Health and Fitness

The Tragedy Of The Modern Metro Muscle Man

Phone staring, mirror glancing and unabashed bicep kissing.
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"We need a new photograph of you!” yells the receptionist at the gym. Not because I am slimmer or fitter or stronger in some before-and-after way that might serve the gym’s own push for self-promotion.

No. They need a new picture of me because I have aged. The receptionist, probably still at school when I first came here, is trying to read my expression, since I have frozen just past the turnstile to contemplate my fate in one of the place’s many mirrors. To contemplate my fate, and the fact it has indeed been 16 years since I first came in.

“Sixteen years of fitness!” he shouts as I trudge down to change.

There, in another inescapable mirror, I see what I’ve become. Balder and wiser, a living witness to gravity. This is about the size of it, and me. The bulk, the power, the hench and the heft have somehow proved elusive. What has not escaped me, on this long excursion into the underworld of unnecessary effort, is the rise in my fellows’ vanity.

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I’m sure it never used to be this way, or at least not quite so open. Since the early 2000s, the changing room has devolved into a humid crevice of literal, balls-out, self-regard. One move has come to typify this, I call it “The Gunslinger”. Those who do this I condemn to a class of their own.

There are a pair of hairdryers before a mirror by the lockers. To perform the perfect Gunslinger, one must emerge still damp from the showers (itself a capital crime), toss one’s towel to the floor with maximum disregard for it, me and the cleaning staff, and then apply both dryers simultaneously to everything but the hair on your head while maintaining eye contact with yourself for the duration.

That one might come here to exercise yet find the final act of towelling oneself dry unconscionable is baffling enough. That such behaviour is twinned to a complete absence of self-awareness is perhaps less surprising.

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To achieve full marks here, one must then cover one’s bone-dry-at-the-expense-of-the-planet body with a cloud of spray deodorant and leave briskly, past the sinks. (Where someone will be having a shave, and not cleaning that up—another habit whose punishment hell ought be expanded to fit.)

Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images.
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If you think men are getting more sensitive because they are buying more cosmetics or being sold them in a different way, I bring terrible news. The beast that would, for sport, entrap his mate to huff flatulence beneath a duvet, has not died but just become more fragrant, the better to admire himself.

Odds are the scented Gunslinger will have spent much of his “session” sat motionless on each piece of equipment you would like to use, while staring at his phone. This behaviour is no more than a decade old but has gone from dick-move to de rigueur with grim acceleration.

Smartphones have even muscled into the sauna. The first person I saw doing this—steam-swiping—then exited and left the door open. If you and I were to be the last ones left alive on this dying planet and you asked me when exactly the death knell rang, I would offer this as my suggestion, before towelling myself dry of tears, and jogging proudly away with moderate if visually unremarkable fitness for someone of my age.

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Even the most annoying man in history, who has been coming here almost as long as I have and likes to scream “Yes!” and whoop, grunt and wheeze as he drops incredible arrays of free weights to the mat in triumph, is powerless against this self-regarding new wave. This man moves so quickly through the equipment that the noise he makes is offset by the speed of the display. Yet I have seen even him retreat from a younger man who looks like a tattooed Ralph Fiennes and trains with his girlfriend (separate circle of hell, again, for couples’ fitness) and isn’t getting out of anyone’s way until he’s done laughing at his phone and talking to her about how much money he makes.

One expects to find the music or the dialect or the politics of the young in some measure ridiculous as one grows old, such are the scant perks of ageing, but one is puzzled above all by what is happening to their bodies. A phenomenon even more baffling than what has not happened to mine. Between the phone staring and the mirror glancing and the unabashed bicep kissing, there is a dramatic upsurge in men’s size. When Geordie Shore started in 2011, you would have been forgiven for thinking this archetype—body-hairless fist-man with neat but volumised coiffure—was just a regional problem. But as you will have noticed, this is now nationwide and going global.

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Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images.

Where, given all the vanity and inertia on display, do they find the time? It seems that many of us don’t, as there is much chat among the mists between gorillas about how to cut corners in the quest for muscle definition that cannot be defined by mere biology and effort. “Tabs or jabs?” is the question among the steroid brethren. What, I would ask, if this were a more convivial space, are you going to do with all that meat you’re manifesting? What do you get up to when you get home?

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Is this, perhaps, the tragedy of the modern metro strongman? All that muscle, and nothing to lift but a phone. I slip past the young, dysmorphic giants and leave the gym unnoticed, resolving to keep my ageless, reverse-Dorian Gray snapshot in the system, for another 16 years, ideally. Which is, of course, a vanity of its own. I hide from my reflection one last time and recite the mid-life mantra and serenity plea: “It must be them; it can’t be me.”

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Michael Holden
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