Shame in Daily Life: Saving face at the Gym

Last week I played dodge ball on a faculty team as part of a fundraiser. I played one game, and I was sweaty and winded. I knew it was time to stop fooling myself about walks around my neighborhood and Disc Golf being reasonable replacements for regular trips to the gym.

I hadn’t been to my gym since about March. Besides the obvious reasons to dread returning after such a long time away, I had another thought going through my head: when I check in, the people at the front desk will recognize that I hadn’t been there in forever, and they will judge me. I convinced myself that this was ridiculous. Why would they recognize me? It’s a busy gym. Off I went.

The concern did affect my behavior, though, as I fully intended to get by the required ‘check-in’ step as quickly as possible. My ‘generalized-other’ was judging me harshly for my sloth; I’ve internalized a narrative that evaluates laziness, and spare tires, harshly. I am obviously less than the ideal man valorized in our culture of fitness and athletic achievement. I was experiencing ‘second order desires’ first hand, and finding myself morally questionable for preferring pizza and couches over sweat and ellipticals.

So, I entered the gym, and of course two longtime workers were behind the counter. I’ve interacted with them multiple times, so there was some chance they would recognize me. I approached the desk to scan my membership card, and to my surprise (horror?), there was no scanner. Since my last visit the gym has changed its check-in system, and so I was forced to acknowledge my long absence. Goffman tells us that in social situations, we work hard to avoid disruptions of our lines of behavior. We want our action to be readily accountable to others so that we don’t have to explain ourselves. Here, I was required to let them know that I didn’t know how to check in, thereby stigmatizing myself as an infrequent visitor to the gym. To save face, I made a self-deprecating joke about my long time away, and we got on with getting me a membership card that would work with the new system.

Of course, this was only a slight embarrassment, and the staff was gracious. The new system involves stopping at the desk and telling the employee your number. I sort of like this because it means you can’t just sneak by any longer. But, on the way out, some of my initial concerns were validated as the woman behind the counter cheerfully shouted to a member entering, “hey, it’s number 42! How are you today?” (membership numbers have been changed to protect anonymity!).

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