It seems to me that if you want to understand what has happened to masculinity, in the year 2019, then you just need to go and watch straight people attempt to interact with each other in a gym. Witness that awkward ballet when they need to ask each other how many sets are left on the bench press, or whether they can borrow a certain piece of equipment from behind someone else, who doesn’t appear to be using it at this precise moment, but might well be planning on it later on.
Mostly its a communication of gesture, the way men would have been forced to communicate on the factory floor when the noise was too much; a pointing, a waving of arms, a shrugging.
I’ve always had a difficult relationship to my own body. I was overweight for much of my youth and then, when a bout of flu knocked me out for a few weeks, I lost a few pounds and began to receive compliments on how I looked for the first time. It’s strange how quickly the body can latch on to something like this. Immediately, being thinner was embedded in my head as something positive, something that would get me praised. So that became locked in. For the first time in my life I started to exercise; not weights, I wasn’t interested in getting any bigger, I wanted to keep shrinking, to see my waist and my measurements get smaller and smaller. I started to eat less, I replaced meals with water, or would chew one square of a chocolate bar and then spit it out and rinse my mouth out with water to get rid of the taste. And still I’d go to the gym. I’d tell myself if I didn’t get to 600 ab-crunches that something would happen to my parents, to my sister, that something would happen to me. Eventually, when I wasn’t able to stand up without feeling dizzy, when my eyesight began to get worse, my mum took me to the doctors. He banned me from the gym, and told me I was malnourished.
That was when I was sixteen, and it took another ten years for me to be fully back in control of my own body. That word ‘control’ is important; its interesting, on one hand, how many former sufferers of eating disorders end up being vegan or on restricted diets (another way of having control), but its also interesting how many former sufferers of eating disorders become body builders (another form of restriction and control, and one, importantly, that demands excess as well.
Recently, when I turned 30, I decided it was now or never to become fully happy with the body I had, and to try and sculpt it as much as possible. I hired a personal trainer, and began a regime of twice-a-week cardio and twice-a-week weights sessions (alternating squatting, deadlift and bench). In the first few months my body started to change, re-draw itself, nip in at certain points and grow out at certain points so I began to look more balanced (indeed my measurements have become more balanced, I’m no longer bigger on one side than the other). My clothes began to fit better, and then didn’t fit at all. I felt happier and more confident. I felt stronger.
I’ve always been interested in observing masculinity. The male gaze in poetry has mostly been turned on women (more often than not without their permission) and so as a poet I was interested in what would happen if that male gaze was turned back onto other men. It turns out men are fragile, men are scared and that the gym has come, for a lot of men, to replace something which they felt was absent in their lives. If its not possible to have a strong sense of oneself economically (where have all the traditional jobs gone?), if it’s not possible to have a strong sense of oneself socially (are we living on the margins of culture and society?) then making oneself bigger, literally, becomes a way to assert a kind of dominance, to take up some space, to express a traditional idea of masculinity which has lost its other outlets. There’s a reason that a lot of body-builders look like a child’s drawing of a man, its about a hyperbolic representation, it’s about saying ‘I am a man, this is the body of a man, this is how I will take up space’.
Of course that’s toxic, to use a buzzword which is around a lot at the minute, and of course we need to work at what’s going on, what’s gone wrong. It’s one of the things that I was really interested in looking at when I wrote Dorian, with Proper Job Theatre. As well as more obvious themes like ways of looking, and gym culture more generally, I was interested in body dysmorphia. It seems to be that, as a society, we have real sympathy for people living with anorexia or bulimia, we feel urgently that people who are trying to shrink themselves down and can’t stop themselves deserve help. Yet our sympathy never quite goes the other way. So when we see a man in the gym, obviously on steroids (the give-away back acne, the inflated muscles) we never think of them as suffering from something similar. That they will never feel themselves big enough, never strong enough, and will make themselves sick chasing some false ideal of a masculine body. It’s really two sides of the same coin. Both sides chasing an ideal which society holds in front of them, and then runs down the road with, so it can never be caught, never be achieved.
Dorian, as a play, attempts to untangle some of these contradictions, and by putting them on stage, make us see them a different way, perhaps for the first time. I once wrote a poem called ‘The Men Are Weeping in the Gym’, in my debut collection physical. But I think its actually more serious than that; men, not sure of what that means anymore, or quite where they fit, are actually dying in the gym, and that’s something which should concern us all.
Words by: Andrew McMillan (@AndrewPoetry)