taking steps

Maverick gym, located just behind a gated hotel, is I place where I can sit in cool sterility and peddle to nowhere on a calorie-counting machine that reminds me of home.  Too uncertain of myself to bike through the congested chaos of Madurai’s streets, I come here instead. Trainers joke with trainees, who stroll on treadmills.  Men (and it is predominately men here) stare at me but less than is usual in Madurai, Justin Bieber’s voice laments, “I thought you’d always be mine” through hidden speakers, and a woman silently prepares chicken with capers and lemons on the screen above my head.  I stare at the orange Maverick-logo pyramid that is everywhere; people holding up people who appear to be dancing aerobically, moving their bodies.  The pyramid reminds me of the diagram my professor used in a power point, to explain caste.

Afterwards, I stand under a shower that blasts away sweat and dust, and sit on a “western style” toilet that has toilet paper and a powerful jet sprayer.  As I leave, I turn off the yellow light in the changing room.  A cheerful young woman who has just walked in corrects me, “Oh, you don’t have to turn off the light.”  A maid smiles wide and waves goodbye, lightness in her eyes.  I hand her back my locker key and walk through the glass doors into the sun.

I ask my host parents what they think about the gym, and they say it is a good and strange thing.  “Three or four years ago these girls never would of thought of joining a gym – we are not as body conscious as you people are,” Appa says.  He explains that men care about body type but most Indian women are “flabby.” But after a moment of reflection, he says thoughtfully, “And well, many of our girls tend to get their exercise in their daily life.” He laughs.  “It is a peculiar thing – sitting still all day, and having to go somewhere else to get your exercise.”

I knew I wanted to write about gender, but my experiences here have made me think I have to incorporate into my project how the status of white western woman has shaped every experience I have; how it causes my sense of self to be shaken all the time and will definitely shape any ethnographer-participant relationship I form.  I think there is a great deal I can learn from women who choose to enter a predominately-male space to become perhaps stronger, fitter, calmer.  Hearing the stories of women who are moved to join a gym, a culturally irregular act, I believe will reveal something about the way bodies, health, and well-being, especially in a gendered sense, are understand in Madurai.

In our CPG class, Anita described a trend she sees in Indian culture: lower-caste women tend to be more comfortable assertively vocalizing their displeasure, and taking action against a male who threatens her with physical or sexual violence, she said, whereas India’s wealthiest women tend to be more silent and passive when harmed, for fear of compromising their modesty and bringing shame to their families. Strong women are seen as a threat, and make many men mad.  And Reni, my neighbor, who is close with my host parents, said secretively that sometimes my host mother acts “low-caste” when she “fights and yells” (I’ve never seen her fight or yell).  If this is true, then is an upper-middle class woman’s decision to become physically strong a consciously defiant and empowered act?  Or, again, is more a product of a globalized “beauty myth” (Naomi Wolf) in which women are held to a certain oppressive beauty standard?

I spoke to Madhan who studied physiology in Chennai, and now works at Maverick as one of the physiologists.  It is his job to assess the fitness level of members, design fitness plans, and place members into beginner, intermediate, advanced groups.  One interesting point he touched upon was that Maverick is ideologically shaped by CHEK institute in California.  He also said that only about 30% of members have had enough experience with exercising to join the gym and follow their own program; the rest require trainers and physiologists to assist them with their gym use.  Only a very small percentage of Madurai residents belong to a gym, and only a small percentage of this group are women, he also informed me.  Most are middle or upper class, like doctors and engineers.  Many are health conscious, and most are weight conscious.  The age range is 12-65, but primarily falls within a 25 – 40 range.  “Madurai is the third fittest city in India,” he said.  “I think gyms are catching on because Madurai is known for having such good food that people need to start exercising to avoid excessive weight gain.”

I’m not sure my conversation with Madhan changed or deepened or focused my project too much, which worries me a bit.  Maybe this means my questions were too leading, and maybe I didn’t ask the right follow-up questions.  Or he isn’t the person to speak to about gym culture.  Who comes here? Do they have experience with exercise? How long have you worked here? Do you notice a change in people? Do you think gym-going is growing in popularity in India? It is? Why? I asked.

In interviewing Madhan, I am reminded that stories take a while to unfold, and that maybe what is not said is just as interesting as what is.  Madhan was careful, scientific and professional in the information he shared, always citing approximate statistics and commonly held perceptions about exercise and health.  Probably this general way of speaking was due in part to the limitations imposed by interviewing someone who primarily expresses himself in Tamil, and I can’t help but wondering whether there was a lot he didn’t say because it would have seemed inappropriate or difficult to articulate during this initial conversation.

I am confident about this project because I believe that despite this careful and matter-of-fact overview given to me by Madhan, there is so much to learn about gyms in Madurai and the people who to pay to be there.   I am interested in the exercise history of the U.S. versus India, and whether gyms here can be thought of as a western influence, just as yoga in America is perhaps a transformed element of a different place.  Madhan mentioned that much of the gym’s philosophy comes from a place in California, so I will be able to study this place’s website and literature.  I also keep thinking about Appaa’s conflicting points, which he articulated moments apart: women in India are flabby and not health-conscious… women in India move enough during the day that they don’t need to go to a place to pay to move and push their bodies.  Here, issues of economic position, gender, beauty and power are raised and intertwined.  In short, I am intrigued by the contradictions and contestations that appear when thinking about and speaking about a specific group of people in the act of exercising, for a price, in a specific western-seeming way, and what these stories and contradictions might reveal about bodies and power.

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