Why I started working out more often (and what I learned in the process)

Hairy torso in black and white
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I’m at a festival and the place is full of topless men. I enjoy the music a lot and I’m trying to let go and have fun with it. I keep getting distracted by these beautiful bodies. I see all these men around me savouring the attention, it feels as if they put all this effort to sculpt their body just for this moment of aknowldgement and recognition. I don’t dare take my top off because I look nothing like them and I’m scared I’ll get rejected. I in fact think I get rejected for it already. I get a lot of mixed messages – are they flirting with me? Are they not? Do they like me? Do they not? It’s confusing and annoying.

A few hours later I see these two conventionally hot men in front of me meeting each other and connecting instantly. They start kissing. They have it all. The world belongs to them. It’s difficult to handle, I want some of that too. At the end of the night I promise myself that I’ll start going to the gym: by this time next year, I will be like them. I will get all the attention I need. I will feel special.

5 months in and I kept my promise. I follow a plan for exercise, I take supplements and I’m a bit more careful about my diet. There’s a big part of me that hates that I bought into this. I used to think I didn’t care about looks and that I was all about body positivity. I admire people who are brave enough to love their body as it is and show it off. Fuck knows I tried but if I’m shamefully honest, I’m glad I finally admitted to myself that it’s much harder than I thought it is and did something about it.

The messages I got growing up about my weight weren’t great. I had, and still have, a difficult relationship with food. I was fat up until I left my country. I interestingly rarely got bullied by people of my age – perhaps because I was good at hiding – but I remember vividly how I got bullied by adults: my parents for a start who were complaining about my weight, masking it as worry about my health. My teacher at school who called me fat mockingly for the rest of the children in the class to laugh. That bus driver at my school trip who was unkind and kept calling me fat in a derogatorive way too. And that time my chair in the classroom broke and I landed on the floor; everybody – including the teacher – burst into laughter that felt it lasted for hours.

The messages I’m receiving now are not any different. We’re not only constantly bombarded by the media about what’s the right way for our bodies to look like but also in my experience the gay community hasn’t been very forgiving about unfit bodies.

So yes, 5 months in and I’ve already seen some changes in my body. It’s nice, I won’t lie. There are some parts that no matter how much exercise I’ll do won’t change: my floppy belly for example, which is a result of having been so big in the past, or my love handles (thank you mediteranean genes!). But it’s easier to be more forgiving about these parts when I generally feel more confident in myself. And yeah I feel sexier too, which is not so much about body shape (I’m hardly even near celebrity-style bodies anyway!), but a lot more about self-confidence.

Building a fit body is work – and quite hard work. It requires commitment, money and precision. I understand all the good things this sort of exercise gives to us, but I also can’t help but think what the world would be like if we spent half the amount of money, effort and energy on working on our emotional or spiritual selves instead.

Going to the gym is becoming as much about working out as it is about taking time off. I listen to podcasts and music and I’m surrounded by others aiming for the same thing. It gives me a sense of community. But if I’m honest, I don’t feel great for getting these needs met this way. I feel shame and somehow guilty for contributing to promoting this supposed body ideal that we’ve been sold to be the norm. I also know that no matter how much I want to be open-minded and accepting of other people’s imperfect bodies, I won’t be able to do it fully unless I fully accept my own imperfections. I wonder if that’s even possible while being human in the beginning of the 21st century.

So yeah, 5 months in and I was expecting to feel happy, complete and that I’m enough. Instead I found out that neither way is easy. I also saw that when my needs are met, when I have enough time not only for exercise, but also for rest, play and creativity – this is when I feel good in my body. And there’s no amount of muscle gain or weight loss that can replace that.