There’s a Nerd in the Locker Room: Sex, Beauty and Self-Love

It's 6 p.m. and I'm watching myself run from two feet away. I'm at mile 2.3 of 4 and I am red and I've sweated through my tank already, but I am comfortable and my face does that polyrhythmic jiggle that happens when relaxed muscle gets kind of shoved around. I started a new job last week, doing research in a biology lab at NYU, and change stresses me out. I came to the gym to beat myself up on a treadmill and get high on endorphins before heading back to work. I am in the David Barton Gym on 23rd Street, an exclusive and unofficially gay fitness center in the heart of New York City.

“I love being in the gym. It's like being at a great party every night.” - David Barton

I feel like an unlikely DBG member. I was a dork growing up and have always felt uncomfortable in my skin. I usually only notice my body when it is failing me, when it hurts or does something embarrassing. Running seems like the one physical thing I can do with grace, although I do turn pink and sweat profusely. I can stand seeing myself run. I finish my four miles and by 7 p.m. I am back to work. I feel better. My whole body feels a bit emptied out of stress.

I started working out to stay sane. It was about two years before I finished grad school and my research was stalled. It was winter and I was teaching my first college course. I needed an hour or so a day where I wasn't freaking out. I knew that regular exercise can be an anti-depressant and, on the suggestion of my mother and a couple of good friends, I decided to give it a sporting try. It worked. Exercise seemed like something I could give myself to, and something I could control. At the gym I didn’t worry about work or the future or my failing relationship. It made me feel good about myself. When I started working out I went to the free fitness center at my grad school, which was usually empty or populated by other awkward science nerds. After I graduated, I joined Planet Fitness because it was cheap and unpretentious.

I was introduced to DBG by Kaliq, [1]

my boyfriend. The first time I stayed at his place and we had brunch together, I saw both our key chains on the table, with his DBG tag next to my Planet Fitness tag.

“You go to David Barton?” I said. “You know, David Barton gays and Planet Fitness gays will never work together.”

Kaliq is beautiful. This is not bragging. [2]

His beauty is integral to his person; it's one of his central truths. He exists in a world of models and fashion folks and the upper echelon of NYC gays. These are the people that populate DBG, along with the people who want to be these people, and the people who think they are these people, but aren't. The DBG on 23rd Street is in a reconverted YMCA, the one that was actually sung about by the Village People. On one of my weekends downtown, I wanted to go to the gym and Kaliq gave me a guest pass. I figured DBG would be a meat market and it kind of was. The thing is that everyone was checking out his own rack. People were so into themselves in the mirrors that they weren't even looking at anything else. DBG boys appeared to love themselves, and they loved their bodies, and there seemed to be a direct link between these two things. I wanted to figure out what the space was like and how I fit in. A one-month membership came up on GiltCity, and I pounced. The little loser who made flailing Ys, Ms, Cs, and As from his arms at middle school dances became a member of that very club.

I found out toward the end of my month at DBG that David Barton has left his business; word is that he was edged out by more bottom-line minded types. There are rumors of rebranding. I noticed a sign in the lobby of DBG-Chelsea early on: the club is set to be relocated.

I feel like I am making record of a place not long for the world, a kind of legend of the NYC gay scene that, like the YMCA before it, will soon exist only in the stories we tell.

Day 1

I walk through the double doors on 23rd street into the stairwell to the lobby. I can hear the house beats already. Everything is dark, and the colors are rich red and dark-stained wood. There are three beautiful people working the desk, two gay men and a woman of color, and they're smiling as I walk up. I am smiling too. They ask how I heard about DBG and when I say that my boyfriend is a member and things open up. Because my BF goes [3]

here, I am suddenly in without it mattering that I make under 50k a year, live uptown, belong to Planet Fitness, and bought my one-month membership on GiltCity.

The lobby is on the main floor with the cardio equipment; here the music is semi-loud and the space is usually fairly empty. Upstairs are the locker rooms. DBG is a full service gym, which means that there are classes, towel service, nice showers, and a steam room [4]

and sauna. The weights are downstairs. Walking down the staircase is like descending onto the dance floor of a club. Mirrors are everywhere. The music gets amped way up and the lights dim even further. At peak hours, there’s a DJ. This space is almost always busy. Boys are in tanks, carrying around protein shakes, giving major body, and grunting against gravity and steel.

