Subscriber OnlyAbroad

Laura Kennedy: It’s hard to put my finger on what’s different about the atmosphere in this gym

I shuffled into the gym that first day, hunched up and embarrassed, feeling puffy and conspicuous in my leggings

At my local gym, I hear a strange sound over the audiobook playing loudly through my headphones. This happened once before when I heard raised voices and turned around in concern at the thought that someone might have injured themselves. It was just a couple having an impassioned verbal disagreement next to the leg press machine, while a perilously large man (who looked like a regular user of the leg press machine) minced about behind them conspicuously.

He was clearly wondering whether their argument counted as machine hogging and if it would be wrong to ask them to move. Usually, I stick to a running machine in the furthest corner of the gym floor. One facing the wall.

I’m Irish. I don’t want to look or be looked at while I go for my silly little run.

This time, nobody is injured and nobody is conducting an impassioned disagreement they could maybe have had at home. Instead, my focus is dragged grudgingly from the treadmill by a young chap dancing in front of the mirrors in the opposite corner. Impossibly fit men and women tend to hang out in that corner (it’s where the free weights live) and they’re giving this guy, who might have been 19 at a push, as much space as possible while he stares with unsettling intensity at himself in the mirror. His limbs are flailing expressively as he films this spectacle for his TikTok. Of course.


Nobody seems surprised.

I always think it’s a bit rude when someone films inside the gym. They’ll inevitably catch others engaged in the vulnerable labour of staving off death through physical effort in the background. So while they’re dancing sexily to Doja Cat, some guy in his fifties is sweating in the background, trying to outpace the trauma of his ongoing divorce on a stationary bike. An older lady doing her post-op physio is caught repeatedly bending over in compromising fashion. A soft, red, silly little Irish woman is captured doing her silly little run in perpetuity.

Australia has had several unexpected impacts on me and my lifestyle. Eight months in, I’ve finally managed to get a handle on my overwhelming urge to shout “oh, what a funny little guy!” every time I see a wild cockatoo just waddling around like a smug little philosopher in a toga. I no longer say: “Did you know they can live to 40 in the wild!?” to my husband every time. I don’t joke “that guy could be older than you!” and nudge him slightly too hard in the ribs while he nods passively for the fourth time that week, his eyes glazing over as he dissociates.

Cockatoos can live to over 70 in captivity, I learned. So maybe don’t take one on if you’re feeling less than vital.

This country has made me a morning person, which is unprecedented. At home, I’d wake naturally earlier in summer than winter, probably like most of us. A wet sheet of frozen blackness hardly makes walking barefoot to the shower at 6.30am a tantalising prospect. We all know that light is good for us. That it makes us feel less closed in, less miserable, less unmoored (those last two may just be me).

Light fills a day with potential.

It’s autumn here in the Australian capital. Temperatures are dropping and jackets are being tugged from storage, but the light never really dwindles. You wake in the morning to a wide, generous brightness that beckons you into the day. It’s the feeling of the most beautiful spring day Ireland has to offer, but in the Australian equivalent of early October. The result is that in Australia, I appear to be marginally less pessimistic and ornery. Rather than scuttling beetle-like between appointments as the day progresses, I saunter, enjoying the outdoors.

I meander, as someone with a recent all-clear on their extortionately priced full-body scan and an extensive stock portfolio might do.

Then there is the gym. There are the bodies here, going on about their daily business, routinely wearing significantly less than people do in Ireland. I won’t suggest for a moment that Australians are any less subject to the intense pressures around body image than anyone else but the pressure feels less to me than it does at home. You’d think in a climate that justifies taking your clothes off in settings other than your shower, things might be much more intense. Perhaps they are.

As an Irish immigrant, though, I can’t help but feel relieved by the contagious lack of shame. It lightens the burden I personally carry into my relationship with my own body.

Every imaginable type of body was inside that gym and nobody seemed particularly uncomfortable except for me

I shuffled into the gym that first day, hunched up and embarrassed, feeling puffy and conspicuous in my leggings. My brain was filled with finger-wagging medical advice aimed at women in their thirties. Terms like ‘bone density’, ‘muscle mass’, ‘longevity’. Boring, grim, urgent terms. I knew how unfit I’d let myself become and felt all the shame of my equally unfit ancestors bearing down upon me. I entered this Australian gym like an Irish person – keeping to the shadows, ready to apologise if someone else walked into me, fretting about my right to be there.

Ready to feel unwelcome.

And then the thing happened and the thing was this – nobody cared at all. The gym was full of diverse people, and none of them gave a flying sh*te. The gigantic bodybuilders who always look like they’re carrying two invisible milk pails. The tiny runners with freakish endurance. The people with a fitness goal that’s a long way off. The soft-middled hobbyists. The prim pilates class ladies. The pensioners pacing their way through a morning personal training session.

Every imaginable type of body was inside that gym and nobody seemed particularly uncomfortable except for me, so I stopped feeling uncomfortable and started going more often. Now I’m less worried about muscle mass and bone density, and I sleep better before waking to bright light in the morning. It’s hard to put my finger precisely on what’s different about the atmosphere, or myself inside it. It’s not the dancing boy. It’s not the presence of confidence.

It might be the absence of shame.