Social pressure drives Yale students to exercise

Like innumerable other Yale women, she takes a seat in the sterile room, which smells vaguely of cleaning solution, and anxiously thumbs through an old issue of Cosmopolitan. As she waits, she sees others leaving. She envies them, because for them the pain is over.

Soon it will be she who is strapped into the cold, unforgiving metal of the elliptical machine.

She does it for the same reasons as many other Yalies, driven by a desire for better health and appearance, and a pervasive social pressure that demands that she put in her time on the trainer.

An average of 751 people frequent the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium each day, according to Associate Athletics Director Larry Matthews, and that only counts the responsible souls who bother to sign in. Many days, the total is well over 1,000.

That’s more than psychology professor Mitchell Prinstein’s “Popularity, Friendship and Peer Relations” class and more than twice the population of a residential college.

Matthews calls the Fitness Center a “slam-dunk absolute success,” and judging from its popularity one would have to agree. The numbers are so high, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine that all of these people actually enjoy working out.

“I really hate going to the gym,” said Matt Rivara ’04, “but I feel a lot of social pressure to do it.”

While some students may have a genuine interest in athletics, others wonder if insecurity is what really lies behind the Yale enthusiasm for exercise. At a school where everyone is assumed to be intelligent and creative, many harbor serious, if often unspoken, doubts about their appearances.

“The fact that people devote so much time to ‘getting huge’ when it is fundamentally useless for non-athlete Yalies to have cool muscles is obnoxious,” Strand Conover ’04 said. “Most of my friends are a bunch of dandies trapped inside thugs’ torsos.”

The desire to avoid being a “dandy” can be a major motivating force in getting to the gym. For some, however, the process of working out feels degrading rather than encouraging.

“When you approach the door of the fitness center, you can hear the sound of people breathing and the grinding of the machines, and you can smell the sweat,” Marissa Ain ’03 said. “I just feel terrified. I’m so intimidated by the weight of the jock stare and the people who intensely keep to their machine.”

Such machines are coveted spots during peak hours, when a half-hour wait for an elliptical machine or treadmill is commonplace. Once a long-awaited place is won, people are reluctant to give it up. Those who work out every day often become obsessively dependent on the cardiovascular rush.

“Almost no one is as compulsive as me, and so I don’t mind waiting because they go on for reasonable amounts of time,” Sophie Raseman ’04 said. “But if I met myself on the elliptical machine and told myself I had 55 minutes left, I’d feel extremely impotent and depressed.”

Even experts have trouble deciding whether compulsive exercising is the cause or the symptom of some greater issue. What is clear, however, is the fact that people are focusing on physical perfection now more than ever.

“The norm is a culture where nobody likes their body,” said psychology professor Kelly Brownell, who heads the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. “There are certain aspects of the gym, like the mirrors and the focus on sculpting the body, that can contribute to problems.”

Few would argue with Brownell on this point, and many students who are regulars at the gym are well aware of its psychological impact.

“The worst aspect of Payne Whitney is the fact that the facility encourages a kind of narcissistic indulgence in the male figure,” Conover said. “Everywhere you turn there’s a mirror, and it’s impossible to avoid checking yourself out.”

For students who work out only sporadically, the fanaticism of Payne Whitney can be overwhelming.

“These people are doing all kinds of aerobic exercises on the mat, and I’m there in my pajama pants making believe I’m stretching,” Ain said.

Whether or not the compulsion and unease of the gym is healthy, the facility plays an important role in the lives of a stressed-out community.

“The emphasis on fitness is good,” Brownell said. “It’s the emphasis on perfection of physique that can be unhealthy.”

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Kerry Shapleigh
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