Gym-Going for the Awkward Woman

by Audrey Ference

If you’re anything like me, which is to say a socially awkward, un-athletic weirdo, going to the gym is basically a string of uncomfortable situations that make you want to run away forever. Even just putting on my dorky workout gear brings me immediately back to taking an inhaler break in middle school gym class while the tall, sweatless girls effortlessly lapped me. And yet! I have been a successful regular gym go-er for over ten years (brag).

I think Science has proven pretty conclusively that working out is good for a person. Even better, if you have an anxious nature, it’s one of the best ways I’ve found to offset worry and depression. If you’re not going to the gym because you think it’s its own sweaty world with strange social rules, well, you’re right. You should go anyway, though. Here are some things I’ve learned. Maybe they will help you? Or maybe you’re one of those tall, sweatless girls all grown up, in which case carry on.

1. Machines

Don’t be afraid of the machines. Most of them are actually self-explanatory, once you situate yourself. Large, grunty men have strange, unparseable rules for the weight machines, like if they leave a towel on one even though they’re not using it, they will get mad if you try to use it. Dudes (always dudes) will ask if they can “rotate in.” The answer is no. Defend your machine territory. There’s a thigh machine where you open your legs wide. It feels very crotchy and awkward. It looks as weird as it feels.

The sign that says there’s a 30-minute time limit on cardio machines is a lie. Some jerk will hog that treadmill for an hour. If you stand around waiting for a cardio machine, you could be there for a very long time. Better to go do something else.

2. Buds

Lots of people at the gym want to make friends. Examples: the super-skinny older lady who says semi-racist things about the staff out loud to herself in an attempt to trick people into conversation; the guy with the monkey foot toe shoes who wants to talk about his shoes; the man in the sleeveless t-shirt who wants to correct your form, and who at first seems like maybe he’s a trainer but you slowly realize doesn’t work there at all.

Maybe for some people, having gym friends is comforting. The gym, where everybody knows your name. For me, the gym is where I most want to be anonymous, to get in and get out without having to negotiate a lot of small talk. I’m sweaty and vulnerable and have to take my clothes off at some point. I am not at the top of my game, social-interaction-wise. Even really nice, normal people can make things weird. There’s a lady I see every single week because we both go at lunch. One time, we had this conversation:

Her: Hey, do you work at [book publisher in the same building as the gym]?
Me: No, but I work down the street.
Her: Yeah, I see you here all the time. What’s your name?
Me: Audrey.
Her: I’m [unintelligible].
Me: Sorry?
Her: [unintelligible]. Like [unintelligible]?
Me: [too embarrassed to ask again] Oh OK, hi!

For YEARS, I saw this woman several times a week. She is a super nice person, the kind who uses your name a lot to show she knows it. So she’d be like “Oh hi Audrey, good to see you! Audrey, how are you?” and I would have to be like, “Hey! Hiiii! Good! And you?” I tried everything I could think of to find out her name, because the idea of asking again was too awful. I finally overheard someone else say her name. It was Sarah? How could I not understand that? Now I just smile tersely and nod at the people I see over and over again, and they can tell not to talk to me. Though I talk to Sarah every time, and make sure to use her name a lot. Am I over-doing it now with the name? I worry about things like this.

3. Classes

Counterintuitively, classes are great if you are shy or feel silly about working out. You can stand in the back where no one can see you, and someone else is in charge. The instructor will ensure that you’re doing all the right things, and the people you imagine giving your workout style the side eye can suck it, because the instructor knows what she’s doing. Further, once the class starts, you need not interact with anyone. Get in, get out. Perfect gym day.

4. Nudity

I feel an intense need not to be weird about nudity. What am I, some kind of repressed American? Who can’t be naked with other ladies? No. Fight the urge to change in the bathroom stall. Force yourself to applaud the women who blow dry their hair in just a thong. They are so free! No big deal! It’s actually kind of nice to see what lots of different shapes of humans look like without clothes on. It makes a person feel more normal-looking, to see that other, pretty ladies also have a weird thigh bulge or tummy roll, or cellulite or stretch marks. However, there are limits. I once saw a woman straight up change her tampon in the locker room — pop the old one out, put in on the bench, pop in a new one. Wow.

To me, the strangest part of being naked with strangers is negotiating space. Someone needs to get past you to get to their locker. You need to share the bench. You have to talk to a naked person, or be talked to, naked. Where do you look? How do you not accidentally check out their boobs? How do you not accidentally brush past their naked butt? It happens. Everyone feels weird about it, or has gotten used to it. Try not to fixate.

And look, if you are worried about the showers, feel free to bring flip-flops. I don’t and I’ve never gotten a foot disease, but then again the flip-flopped women look at me like I am disgusting. Hey, lady, maybe you’re the one with the foot disease, ever think of that?

5. Farts

Gyms are farty. I guess the exertion squeezes out the toots from people. Yoga especially, but also running. Try and get all of your farting done before you get there, I suppose. When someone around me cuts a bad one, I am torn between being a kind and adult human being who ignores bodily functions because hey, we all fart, and making the EW WHO FARTED face to show that it wasn’t me. He who smelt it dealt it/she who denied it supplied it, etc.

6. Accidents Happen

In the end, it is pretty inevitable that you will do something embarrassing at the gym. My husband, who I have converted into a gym-goer with my gentle wisdom, has flown off of moving treadmills cartoon-style more than once. Gents, if you do this, apparently nice ladies from neighboring treadmills will come over and see if you are okay. Good way to meet chicks?

Once, when I was taking a step aerobics class “ironically” and “because it’s so hilarious” (I love step aerobics, don’t tell anyone) my step wasn’t assembled correctly. While executing a kicky little twirl, I stepped on the wobbly part of the bench and it popped up, flipping into the women next to me and smacking her in the leg and sending me flying forward, where I landed on my ankle weird. They had to stop the class and go get some first aid guy while I mumbled “I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine” and hobbled around unconvincingly. Eventually I had to sign a release form that I wouldn’t sue. Though I didn’t ever go back to that class I am still gymming.

So the moral of the story is: Go the gym! It’s not so scary, once you get the hang of it. Or the parts that are scary, you eventually get used to. It has not made me thin or athletic or socially able (obviously!) but it is something I do that actively adds to my happiness, every time I go.

Previously: Simple Drinks for Stupid People.

Audrey Ference writes Sex With the Natural Redhead for The L Magazine.