As part of learning about Port Melbourne, I joined in with many active groups: tai chi, group training, gentle exercise, and classes at the gym. Organised exercise is not really something I had done a lot of, so it was all rather new to me. Of all these activities, the one I found the most uncomfortable (and I thought of as most peripheral to my project) was going to the gym. Even though the gym felt rather foreign, I was still in a Melbourne suburb and so it offers yet another example of how partial my understandings are of the social world that surrounds me in my every day life.
Including a few yoga classes, I had probably done about four gym classes in my life. I had to learn new words, work out the rules for a space, and train my body to position itself in new ways. When I went to Body Pump classes at the gym, I soon went from being lost and amused to knowing what was coming up. Classes were not hard to get through, but seemed to go for longer, and I did not have that heavy and stiff feeling afterwards; I needed to go up in weights.
Not only did I learn the class routine and build the muscles needed to carry out the instructions, I stopped feeling strange about the very particular type of social interaction in a gym class. I no longer felt rejected that my smiles were not returned, and the instructor’s friendly and encouraging banter during class became background noise rather than communication I felt obliged to engage with. One morning I arrived for Friday Body Pump. The instructor walked past me in the waiting area and, as we made eye contact, she smiled. However, her face quickly became blank. I’d given her the gym face.
Some people were very social at the gym, but there always appeared to be reasons for this. Some seemed to spend much of their life there, many appeared significantly older than me, and I guessed that others would find themselves in a conversation every time they waited in a supermarket checkout line. Some people (especially men) would train in pairs, and bits of conversation would float around in the weights area.
Before adopting the gym face myself, when I was still uneasy as to why I felt so uncomfortable at the gym, I found myself in a conversation with a friend of a friend one weekend. He was a gym go-er and said, ‘You need to just get in there and do what you need to do.’ While I did see going to the gym as something that might be good for my physical health, and Body Pump is a choreographed work out run in many different gyms, I was in a gym in Port Melbourne because that is where I was doing field work.
In social research, or at least the social research I read, the researcher does need to ‘get in there’ to speak or spend time with people. So often public and commercial spaces in the inner-suburbs of Melbourne can be full of people, but it is easy to think of being around other people as very different to being with them*.
* I am tempted to clarify that I do not mean ‘being with’ in the sense that it is so often used as a euphemism, but perhaps the reason it is used as an euphemism is itself an interesting story.