a lot of it isn't (the faces). The fact is, if we define beauty in one specific way in any given time period, we are in fact privileging some people who have that beauty over those who don't, often on bases that nobody has any control over. It's worth remembering that even building one's body isn't entirely a matter of one's own will or even hard work. For example, I will never develop the kind of arms that one of the older guys I see in the gym has. I wish I could; he looks terrific. But I don't have the genetics for it, and that's that. I can build and develop whatever I have, and that will also be that. But would that fall under Bianchi's definition of beauty? Would he defend me?
I would like to feel reasonably sure that he would. He seems like a very nice man, and a talented photographer. But I also feel reasonably sure that I will never appear in one of his books, even if I could. And that's why I have a complex relationship wtih my weight training. This is simply another of saying what all of us already know: we have complicated relatinships with our bodies, these vessels of flesh, bone, and blood that contain us, that embody us (literally), but that we are at some level separate from.