It’s almost midnight when I leave the train station on the edge of Zone 6 in London. It’s a Thursday night and bar a few commuters and post-work drinkers straggling back on the last train of the evening and a couple of takeaways that are closing up, the town centre is dead.
With one notable exception. An entire floor of a vast, modernist office block overlooking the train tracks — an enormous white elephant that has never been fully occupied since it first opened in the 1960s — has recently become a glass-sided, 24-hour gym. An idea that within recent memory would have seemed like something from a satirical guide to yuppie life in Singapore is now an unremarkable reality even in the most humdrum suburbs. As the clock strikes midnight, lines of people march endlessly on cross trainers and lift weights, burn fat and build muscle. This is Britain in 2015 — where gym culture has grown and swollen from being a slightly uncouth niche pursuit to the dominant leisure activity, a huge industry and an influence on everything from fashion to physical form. How did we get here? And is it good for us?
7.6 million British adults now belong to a gym or leisure centre, an all-time high number (the first chain gym only opened in 1993, making this growth genuinely impressive). The economic downturn that followed 2008 did little to dampen the British public’s enthusiasm for paying to work out, although budget outfits like The Gym Group did emerge in response to limited finances and the industry is now estimated at being a £4.3bn concern.
How the gyms now view themselves is telling: Fitness First recently came back from the brink of financial collapse, and its rebranding was overseen not by anyone with a background in sport, but by Andy Coslett, a former executive of InterContinental Hotels, and was firmly rooted in turning the company into a lifestyle provider, rather than just a place to get fit. Behavioural psychologists were consulted, talking in terms of ‘personal growth’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘a sense of belonging.’ Staff were retrained in the manner of hotel personnel.
‘Andy Coslett’s view is that we are a hospitality business’, said Mark Hutcheons, director of communications for the group. ‘People choose to come here. We needed to ask them “What do you want?”’ 20 years ago when I was first a student, the only people who used the gym were sports science students and members of the rugby team — dull, lumpy types who didn’t much like music and wore sports kit into bars before standing around massive space-blocking holdalls the way that women used to crowd around piles of handbags. If you’d asked them what they wanted, the answer would probably just have been ‘more squat racks’, not something about community, development and iPad-based instructional videos.
However, the bastard sons and daughters of those people — pumped up, permanently training, clean-eating behemoths — are now the mainstream. Go to any suburb or provincial town centre and you will see hoards of young men who have absorbed an aesthetic equal parts Abercrombie & Fitch and Sports Direct and mangled it into something peculiarly modern and particularly British. Zero body hair, over-styled head-hair protruding through a cap, sleeveless, loose-fitting hooded tops, flat-soled, overly technical trainers (for increased stability during deadlifts), carefully managed eyebrows, sleeves of tattoos, three stone of lean muscle evenly spread over their upper torso.
It’s not the rotund bloat of the leather-belted bodybuilder (every town has always had a small subsect of these people), this is more like a plasticated version of fighting muscle. Something that looks like it comes from MMA training, or attempting to replicate Brad Pitt’s Fight Club physique with whatever you can buy at your local branch of GNC. It signals aggressive physicality, yet is completely unthreatening.
Sartorially, this look can be loosely traced back over the last 15 years. When American Apparel first emerged in the early noughties, their range was built around sportswear, but in a jokey, 70s-inflected, guys-like-us-wouldn’t-be-seen-dead-doing-actual-sport way: tube socks, high cut shorts, slim-fitting hoodies — and while it’s hard to remember now that the company has been consumed by scandal and financial disaster, it was, briefly, a huge cultural force. Indie music’s revival saw an ultra-skinny look that started as something trim and utilitarian but soon curdled into trilby-wearing hepatitis chic.
In tandem and by contrast, something harder was emerging in serious fashion shoots: early work of photographers like Alisdair Maclellan, Thom Murphy’s styling, and even Steven Klein’s David Beckham shoot for Arena Homme Plus in A/W 2000 worked in an interesting area where the porny sensibility of gay magazine culture met with something hard, provincial and ultra-straight. (A side note: in his 2011 memoir, City Boy Edmund White traces the gay aesthetic of hard muscularity to the early days of the AIDS epidemic: ‘People who’d been fashionably skinny the year before now were beefing up to prove they weren’t besieged by a wasting disease.’)
In short order, a sanitized version of this look would emanate out to the mainstream (topless guys wandering around Abercrombie and Fitch, cropped-haired borstal boys in trainer campaigns) and then the high street (David Gandy in his pants for M&S, fitness supply shops in every town). And as young men in the provinces tried to emulate the look, something odd emerged — hyper masculine, straight culture dressed up in the codes and language of a Boyz magazine editorial from 12 years earlier. This isn’t the first time that something similar has happened — think of the seventies, and the yob/glam crossover with Doncaster football hooligans dressing like the bassist from The Sweet — but the incongruity is striking.
