When I first started lifting last summer, I was really intimidated by the whole atmosphere of the gym. The men tended to outnumber the women; the smells and sounds were sharp and strong; it was clearly a male space. I entered it with a trainer, who very quickly showed me how to use some of the machines (several of which, until then, had been a mystery to me).
I also felt awkward about my own physical presence. I am extremely critical of my own body, and I tend to assume that everyone else is, as well. No matter what else is going on, no matter what I am doing, I am always thinking about my body, about the space it takes up, about the way it looks, about the enormous difference I perceive between what I see and what I think I should see. And so putting on shorts and a tank top and appearing in public was extremely difficult for me (and still is).
But in this gym, unlike some others, bodies seem to be less on display. They are there, not to look good, but to function. It isn't that people don't notice the other bodies, but more that everyone is focused on what their own bodies are doing. And in the seven or so months that I've been going there, I haven't run into very many beauty queens (of any gender). Instead, what I've been struck by is how "normal" everyone's body seems. I had expected to feel horribly out of place - too big, too out of shape, not muscular enough, too fat, whatever. Instead, I mostly feel like just another body, one of many people trying to see what I can do as I move and turn and lift.
But I watch myself. I haven't figured out how to move comfortably, yet I notice that my movements have indeed changed. I don't walk the same way in my athlete's costume as I do when I am not wearing it. I know how to move as a dancer; my body remembers how to walk with grace. But I can't be graceful in tennis shoes, and I am forever stumbling over my own feet, or awkwardly turning and bending to replace weights on the rack.
And so I notice my own movements, especially when the others around me seem to move with more fluidity and purpose. But I notice, too, those moments when my body looks and moves in ways that seem pleasing. I try to be a little more generous, and to love the parts of my body that I think are unloveable. I try to remember that my mushy belly covers strong abdominal muscles, that it came by its shape stretching to accomodate a baby, that it feels good to touch. And then I make myself think of something else, turning my attention to the miles on the counter, focusing not on how my body looks but on how it feels, both flesh hardened to my touch and also the sensation of tired, accomplished muscles and limbs.
I will probably always be on display, even if only in my own mind. But in the gym, I have moments when I can experience my body as energy and movement first, form second.