26/11/2015 14:46 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Two Extremes of Gym Culture as a Metaphor for British Men: Where Do I Fit in?


HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.

As a former amateur heavyweight boxer, and a current avid gym junky, I've experienced two extremes in modern male gym culture; the 'spit and sawdust' uber-masculine bruiser and the image obsessed, chest waxed Adonis. I, like most men, hover somewhere between the two.

When I began boxing in my early twenties I'd already been a semi-enthusiastic martial artist and a shy, hide-away-in-the-corner type weight lifter. So I thought I knew what sweaty, grunting men were like at their worst. The boxing gym, however, is a different world all together.

Very male dominated, and with the few female boxers that are there being tougher, fitter and meaner than the men, you can't just smell the testosterone in the air you could take it out for a pint, introduce it to your sister and I guarantee it would never call her again. 'Chit chat' (i.e did you watch Downton Abbey last night?) is non-masculine and therefore frowned upon. Most communication consists of instructions from the coaches and the occasional pointer from your training buddy; 'lift your guard up', 'tuck your chin in' etc. Mirrors, music and tight muscle tops are frowned upon. Posing is frowned upon unless you're Chris Eubank. Loose shorts, baggy cotton t shirts and the rhythmic sound of six or seven leather bags having their innards endlessly pummelled is the order of the day here. To get their bulk these guys visit small, independent power lifting gyms with rusty equipment and posters of Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno.

The big chain gyms, however (Fitness First, Virgin, David Lloyd etc), are a very different story. With mirrors floor to ceiling and R&B pumping from the speakers you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the changing room at Top Man. If you aren't in a tight, synthetic, sleeveless 'compression top' you are second fiddle in these places. Here the metro-sexual is king. Chests are waxed, eyebrows are suspiciously neat and hairstyles come straight out of The Only Way is Made in Geordie Shore. Chit chat is rife; most men also bring their mobile phone in with them and can be seen texting, tweeting, posting and commenting in between each set. Some guys will make / answer calls and you'll know every detail of their private lives before you've finished your warm up.

If you don't belong to either of these extremes you're not on your own. Most men don't. But does that mean we don't belong at all? And to which of these groups should we aspire? Fashion and the media tell us the metro-sexual is the future. Look to the youth; there's barely a chest hair between them. But those of us in our thirties grew up watching Rocky Balboa, Dutch from Predator, Magnum PI, Michael Knight, BA Baracus (remember how he used to mock Face?) The remnants of my eighties bred masculinity would curl up and die if I ever said the words; "I wear these gloves because the weights give me such calluses."

Alas, I am doomed to be forever stuck in the middle of two extremes. Not 'man' enough for one and not cool enough for the other. Oh well, at least I still have my dignity. Although perhaps it's time I stop wearing my A-team t-shirt in the gym.

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