The Evian Woman and I

April 30, 1994|By MIKE BOWLER

The ad in Vanity Fair shows a sultry woman in black shorts. Her head is tilted back, her eyes closed, her dark hair somewhat disheveled, her body a sheen of sweat. She's obviously been engaged in strenuous exercise.

My eyes linger on the woman, then stray to the caption: ''Another Day, Another Chance to Feel Healthy.'' She's selling water, of all things -- Evian ''natural spring water.''

And we have so much in common! Since the ice melted in February, I've been taking a course in ''circuit weight training'' at Catonsville Community College. Two nights a week, 15 of us gather in a room full of weight-lifting machines, barbells, jump ropes, stationary bikes, rowing simulators, ''Nordic'' ski machines and mini-trampolines.

We circulate around the room -- 30 seconds at each station, 15 seconds between -- bouncing, pushing, pulling, skipping, pedaling, cursing, sweating, watching ourselves in the room-length mirror, sweating. For college credit. To feel healthy. It's the thing of the '90s.

I didn't get into it willingly. My wife bought me the course as a Christmas present but wisely delayed paying for it until I'd attended a few sessions. After Lauren Sacks, the instructor, took roll the first night, she asked all of us why we were there. ''My wife made me,'' I said somewhat grumpily. Besides, my weight didn't need any training. Being overweight is something I do quite naturally.

Still, I'd always been curious about those strange machines, which have names like ''bent leg setup,'' ''hyperextension,'' ''hip flexor,'' ''pull over,'' ''leg extension'' and ''vertical fly.'' I'd seen them through the windows of health clubs and on TV (always demonstrated by women who look like Jane Fonda). I'd seen what working out on them had done for my barber, Dino. I've been told that at some clubs those who use the Nautilus equipment are there to see and be seen. (Women are said to put on their makeup before venturing into the Nautilus room.)

None of this at Catonsville. Too close to Arbutus for yuppie meat marketing. Besides, this is a college. At least half of my classmates are 20ish, taking the course to fulfill a physical-education requirement.

Some of us are trying to get -- or stay -- in shape. The oldest student, in his 70s, has been repeating circuit weight training for 10 years. ''I'm not trying to become a physical specimen,'' he said. ''I'm just trying to keep from falling apart.'' There's a married couple, both of whom work for the federal government, and a history major at University of Maryland Baltimore County who works weekends as a stewardess.

There's a good deal of intimacy in weight training, and at first I was embarrassed, especially about sweating. (My wife hasn't perspired since 1967 and is proud of it.) Ms. Sacks, always patient and good-humored, told me that ''sometimes the people in the best shape are the biggest sweaters.'' But I carry a towel with me, and when I leave a machine, I try to wipe off any drops or puddles so the next person won't be upset.

One Thursday night about halfway through the course, I left the circuit, moved to a corner of the room and took a good look at my class in training. (I wondered what a visitor from outer space would think.) It was then that I realized there's no need for embarrassment. Though there is intimacy, with all of these sweaty, half-undressed bodies doing different things on different machines, weight training is essentially narcissistic. Why else the mirror? (''Look at yourself in the mirror,'' Ms. Sacks often advises.) No one else in the class cares that I sweat, that my feet are too big, my belly too round and my hips nonexistent. (Ms. Sacks advises to ''tuck in your hips,'' which is difficult when you don't have any.)

This is a course in self-improvement, as the woman in the Evian ad seems to understand. If we succeed here in the gym, she seems to be saying, it will enhance our enjoyment of other, more social activities.

We're three-quarters of the way through the course now, and those are muscles hardening in my upper arms and shoulders, muscles that for 40 years have functioned with roughly the frequency of the escalators in Charles Center. I've even ventured a glance or two in the weight-training mirror. No possibility of becoming a hunk. Not ready for prime time, nor for consorting with the jocks at the Downtown Athletic Club.

But feeling pretty good. Another day. Another chance to feel healthy.

Mike Bowler edits the Other Voices page of The Evening Sun.

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