Today I head downstairs to do a chest/triceps workout. To hide in plain site, I normally don’t wear my glasses to work out; I like being a blur. In order to experience the space, I am committing to wearing my glasses everyday at DBG. I am doing the exercise where you pull two weights on tension ropes from above your head to in front of your chest

and staring into a vast freestanding mirror. With my glasses on I can see just how uncoordinated I am. My arms move together at different rates. My face turns a color of red I didn't know possible. I've always known that I drip sweat but now I get to see just how that looks to other people. I look like a sunburnt spaz. I want to run, not walk, home. My gym swagger is gone; I'm just trying to finish and get out.

"I wanted to make it OK for cool people to go to the gym." — David Barton

Simply because DBG charges $129 a month, it is an exclusive space. One of the things I noticed about DBG on my first visit was that it was more racially diverse than I expected.

DBG-Chelsea is probably 80 to 90 percent men and mostly gay. There are women here, and if I were a rich woman, I might work out at DBG too. Unlike bachelorette parties in gay bars, straight women aren’t here to use gay men as props or entertainment. I think most of them are here to work out in a space devoid of straight male gazes. Most people look rich or like they're trying to look rich. I forgot my padlock on my first two days, but at DBG people leave their lockers unlocked. By a week in, I didn't think twice about leaving my wallet and keys and cell phone in my locker while I worked out or showered. We just aren't the type of people who steal from other folks' lockers.

But DBG isn’t just about being rich, it’s also about being cool. A few months ago I was working part time in a bakery down the street. The DBG trainers came in often and one day Kaliq was in the bakery when his spin teacher stopped for coffee. It turns out she was headed to teach a class at the Astor Place DBG.

“I hate that place,” she said. “Because, you know how David Barton is supposed to be the gym for cool people? Well the Chelsea location is totally like that, but at Astor Place, I swear it's nothing but people who just want to be cool. It's the worst.”

Every us requires a them. For DBG, they are posers, wannabes, poor people, strivers, nerds. They are the almost beautiful, all the sadder for how hard they try. Even though I am now a DBG gay, I know it’s temporary and I feel like everyone can tell.

Day 5

It's been a rough week. Kaliq and I have been fighting a lot lately. We're taking some space and it is bizarre to be at DBG, his gym, when we aren’t speaking. But working out feels good. My anxiety recedes as I lift my legs and count; my lower abs burn and I can't think about anything. After I finish each rep, I have ten seconds of nothingness before the tension is back in my chest and the lump has returned to my throat. The song on now is on some heart of darkness shit

and while I groove to it, it makes me bristle. I honestly don't know how I could deal with the everyday bullshit of adult life without the clarity, the near-nothingness, of an hour in the gym.

How does writing about a place change the way you interact with it? Working out is the hour a day I get to really check out. This month, at David Barton, I’ve been spending my time listening and watching and writing furiously in my phone and thinking really hard about pretty boys and some complicated and ugly things. I’m wearing my glasses to work out, for fuck’s sake. The gym, which used to be my sanctuary, has become a place of literal and figurative reflection. What would it mean if I admit that I like seeing myself in the mirrors? That I like being cruised by hot dudes? That, after all these years, I finally felt included in some rich-and-pretty clique? I don’t want to be shallow. I don’t want to be rich. I want so badly to be a Planet Fitness gay again.

I say that I’m here for my health. We all know that regular exercise will lower your risk of cancer and heart disease and diabetes ; it also fights moderate anxiety and depression.

But we have also collectively decided that fit, toned, built is attractive. American male beauty is a six-pack and thick arms and like two percent body fat.

At DBG I spend a lot of time contemplating superficiality and the NYC gays. Many assume gay men are shallow because we essentially want to be fucking ourselves. Men naturally have higher libidos, right? Attraction is more physical to us? All this seems too simplistic to me. After a few visits to DBG, I started to think that queer people often know we're different very young. A lot of us grow up absolutely hating the gay bit of ourselves, praying it away, hoping it would die or recede so we can be normal and happy like everyone else. When you spend a large portion of your life loathing some central component of yourself, you might want to find something that you do love. Your body is something you can make better and faster and stronger. Perhaps spaces like DBG exist because there is a road map and a space for remaking your body. I wonder what a space for doing the work to love ourselves for our minds and spirits, for our ugly bits, our complicated and fucked up internal bits, would look like.

