Michael McGough

My brand-new gym bag in hand (I have some other ones, but didn’t have time to excavate them from my apartment building’s storage locker), I reported last night for my first meeting with my trainer at the neighborhood health club. (I almost wrote “personal trainer,” but that’s too grandiose and Hollywoodish, and anyway I’ve paid for only 12 sessions.)

What brought me to this fateful appointment was a suggestion by my doctor, and some pain and stiffness in my left leg, which was pulverized 14 years ago by a car on a London street. My doctor, citing his own experience, suggested at my last appointment that the only way for me to reverse my latest middle-age spread was to submit to the discipline of a regular schedule with a trainer, an arrangement that would make rudeness–which I abhor–the price of procrastination. Pretty clever, Doc.

More interesting, I think, is what has kept me away from the gym: Inertia, certainly, and long shifts at the cerebral sweatshop of the editorial page and, until recently, some moonlighting as an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. But a little introspection (my alternative to exercise) suggests two other explanations for my gym jitters.

The first reason, or rationalization if you prefer, is that I’m put off by the cult of fitness, though my actual contact with it has been limited to tense encounters with cyclists who pedal too close to my car. I’m especially irritated by quasi-religious devotion to the cause–reformed couch potatoes can be more self-righteous than reformed drunks–and sometimes there’s no quasi about it.

Muscular Christianity is alive and well, and not just in high-profile groups like the Promise Keepers and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Attending a wedding at a Presbyterian church, I noticed a poster for an exercise program called “Witness for Fitness.” As my mother used to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to the door with their tracts, “No thanks, we’re Catholics.”

And there are some Christians who, not content to exalt exercise, demonize fatness–forgetting that the Lord was attacked for being a glutton and a drunkard, not to mention a pal of prostitutes. (It was John the Baptist who was the ascetic.) Browsing in Barnes & Noble the other day, I was depressed to find a manual for Christian slimmers, complete with scriptural affirmations, a sort of “Are You Sweating With Me, Jesus?”

Digging deeper, though, I have to own up to another ulterior motive for not accepting Richard Simmons as my personal savior. As a former fat boy (like Simmons before he got religion), I see joining a gym as a form of class treason.

With every group vying for victimhood in this era of identity politics, it’s fashionable to complain that you belong to “the last minority that it’s acceptable to make fun of.” That claim is staked by Catholics, the handicapped, and stay-at-home mothers, but I really think fat people deserve the distinction. And, contrary to what fans of Camryn “This is for all the fat girls” Manheim might think, fat is not just a feminist issue, especially on the schoolyard.

Of all the popular sociology that appeared after the shootings in Littleton, I was most struck by a Washington Post story about day-in, day-out bullying in the schools. One vignette in that story concerned a 13-year-old Virginia boy named Erik Berndt who has been tormented for nearly three years about his weight and lack of athletic skill. To paraphrase a famous former fat boy, I felt Erik’s pain–and worried in some sense that I was letting him down by joining the gym.

In the event, as they say in fitness-uncrazed England, I needn’t have worried. The health club was not a temple of fitness fascism and my trainer was neither a Simmons nor a Schwarzenegger but rather a young woman who put me through my paces with humor and understanding. And the TV set in the workout room was tuned to CNN!