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Of muscles and death 

Your body belongs to the culture

During the early 1980s, I belonged to the YMCA in downtown Atlanta. This monumental structure -- part gym, part rooming house -- had an old-style weightlifting room with a wooden floor that I visited four or five times a week, usually around 6 in the morning.

I had been going to gyms off and on since the age of 5 or 6 when my mother first enrolled me in one. The downtown Y was quite a change from the Buckhead Y where I was a member during my teen years. Former Gov. Carl Sanders had made restoration of the facility a personal project, attempting to attract downtown businessmen by installing fancy machines upstairs, along with a nice locker room. The Y's rejuvenation was consistent with Sanders' progressive vision. The facility was far more integrated than the average gym in those years, but there still was conspicuous class division. The weight room was mainly patronized by young African-Americans, while the executives, mainly white, tended to use the upstairs machines.

In retrospect, that was a strange time in my life. My motivation was just to lift and keep myself in shape but, thinking back, I realize how deeply my body was being marked by what was happening in the culture at the time. We tend to think our bodies operate like machines independent of culture. Give them the right fuel and do preventative maintenance and they'll work efficiently, we are told. The story also says that the body's condition -- especially its suffering -- is, except in extraordinary circumstances like war or extreme poverty, unrelated to social conditions.

But it is impossible to look at a disorder such as anorexia or bulimia -- eating disorders -- and not consider the culture's general valuation of thinness as part of beauty. This is all the stranger when you realize, as we are told every day in the media now, that the majority of Americans are overweight. People with eating disorders seem, as a class, to bear the primary symptom of the culture's unnatural standard of beauty by actually living an exaggerated version of the control of food intake, control that the generally overweight refuse to exercise.

Hitting the gym to acquire big muscles has been a part of gay life for a couple of decades. It was during those years at the downtown Y -- before I began writing food columns, whose effect disrupted my self-image -- when I got most serious about that pursuit myself. It was a time when I had given up addictive use of drugs and alcohol and it was, above all, the time AIDS had begun to kill off my friends one by one.

The image of AIDS has changed radically since those days. At that time, it was totally conspicuous and there was no treatment. The cause wasn't even known. In a matter of weeks, the flesh was starved from my friends' bodies. They would languish in the hospital, with no control over their bodily functions. Early on, nurses would often refuse to attend to AIDS patients, so it was left to healthy friends like me to clean them up. A well-known doctor in town at the time abandoned several of my friends when they reached the final stage of AIDS.

Amid this holocaust and complete loss of control over knowing if we might grow sick ourselves, the rest of us went to the gym. There, repetitively moving heavy weight over small distances, we felt a bodily mastery that was deprived us in our daily lives. Our bodies looked healthy and strong.

Gyms had become important before AIDS as a way of "butching" up in a culture that feminizes gay men. But with AIDS, a muscular body became even more important. Because so many people became afraid to have sex at all, erotic energy was shifted from touch to gaze. You got off by looking good. Indeed, the hairless body, with a shaved head, was considered sexiest -- a complete shift from the '70s -- and it's hard not to see such a body as symbolic of the penis itself.

Friends at the time thought I was crazy to be working out at the Y instead of in a Midtown gym with other gay men. But I think that too was part of my body's response to what was happening around me. As AIDS claimed one close friend after another (eventually all of them), I needed a refuge from the gay scene. In the Y weight room, often the only white guy there, I felt not intimidated but safe. And in associating with the poorer and black lifters of the gym instead of the hoity-toity upstairs guys, I reiterated in a different way my outsider status in a straight world.

During the next few weeks I will be looking at the body's subjectivity in relationship to culture through my own story. I annually do this as part of "Listen to Your Body Week," Feb. 21-29, sponsored by the Eating Disorders Information Network (www.edin-ga.org). I will also be speaking on "Gods and Geeks: Body Classism in Gay Culture" at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 27, at Outwrite Bookstore.

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com

Cliff Bostock's website is www.soulworks.net.

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