“Is That A BioShock Shirt?”: How I Found Community in My Gym

by: Max Alborn

You can talk to anyone out there, no matter their sex, class or creed and there is no debate: virtually all of us have faced issues of self-esteem regarding our bodies. In our culture, it’s as unavoidable as it is regrettable. But when growing up gay, it can be especially mind-numbing feeling like we don’t belong with the ones our society often glorify.

My physical appearance has been a touch random over the past decade. I was fairly average until around 9 when I ballooned outward and was often referred to by my peers as a fatter version of Harry Potter: the rounded glasses I wore at the time didn’t help. Then high school came, with all of its many self-esteem based problems and I grew freakishly fast. Overnight, I had become 6 foot, dropped 30 pounds, my limbs got unusually long and I kept the rounded face. To this day, if I shave, I look 12 all over again. High school was also the first time I entered the war zone of biology. The clash of cultures. The parade of pain.

I joined a gym.

Just saying the word conjures up any number of images. Treadmills. Barbells. Weight machines that never get oiled. Franchise names and little Ma and Pa holes in the wall. Filled with people and things that could easily kill you. When I walked in, it was intimidating, to put it mildly. The salespeople were second only to used car salesmen and the place was packed to the gills with guys and gals who all looked like slightly older versions of the popular kids at my high school: lean, muscled and gorgeous. Needless to say, I didn’t run with the popular kids at my school.

So I joined and attempted to “work out” as the kids call it, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. All I knew was it was hard (no pun), against my nature (which involves sleeping) and it felt like I was making no progress other than be on the receiving end of stares that yelled: “What the hell are you doing? You don’t belong here.” Such a high premium was placed on endurance and power; two attributes I couldn’t credit for myself. Never mind that I felt awkward as a teen trying to do bicep curls next to a guy whose bicep was bigger than my head. And I have a big head. I felt out of place, my workouts got shorter, I didn’t talk to anyone and oftentimes I ran as fast as I could out of there.

Eventually, I stopped going. My physical self-esteem remained low and I opted to throw my focus into other areas of my life. I moved to Chicago, got wrapped up in my jobs and classes and set my physical issues aside for a few years. It’s going on 6 years since I moved to the city, and in that time, I’ve encountered guys. Some were dates, a few became good friends, there were a couple short-lived boyfriends and even my own share of one-night stands. You’d think in that time and through those experiences, it would act as a boost to one’s self-confidence. But that boost was only marginal and oftentimes these experiences I had lead to feelings of being ignored or passed up for someone “better.”

So I rejoined the gym culture, intent on not being warded off by the stares and fact that I didn’t quite blend into the picture. Joining a Chicago gym, let alone one in the Lakeview area, was kind of like the gym back home multiplied by a thousand. More gorgeous people. More awkward stares. Though in all likelihood, it might not have been because of my body.

This time around, I was determined not to let the gym and its army scare me off so quickly and I wasn’t going to blend. My motivations were my own: I was less interested in my physical appearance and more focused on building mental strength that comes with exercise. I wanted to get a jump on my physical health as my family history is sketchy at best. I decided to start working out in my various graphic t-shirts: with references to There Will Be BloodZelda, Mass Effect, Game of Thrones and Friday the 13th plastered all over them. Let ’em stare and judge. I was there for me, dammit.

Then one night, while I was resting between sets, this guy comes up to me:

(Hot) Guy: “Sorry, but I’ve gotta ask. Is that a Bioshock shirt?” (pointing)

Me: “It sure is.”

(Hot) Guy: “Awesome.” (smiles)

I won’t bore you with the details, except to say the exchange continued for about 20 minutes with the two of us ranting about the game in the middle of the weight floor. He threw me off my rhythm, but I just didn’t care as anyone who knows me knows I’ll put games before weights. In the weeks after that, more and more people (guys and gals) began to recognize me and the stares began to disappear. The staff knew me, wanted to know what I did, where I went to school, where I was from. People began asking me to spot them and allowed me to work in with their sets. And none of it was because I was making any form of physical gains — by rights I still look pretty much the same as I always have.

What I found out was I had gained some form of respect from those at my gym. With my odd shirts, oversized headphones and knowledge of games/movies (who knew that would come in handy at the gym?), I had inadvertently formed my own place. It was then that I learned how gym culture, like many other cultures, has its own system made up of many different minds and backgrounds, all built upon a camaraderie that like all things, takes time to build. In the last 6 months, I’ve found that yes, the arrogant run amuck. Some are there purely to look good on Saturday night, and hey, that’s their right.

However, others are there for very different reasons. There’s a single mother who frequents the treadmill on a high slope setting: she lives just across the street and was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes a few years back. To say she’s determined to see her kids grow up and thrive is an understatement and she’s working out at nights to drop weight. There’s a woman who is a respected competitive bodybuilder that has a past with anorexia. There’s a guy not much older than me who tries to live by example for his little brother, whose health issues at 10 years old are caused by his obesity.

Like any community, you have your share of members who make you roll your eyes and in a gym, much like high school, they’re easy to spot. But as intimidating as it may be, the gym is just like any other environment we’ve encountered in our upbringings. It’s tough to get started. However, with repetition and a “don’t frak with me, I’m here to stay” approach at the start, the gains you make can be more than physical: they can be mentally empowering and lead to surprising connections amongst strangers.

Unless you let out a giant “AHHH” every time you do a rep. Then, you’re on your own.

Max Alborn is an Oregon-raised graduate of DePaul University, specializing in Media and Cinema Communications studies. He began writing about the entertainment industry during his Junior year and has done so for the DePaulia, HEAVEmedia and Player Affinity since then. Often on the outskirts of the Chicago LGBT community, Max has slowly been integrated through LGBT-focused volunteer work–with an interest in LGBT seniors/youth outreach. He spends his off hours writing, threatening his roommate and spinning as fast as he can in swivel chairs. He was also an RA for two years and was run over by a horse at the age of 5.

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