The Gym and Covid: Toxic Masculinity at its Worst

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I, for one, was thrilled when gyms reopened about six months after they had closed because of the pandemic. My gym, which is a brand-name national chain, went to extraordinary lengths to make us feel safe as we re-entered the fitness world, which we so much needed. Studies say that most Americans put on about ten “pandemic pounds” during the stay-at-home months, and I was one of them.

My gym constructed little cages of plastic and tubing to surround individual weight machines and treadmills. There, we could expel our breath knowing that we were surrounded by plastic and that the breath had nowhere to go but up.

My gym also had plenty of signage, asking us to socially distance the best we could and to wipe off the machines with a spray cleaner and paper towel after use.

However, the sections of the space with the free weights (usually the most densely populated) and areas to stretch could not be contained in plastic.

For all of this, there was no mask mandate, and I was okay with that. We had the freedom to practice responsibility and safety on our own. Obviously, not everyone is in agreement about that.

I live in a state (Massachusetts) with a high vaccination rate, so as springtime bloomed, so did our hopes, and the masks slowly came off. However, it is reasonable to assume that about a third of gym-goers never got vaccinated in the first place. And yet there we are, all huffing and puffing together.

As the Delta variant began to spread and we learned that the vaccinated could still carry and spread the virus — even though our likelihood of getting a serious enough case to warrant hospitalization was small — I started seeing masks come on again in stores and restaurants, although there was no mandate to do so.

But in the gym? Fuhgeddaboudit! I started wearing mine again at the gym around mid-July, and I am literally the only man there doing so. The women make up about twenty percent of the population, and about half of them are donning masks. I wasn’t aware that women were more susceptible to the virus.

I get a few frowning looks, but nobody has confronted me openly. Yet. In my mind, I’m concocting all kinds of witty responses for when this inevitably happens. So far, I’m thinking probably the most effective response would be to simply ask, “Why does it bother you?”

My gym has not been able to fully encapsulate every machine in plastic, so there are some without barriers for those who want to flaunt their freedom. I was gobsmacked earlier this week when I walked in and saw a handful of guys running on treadmills right next to each other! No plastic walls, no masks, a mere two feet of space separating them. Running and heavily breathing. All seemingly strangers to each other. There were plenty of other treadmills around. If they didn’t want an enclosed pod, they could have at least socially distanced.

This is when I realized that the toxic masculinity that I first observed in high school was still fully in play with full-grown men.

I believe there are plenty of men around who believe they can be strong enough to defeat the virus. It has become a contest for them. I do agree that being physically fit can certainly help against Covid and other ailments (a good reason why I’m there), but why must one’s fitness become a dick-swinging contest? Does it make you feel better to know you got through Covid with cold-like symptoms while the weak one next to you that you infected had to go to the hospital? You won!

Another odd thing I’ve noticed is that everybody seems to be complying with the “wipe-down-your-machine” request. They spray the machine and wipe it down, and liberally squirt sanitizer on their hands. Cleanliness is always good (just like fitness), but are they aware that these cleaning products are mainly effective for killing germs and bacteria, not viruses. (Medical officials do agree it can help, if you use one with at least 60% alcohol, but simple soap and water is best.)

This is an airborne virus, folks. It’s your breath that is the danger, and where else do you breathe harder in an enclosed space than in a gym? (For the lucky, I suppose a bedroom.)

It seems toxic masculinity is as American as apple pie. This need for men to show off how tough they are is itself a disease. Unchecked, it’s a mental disease that can affect the physical health of others.

I believe a portion of the anti-vaxxers are highly motivated fitness freaks, not necessarily right-wing conspiracy theorists about the vaccine. They don’t want to put something “unnatural” in their bodies (although many will drink Red Bull, Gatorade, and Muscle Milk) and believe their regimen will save them from any dire consequences.

I hope they are right and remain fit for as long as this pandemic lasts. But please spare me the public flaunting of your fitness and your selfish lack of goodwill toward your fellow citizens.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.