Token Man

My mother…

Now those are two words that can have many meanings depending on how you say them – anyway…

My mother used to be a P.E. Instructor.

In England in 1958 “P.E.” meant Physical Education; in today’s world she would be called an Aerobics Trainer/Teacher/Instructor. On the good old BBC Radio or Auntie Beeb, as it was fondly referred to, there was a Jane Fonda equivalent called Eileen Fowler who for 15 minutes every day would take you through a series of fitness exercises. Eileen came from “good British stock” and spoke with a very proper English accent as did everyone in broadcasting in those days.

“Swing your balls!” Eileen would command those listening, blissfully unaware of the meaning those three words can have – we British love innuendo. She was of course referring to the medicine balls she was assuming those listening were holding.

My mother was not as famous as Eileen Fowler but at 4 years of age she was a star to me and twice a week she would bring me to the class she taught to other housewives in the neighbourhood (UK spelling). I would sit quietly and watch my mother take these women through a series of P.E. exercises – there was always so much laughter and no balls were swung.

Of course the other women always made a fuss of me as I was the “token boy” and I remember the composite smell of them all, Morney’s French Fern soap, Ma Griffe perfume by Carven, Ellenette hairspray for extra hold, Max Factor Miracle Touch foundation make-up, OMO (yes OMO) laundry detergent, Rothman’s cigarettes and feminine sweat (no brand name for that).

Now, in 2013 and at 59 I am the token man in the many ‘workout/cardio sculpt’ classes I attend. I like doing an hour class where someone (invariably a woman) takes me through various cardio, weights, abs and stretching exercises. I’m not one for working my way round the weights and machines on the gym floor – I need the structure of a class and the interaction of the group. I am usually in the front row, though I am not “spot-ist” – if someone has got there a bit earlier and is in “my spot” I’ll go wherever there is a place. Unlike Gail, who is immovable, and if she arrives late expects whoever is in her spot to get out of it immediately.

Not only am I the token man I am also the class clown and the women make a fuss of me ‘cause they like to laugh while they are bent over double looking through their legs and praying that nobody passes gas. What crosses my mind while I am in this position is that in 55 years things haven’t changed that much, well not in the world of PE classes.

With all the societal changes I have seen in my lifetime the PE/aerobics class still seems to be mainly the domain of women with inevitably the token man.  I’m not sure where the unwritten rule comes from that women do classes and men workout with weights and machines. There has been a migration of women on to the gym floor but that has not been reciprocated by a migration of men to the “Stretch & Tone” class.

I think being the token man has made me very understanding of what I call “the plight” of women in the male dominated corporate world – a world I now work in as an Executive Coach. The unfairness, the double standards, the assumptions, the inequality in salary, the glass ceiling, what women have to do, what they have to wear, how they have to act/ behave and what they have to give up to compete in this world that men, who have controlled it for centuries, take for granted.

In the “Ultimate Conditioning” classes I take I am constantly surprised by the diminutive women, who appear to have very little muscle mass, lifting heavier weights than I am. I’m flabbergasted when I hear about what they managed to pack in before the class, what they are going to pack in after the class and the multi-tasking that comes so naturally to them. I’m astounded as I watch a woman in her 8th or even 9th month of pregnancy exercising and even more astounded when they are back in the class about a month after giving birth. It’s been said many times but I wonder if men had babies, would they exercise up until the 8th/9th month or be back exercising a month after giving birth.

As a writer and observer of human nature I love the gossip and hearing about the back stories of the women in the class. The comments about their husbands/partners past, present and on the way out, the issues they have with their children, the compliments they give to Melanie’s new workout outfit that does make her butt look bigger. The eye rolling and acknowledgement from Sandra as Judith tells her what Patty did this time!

Instead of the various trainings that women are encouraged to take at the workplace and the articles and books they read to navigate the corporate world so they can understand the male psyche; I think it’s the men who should take an “Abs, Thighs and Butt” class so they can understand the female psyche; not only would the corporate world be a better place but the men who inhabit it would be in much better shape.

Those classes I sat in when I was 4, watching my mother coerce her “ladies” to hop, skip and jump around the room, without a doubt, have made me appreciate women and enjoy their company. I think I’m a better man because of that childhood experience. So this blog is a tribute to those token men in all those classes all over the world who would rather “Step & Crunch” with the girls than pump & lift with the boys.

2 Comments

  1. Diane Seymour February 11, 2013 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the tribute, Gary! Much appreciated.
    From a grateful female multi-tasker.

  2. Brewster Smith February 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Great story, Gary. That’s so funny.
    Last year, my wife Molly asked me if I would take a “Bollywood” dance class with her. As a rough and tumble man with 7 tattoos I would have been within my rights to decline but I knew she would enjoy it more together so I accepted. I was, indeed, the token male. Surprise surprise! Your story brought back that memory. Like a war-time flashback.
    I kid.

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