Mark Simpson — the cultural commentator and journalist who first coined the term metrosexual, has christened this new look ‘spornosexual’. ‘With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines it’s eye-catchingly clear that second-generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first,’ he wrote in the Telegraph. ‘Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies (more than clobber and product) have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity — one that they share and compare in an online marketplace.’
In public life, gym culture is now linked with the idea of a virtue. On a personal level, fitness people endlessly self-promote on Twitter and Instagram (search for the hashtag ‘mirin’ if you want a dispiriting peek at where untrammeled vanity ends up). But a fish rots from the head down, and this kind of showboating comes from the top.
David Cameron’s press office regularly set up photo opportunities of him jogging — just a few days before the General Election, a Sun front page showed the PM clad in lycra returning from his morning run. Think how impossible it would be to imagine a previous PM photographed in lyrca. Gordon Brown? No way. Blair? Possibly. Major, Thatcher, Ted Heath? Absolutely unthinkable. But my hunch is that in the same way that the public now wouldn’t vote for a bearded or bald man, I don’t think they’d vote for an unfit one, either.
But no good deed goes unpunished and this culture isn’t entirely without a dark side. Maintaining the shredded, bulked-out physique of a gym rat requires hours of daily work; young men with full time jobs (or indeed, any jobs) don’t often have that time to devote to simply cultivating their own physique. A society where a large percentage of people have sufficient free time to devote to this pursuit, suggests a society that is perhaps not doing brilliantly at constructively occupying its citizens.
Of course, there are short cuts to building this kind of body. Last year the CRI charity which runs needle exchanges reported that it had seen a rise of almost 650% in the number of steroid users, to a point where it now outstrips heroin use. ‘There is a massive group of lads now, particularly in the 17 to 24 age group, that are abusing steroids something chronic, with no idea of what they’re taking,’ one seasoned user told the BBC’s Newsbeat. ‘They are messing themselves up quite severely, both mentally, hormonally and reproductively.’ Meanwhile, protein shakes are now stocked in supermarkets alongside regular soft drinks, just in case your protein levels need topping up during your lunch hour.
But if excessive gym work is a symptom of a society that has short-changed many of its young people, it’s arguably also a balm of sorts. In their way, gyms function as a sort of liberal utopia. Most people realise — if only on a subconscious level — that the current system we live under is unfair. Despite almost four decades of hyper-capitalist, free-market dominated life becoming the norm, for most people freedom and choice is actually experienced as insecurity and exploitation. This current system has done little to make life more equitable — social mobility is decreasing, earning inequality is becoming more pronounced, and if you’re dealt the wrong set of circumstances, then contrary to free market rhetoric your hard work won’t pay off.
But in the gym, it does. You’re on a level playing field. There’s no element of skill, or chance, or social advantage — if you go every day and lift heavy weights, you will get bigger and you will look better. There’s something reassuring about it — the one place where life is actually like the way you were promised it would be when you were young and where the people who work hardest come first.
Back at the bus stop, I carry on watching the gym-goers, harshly lit by the late night strip lights, working and sweating away. In a post-religious society, it’s tempting to look for substitutions for the church all over the city, but sometimes the parallels are so obvious as to be unavoidable. Beyond the big windows, light-flooded open plan space, stirring music and Maximuscle eucharist, there’s a more prosaic, social sense in which gyms might be functioning as our generation’s version of places of worship.
A communal space, that — at least superficially — isn’t to do with shopping. A place where you can meet people from different backgrounds — and most gyms are genuinely socially and ethnically mixed in a way that few other leisure establishments are. Where you can be welcomed without judgement — even if the greeter is reading from a training manual written by the guy who used to run Intercontinental Hotels — and leave after an hour feeling spiritually and psychologically better.
I spend half an hour most days in the gym, and its benefits are incalculable: a ritualistic, mind-clearing, endorphin-firing experience (much of the current vogue for ‘mindfulness’ implores you to clear thoughts from your head and focus on the moment. Believe me — if you’re worrying about the imminent possibility of dropping an 90 kilo weight on your chest, you won’t be thinking of anything else).
The people I can see through the window look genuinely absorbed in their tasks. For that period, they are alone with their bodies, focused, self-contained. Christopher Isherwood’s narrator in A Single Man wrote about this state — ‘How delightful it is to be here. If only one could spend one’s entire life in this state of easygoing physical democracy.’ Nowadays, a lot of people can, and do.