* * *

What are your five favorite things about your body? Your five least favorite things? If you’re willing, write down your answers; commit them to pen and paper.

* * *

Day 9

It's week two and I am in the DBG locker room. Two men in the next bay down are chatting to one another. They are catching up and, remarkably, they are complimenting each other’s body.

“You look amazing!”

“Oh my god, thank you. I have been trying to do more cardio, slim down.”

“It's working! Seriously.”

“You too, but you always look great.”

I am smiling because I have never heard this type of body-positive and open talk in a gym. The typical straight-boy gym bravado is borderline frightening to me, and at the very least it reinforces my long-felt notions that I don't belong. It feels nice to be included in, and not excluded from, the folks around me. At Planet Fitness, my eyes stayed dead straight ahead lest a straight man think I'm hitting on him.

At DBG, my wrists stay limp and my eyes wander.

At DBG the locker room smells like wealth. I suspect that only people who have been poor know what I mean. The other gyms I've frequented have smelled like… gyms. Sweat and feet and moving bodies. At DBG, I unabashedly over-consume the towels. The showers themselves have body wash, conditioner, and shampoo, not the gooey pink all-in-one that is the workhorse of Planet Fitness. The conditioner, in particular, makes my hair smell like something indescribable. Walking out the front door of DBG and feeling almost anxiety free and smelling like a rich kid, it feels fine.

“My clients lead intense lives, and we fuel that intensity. The last time I checked, vanity and self-confidence were still in style.” — David Barton

I am downstairs listening to the conversation between a hulk of a red-headed trainer and his 50-something client.

“Which is what you pay me for, right, to come here and make you sweat? You might as well get something out of it.” He paused. “Otherwise spend it on an eightball and Chinese hookers and you'll have more fun.” He then went on to tell a story about him and some buddies getting a hotel room in Chinatown and ordering pizza and a bunch of Chinese hookers. Apparently the pizza showed up first and then the delivery guy got into a fight (in Chinese, of course) with the pimp while he and his friends laughed their asses off. This story seems to illustrate the feeling of DBG, the importance of money to buy good body or at least easy pleasure. DBG is raw. It is not a generic could-be-anywhere gym. At least, not yet. Who knows what will happen now that David Barton isn’t at the helm. People pine for the lost New York, the rough New York, people fret about the changing downtown scene, and I get it. But the rough New York was also this, and this is not pretty.

Day 16

For the last four days, Kaliq and I have been at a wedding in Mexico. [5]

The trip was all-inclusive and I wanted to get my money’s worth. We often had brunch then drinks then a snack and then lunch with a beer and then some afternoon drinks before dinner and cocktails and finally a late-night snack before bed. I feel gross.

One of the reasons people say that they're willing to pay for DBG every month are the free classes. Working out to me is a solitary activity. I am both uncoordinated and competitive; a dance workout class is my own personal idea of hell. DBG has spin classes though, which I figure is something even I can do. Today in class the house music is pumping and my legs are moving and I'm being instructed to turn the resistance way up and keep it there. The instructor glides and bounces to the beat; it's like he's dancing with his partner of 30 years. His thigh muscles are as big as my waist and it looks like they are trying to burst free of his skin. Within five minutes I am drenched in sweat. At 15 minutes I'm staring at the clock and there is an actual puddle under my stationary bike. No one else is sweating as hard as I am. After the first round of sprints I don't think I can go any longer; in the cool-down, my right leg is cramping. But here we go again. By 45 minutes I'm done. Roasted. There’s not a thought in my head. I bike back to work on legs that feel disconnected from my body.

After work, I bike home through Central Park. On my ride my legs feel attached again and it is genuinely cold for the first time this fall. My hands go numb. I'm riding through the park and it's empty. I pass only a half dozen people between 59th and 72nd, it is dark and quiet, there is no house music playing, and I'm smiling and gliding through the city's park like I'm the only person left.

“You only go around once. You might as well do it in a beautiful body.” — David Barton

My favorite things

My least favorite things

1. My legs. They're strong, and always have been, and they can carry me far and fast.

1. I sweat buckets. It's embarrassing at the gym but at least activity-appropriate. When I'm nervous, I sweat. When I teach, I sweat. When it's hot out, I sweat.

