Let ’Em See You Sweat

A. W. Strouse reflects on the joys and trials of working out in the undergrad gym.

October 12, 2017

Some of my colleagues feel afraid to exercise in the college gym. “I don’t want my students to see me,” they say. But I live on an adjunct’s budget, and the campus rec center is free. Moreover, as one of the world’s leading experts on the aesthetics of the foreskin, I am professionally engrossed in queer physicality. Lifting weights with undergrads only enriches my teaching.

First, a word about my own body (short, bald, with weak teeth). I have not yet outlived the misery of growing up as a shrimpy, fruity adolescent. For an image of me as a teenager, picture a self-portrait by Egon Schiele, then add cigarettes, library books and War on Terror angst.

Even now, I dread exercising in the presence of others. But middle age draws nigh, and I am vain and scared of dying. Last year I started exercising at home in order to stave off high cholesterol and man boobs. Soon I reached a plateau, and the need for equipment forced me to face my fear of sweating in public. (Ironically, I now possess perky pectorals -- man boobs of another order!)

Though I am squeamish about working out in front of people in general, many academics are squeamish about working out in front of students in particular. Once a colleague confessed to me that he wanted to do yoga at the college, but he worried that this would jeopardize his tenure case. This colleague happens to be very high-strung, but his paranoia is not unfounded: superstitiously, academics wish to make themselves somehow invisible.

This superstition energizes the “teacher out of school” trope (as seen on TV). But most every student will -- at some point or another -- encounter a professor at the grocery store or movie theater. While the professor may blush with embarrassment, students will feel the mysterious thrill of violating a taboo!

A clue to analyzing this taboo: feminism teaches us that the gaze can objectify. Maybe we fear the student’s gaze, because of the objectification that this gaze implies. Once seen outside of the classroom, the professor transforms from a knowing subject into an object of knowledge. The gaze shatters the illusion that professors are disembodied fonts of pure wisdom who transcend earthly concerns.

At least, that was the case for me one recent morning before class. I had just finished a grueling dumbbell routine and was enjoying the exquisite water pressure of a locker-room shower when I realized that I had locked my keys inside my gym locker. Helplessly, I slouched on a bench, naked except for a towel, with my clothes and course books just out of reach. A bro-dude student strutted through the locker room and chuckled smugly, pitying my stupidity. But thankfully the student -- who turned out to be a real Boy Scout -- agreed to relay my situation to a security guard.

“This is out of character for me,” I thought, “because I always cite my sources and use MLA format, and I do my homework and am never late for class!” Waiting for the bolt cutter, I came to terms with how, as a corporeal being, my professorial training does not make me impervious to the same kind of dumb mistakes for which I sometimes judge my students.

To be caught without the power of my grading pen is to be grasped at my most vulnerable. Underneath the peer-reviewed articles, I am a faggy, four-eyed bookworm who is scared of jocks and envious of their beauty, youth and self-possession.

Perhaps my exercise routine is a pledge of solidarity to prisoners and proletarian muscle heads? I pay homage to a mode of vulgar, lowbrow masculinity that is not typically endorsed by bourgeois professionals. By becoming more muscular, I become more conventionally manly. Yet as Jonathan Kemp explains in The Penetrated Male, submission is culturally feminine, and, in a certain sense, submission to the conventions of masculinity is paradoxically feminizing. Athletic discipline foregrounds this undoing of gender. Exercise puts on display the queer submission of my male body to the codes of manhood. Grunting as I strain to curl a bicep, I reveal that my machismo is an artifice. The desire to hide the professor’s workout is the desire to occlude the inner workings of patriarchy, an ideological project of maintaining the myth that knowledge is synonymous with rational men.

“White men?” some readers will ask. Of course! Hiding the professor’s body enacts a form of segregation. By concealing my pasty-white body, I imply that, in an educational context, bodies do not matter. And if my pedagogy denies the body, then it denies as well the brutalization of brown bodies. White intellectuals, by suggesting that we have minds but not bodies, are slyly perpetuating the slander that brown folks have bodies but not minds.

At the gym, I must encounter other, nonnormative bodies -- raced bodies, chubby bodies, elderly bodies, disabled bodies and bodies afflicted with injuries and beer bellies. Those bodies grotesquely point toward the horizon of death, a realm where my expertise fails utterly.

I said that I am vain. Out of vanity, I would prefer to argue in conclusion that we should let our students see us sweat, on the grounds that we should make ourselves into positive role models of health and well-being. I would prefer to argue that students need to see examples of professors who live both above and below the neck. And I would also prefer to argue that bodybuilding belongs to an ancient philosophical tradition. But I have already admitted to showering in the proximity of undergrads; I do not dare to cite Plato.

And whatever I would prefer to argue, my students ought to see me sweat, precisely because they deserve to know that I am quite a bad role model. I am a flawed human, with a messy body -- raced and gendered by culture, and gross and mortal by nature. I can only be an honest professor -- can only presume to know anything about life -- if I first own up to this fact squarely, in a spirit of compassion for myself and others.

So I must tell you the truth. Yes, I have overcome my self-consciousness about being seen by my students. But I still worry that my students will smell me. After all, my gym sneakers reek.


A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.


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