A few months ago I quit my membership at the downtown YMCA. Even with the discount I got for being under 25 I felt I was just paying too much for what I was actually using -- which was essentially the track, some free weights and the sauna. I didn't go swimming or use the basketball courts, didn’t take Yoga classes -- in the end I felt like the guy who orders the salad but ends up splitting the check with a bunch of people who had filet mignon.
A friend in the office told me I should check out Planet Fitness -- a (then) new gym on West Market Street that was stripped down, low key and (most important) much cheaper. At $10 a month with no contract the price was certainly right and I told myself I’d join. Right after I vegged out on the couch chasing giant fat burgers and fries with brown liquor and double-thick milkshakes for a few months.
This week I finally got around to joining -- but I got more than I bargained for.
As I walked into the giant, brightly lit room full of cardio equipment, weight machines and banks of televisions, I noticed one phrase over and over, on pamphlets and handouts, painted on the very walls: "NO JUDGMENT."
Like a lot of gyms these days, Planet Fitness markets itself to people who most need to go to the gym -- people who aren't athletes, weight lifters or bodybuilders. People who, like me, sort of put any real dedication to their physical fitness aside some time ago and have grudgingly realized that they really ought to do something about that before they're forced to begin sewing their own clothing out of bed sheets and floor-length curtains. I had a lot in common with Planet Fitness' existing members -- years of sloth, a proclivity for greasy bags of fried fast food, the sneaking suspicion that someone shrunk these pants -- and those, too. And this shirt.
But if the gym's rhetoric was any indication, its members had something I did not: a near crippling fear of working out with or around people who are in good shape. The thinking, it seemed, was that people who are in great shape have a tendency to show off, to preen and strut, and (worst of all, it seemed) to judge people who aren't in such great shape.
On one wall a crude, insulting cartoon of a bodybuilder breaking all of the gym's clothing rules hung from one wall. On another there was a large light labeled "LUNK ALARM."
"Um...what's a lunk alarm?" I asked the friendly young woman processing my membership.
"Oh," she said. "I was ... going to explain that. You see -- we don't cater to bodybuilders or weight lifters....”
The way she said it, the edge in her voice, would have suited a conversation about rapists and child molesters. I'd known plenty of weight lifters and bodybuilders in my life -- and most of them were perfectly decent guys. A little self involved -- and who wouldn't be with a hobby that required that much time thinking about the shape of your pectoral muscles and measuring your own neck? But certainly not evil.
"So, in order to sort of keep out those types, we have the Lunk Alarm," she said. "A Lunk is anybody who drops weights loudly, who grunts while working out or who judges other people."
"Well, we don't want that," I said.
"No, we don't," she agreed. "So, if someone does those things, that light goes off and there's an alarm and we go over and..."
"And you publicly mock and shame them?" I asked.
"Well...yes," she said. "I guess."
"Here in the 'judgment free zone?'" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. "I guess it is ironic."