2. My eyes (if that counts).

2. My ass and legs are super hairy.

3. How my arms look in a tank.

3. I barely have an ass to begin with.

4. My stomach in the morning.

4. I'm losing my hair.

5. My hands.

5. My body isn't coordinated, it doesn't do what I tell it to, and it acts like it's not quite connected just right.

Day 20

It's too nice out today to run on a treadmill. I haven't been running outside much and the fall in NYC is ideal for it. I wake up and am in Central Park before 11. I am wearing tights and a long-sleeved t-shirt and it's perfect. I'm on empty stomach and two cups of coffee and I'm a little hung over and the first mile hurts. It's breezy today, which I hate, but the leaves are turning gold and there are a lot of people out. After the first mile things feel better and my hangover recedes and it hurts just a little, just enough. I hit it hard for the last mile, down the hill to 110th and out through Lenox and home; I'm running fast, I am fluid, my lungs burn but my legs are just moving. I feel worn out and grateful and invincible and whole. When I'm running I look down at my legs, my thick thighs pumping, my feet beating the pavement, and I just say 'thank you, thank you, thank you' with each step.

“I've been the godfather of many a hook ups.” — David Barton

That night I am walking with Kaliq on Central Park North and we're talking about DBG and sex and this essay. I want the essay to be about beauty and body and self-worth. For Kaliq, sex is DBG, it colors the entire space. Plus, for Kaliq, you can’t talk about beauty or body or self-worth without talking about sex.

To preface, it would be a mistake to talk about gay male beauty and sex without talking about American culture at large. In America we often define men by their ability to consume emotionless sex. Gay culture exists in conversation with American culture and so if men define themselves by their ability to consume women without attachment, why should gay men be held to a different standard?

But here is the ugly truth: we are all here at DBG to get laid, even if most of us aren't doing it upstairs in the steam room. I do feel more comfortable in my body than before I was working out. Having facile sex would probably make me feel good, and good about myself, in a lot of complicated ways that may be difficult to undo and that might make certain types of intimacy difficult. [6]

At DBG, I am flirting the line. Hot boys give me the eye in the locker room and I melt. In Mexico, Kaliq told me, “As much as I am not OF that space, the Chelsea gay scene, being cruised there by those boys, still makes you feel good. I used to be in my head about it. Now, it is what it is.” I am still in my head about it. If I were to stay at DBG for a year, I wonder if I would feel the same.

As revolutionary as it was of David Barton to make a gym that feels sexy, you can't remove beauty from working out, and you can't remove sex from beauty. A month ago I would have told you that I went to the gym to fight my anxiety, but I'm beginning to see that it's not that simple. I want to be hot, too. Maybe I've always known that and DBG has made me see it clearly, from two feet away, running fast, wearing prescription lenses.

Day 26

It’s my last week and I’ve been here every day: spin class again and chest and cardio. [7]

Today I’m doing biceps/back. I forgot my shorts so I’m working out in black jeans and I am so broke I can’t afford a haircut. I am not feeling David Barton cool. I’m looking around and checking out the space. I look at myself in the mirror. I look at my arms, I turn to the side, flex my tricep and stare. I catch myself. It is nice to be able to find joy in something as simple as liking the look of my arm, but this is the exact behavior that I noticed at DBG months ago. I found it so repulsive and outlandish then. It definitely was not of me. I get out my phone and write all this down; I wonder if I would have caught myself if I weren’t writing this essay in the first place. You don’t always notice how spaces seep inside of you, how the values of a place can become your values without you even really having to decide. I came to DBG to observe. Look at me now.

“Look better naked.” — David Barton Gym motto

Day 30

Think back to your of favorite things. I have another question: has your list changed in the last five years? On my end, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Five years ago I had a belly, but it didn't affect how I saw myself. Today, I like more things about my body, but now my body matters. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. But I can tell you that it does come with a certain amount of dread. What if I get hurt? What if I don't have the time to keep this up? I used to use my belly as a dating metric; if a boy still wanted me even though my body wasn’t perfect I knew he could be a keeper. I know that my changing body has also altered how I perceive others in ways that I can barely notice.

DBG celebrates wealth and a narrow definition of beauty, and this can be an affirming value system to believe in. I posit that it is ultimately self-defeating since, even if you’re rich, most people grow old. Kaliq says that he wants to be asexual when he's “old and gross,” and I hope he manages to change his mind and find other reasons to find himself beautiful; there are plenty. [8]

If I live much longer, my body will start to change. Will I find other reasons to love myself?

I know that this essay essentially boils down to some elementary school clichés: “Don't judge a book by its cover” and “Beauty is only skin deep”. Clichés, as David Foster Wallace argued, often underlie thorny truths. Today, we live in a culture that places all sorts of real world value on physical beauty. I used to push back because I was uncomfortable in my own body. DBG put me face to face with the culture, with myself. It’s not that I thought I was ugly before, it’s that I didn’t really see myself; there were no mirrors. I get it. I don’t love myself more; I just love my old self less. But I also miss my old self, the one with the belly who didn’t give a shit. I think that my work is only beginning.

So I’ve decided.

I'm not a DBG gay, not today at least. I've made it 30 days, and on my last trip to DBG I stop at the front desk and ask what brand of conditioner they use in their men's locker room. I wouldn't mind smelling like a rich Chelsea boy even if I can't work out with them. DBG emailed me a week ago asking me if I wanted to join full-time for the low NYU-associated cost of $94 per month. The email informed me that my membership lasts until next week. When I read that email my chest tightened. I thought I was almost done. In the end, I am. Tomorrow, I'm not going to the gym. The day after is forecast to be in the low 50s and sunny. I think I'll go on a run.



[1] His name has been changed. I can barely stand putting my own name on this essay and could never ask him to do the same. I find his willingness to let me share this story is already quite brave.

[2] For me, dating someone pretty actually evokes loneliness and trepidation and mistrust. I love Kaliq in spite of his prettiness, not because of it. I spend a lot of time wishing that he just looked normal, or could see the world through non-beautiful eyes, my eyes, for a day.

[3] Kaliq actually hasn’t been to DBG in over two months. He had to temporarily cancel his membership after he had a rough couple of months financially. He never mentioned it to me but I noticed that he stopped talking about the gym and I guessed what had happened. Kaliq was worried that his body would change and, perhaps, that my attraction to him might wane.

[4] Yes, boys jerk off and hook up in the steam room. I find it one of the least surprising and remarkable things about DBG. People have been getting off in same-gendered steam rooms and saunas for literally thousands of years. In the DBG steam room, the air is thick and you can usually only see the people directly next to you. Sometimes I think it’s hot and exciting. Sometimes I find it kind of sad. It always makes me think of a quote from one of my favorite writers, Marguerite Duras: “They were people who hid themselves away in order to fuck and cum without knowing each other, without loving each other, almost without seeing one another.”

[5] On the trip I ask Kaliq about his five favorite things. “Babe,” he says, “can we not right now?” It’s hard for him that I’m at DBG and writing about body and beauty and sex while he has been away from that space. Everyone I’ve ever dated has gone up and down in weight during our time together and I always find the thicker version of my boos really, really hot. But you can’t convince someone else to see their own beauty; no words, no actions, can quite make it work. Maybe he just wants to turn off and hide until he feels like himself, until he feels beautiful, again.

[6] I want to be sex positive. As I heard my friend Darnell Moore say on a panel, gay people, straight people, we’re all fucking all the time and we might as well be honest about it. I just wonder if the ability to have easy, transaction-like sex is part of the reason for some of the loneliness in our community. Perhaps also some of the joy. I want to find the words to talk about it.

[7] It’s Sunday morning and I am in my own sacred space in search of peace and redemption. I run a slow and painful 5k while watching miles 12 through 18 of the men’s NYC marathon on the TV screen built into my treadmill. It is beautiful to watch these men and women push their bodies beyond what seems possible; they move with such ease and grace and joy. I feel like I’m almost a part of it; they are just outside, just uptown, in this very city, in this world. I mean, just look at them move.

[8] I ask Kaliq if I can include this, and he says yes. He says he’s noticed my body get a little tighter this month with all my time at the gym. He is beasting to get back in shape. I let him read my notes, the draft I have so far, and he says that I’m right, once you care about your body you can’t go back: “I feel like I’m already infected."” I’m not sure that’s what I’m trying to say. Going back just takes work. Any day now, as soon as his money’s right, you’ll find him back at DBG, but by then DBG-Chelsea may already be closed.

Joseph Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. Originally from the rural Pacific Northwest, he is currently a postdoctoral fellow at New York University where he studies the molecular dynamics of proteins involved in DNA replication. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France and did graduate studies at The Rockefeller University. He has taught at The New School and Vassar College and his writing focuses on science, policy, race, and sexuality.

[Image via Getty]