I Joined a CrossFit Gym and It Made Me Feel Like an Unpopular High School Kid Again

The thing is: Those CrossFit people are pretty cliquey.
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Publish date:
May 22, 2015
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high school, personal growth, mean girls, crossfit, popularity

Like everybody else in Los Angeles, I just joined a CrossFit gym.

Though I have dabbled in just about every fitness craze to hit the market, I found a home in CrossFit. The high-intensity workouts carved away the fleshier parts of me to expose a lean silhouette I didn’t know I’d been hiding.

Though still very much a weakling by CrossFit standards, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been before. I feel empowered when I slap what seems like an obscene amount of weight on a metal barbell and then drop into a low squat with it racked on my shoulders. I’m tough.

I should revel in my recent gains, but every time I walk into my gym, my confidence fades when I see my fellow gym-goers huddled together, laughing over some inside joke into which I am too timid to force entry. The thing is: Those CrossFit people are pretty cliquey.

Let me clarify: I am not in High School any more. Gone are the nights I spent weeping into my pillow over being excluded from Sara Noodleman’s birthday party. I’m an adult now. I have a stable collection of friends, I resist most impulses to seal my lips when I should be speaking my mind, and I finally learned that dry-brushing my curly hair is appropriate only for ’80’s-themed dance parties. My pillow has been dry for years.

Every now and then, though, when I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed and see photos from a colleague’s baby shower that I wasn’t invited to or stand alone at a party, I slip backward into the quiet, peripheral person I was in high school. And there is nowhere in the world that I feel less popular than at CrossFit.

The members of my CrossFit gym interact like a little family to which I blatantly do not belong. They all compete on a team together; in each workout, they’re preparing for weekend contests in which they will cheer each other on as they hoist insane amounts of weight over their heads—as fast and as many times as possible.

I usually consider myself to be likable enough, but at CrossFit, a place that puts a premium on strength and agility, my social capital is nil, less than nil, exponentially decreasing with every failed attempt to jump rope.

Because we’re not in high school any more, the CrossFit-ers are cordial and pleasant when we speak, but what they really want from me is to move out of their way so that they can continue walking across the room on their hands.

Today, we’re doing a team workout. By some cruel stroke of our coach’s imagination, I’m tacked onto a team with Lola, the miraculously fit mother of two who commutes 45 minutes each way to work out here and Amanda, her best friend.

If you were to walk into my gym at the beginning of a class, you would invariably find those two women lounging atop lifting benches with their legs up as if they were at the beach, sipping something nonfat as a group of obliging CrossFit men deposit the necessary equipment for the workout at their feet.

When the clock bleeps down to 3-2-1, a knot of slack-jawed onlookers will form around them to admire their impeccable workouts as if they were mounted to the walls of the Louvre.

Our workout starts with Box Jumps; the three of us are collectively responsible for 150 of them, a number that elicits groans even from Lola. The stool in front of me comes up to about thigh height and I’m instructed to explode from the ground to the top of the stool.

“Explode”—that’s their word, not mine. I don’t explode, I fizzle, bending my knees as if to jump and then stopping short before my toes leave the ground. I contemplate liftoff, but am too intimidated to take the leap. The stool grows taller by the second.

I don’t know how much time passes before Lola places a hand on my shoulder. For a moment, I mistake this for a gesture of support, her unspoken assurance that she’d been in my position before—that it just takes a while. I’m wrong. Lola actually wants me to move out of the way so that our team can complete the workout in a respectable amount of time.

She and Amanda glide through the finish line without my help and I’m ashamed when they extend their hands to me for halfhearted high fives. As we sit and stretch, I overhear Lola, Amanda and some of the other women at the gym make plans for a healthy brunch and I am transported back to the 10th grade, frizzy-haired and bespectacled and doomed to spend Friday night at the movies with my parents. Days at CrossFit unfold like this often.

It is not the loneliness that troubles me most about my perceived rejection at CrossFit. I have plenty of non-gym friends whom I can call when I finish my workout. For me, the hardest part about feeling unpopular is that it forces me to recognize the myth of the Great Divide, the imaginary line I had drawn to individuate my current, adult self from the person I was in high school, for the fallacy that it is.

I always believed that by the time I grew old enough to call myself a grown-up, I would have metamorphosed into someone who could handle social rejection. I thought that when I graduated from high school, I would have also graduated from my petty concerns of fitting in.

CrossFit has taught me an important, if painful, lesson: There’s a difference between growing up and aging out. In my professional life I’ve been able to steer clear of the cliques and social stratification of my youth, but all that I’ve really accomplished is avoidance.

Today, I have less opportunity to feel unpopular, but that doesn’t mean that I have evolved.

When I sit on the floor of my CrossFit gym before class, mute with the desire to be recognized, my illusions of emotional maturity melt away. I want to be the self-assured grown up of my younger self’s dreams, but my white-knuckled grip on adulthood is tenuous at best. I might have found contact lenses and sufficient product to wrangle my unruly hair, but mine is no swan story. I am still the same odd duck— still plagued by the same old insecurities, the same old me.

As my filmmaker ex once told me after I bungled another cocktail party conversation with his producer friends’ well-groomed wives, I’m a social misfit. And maybe he’s right: maybe if I didn’t come off as so wide-eyed and eager to be a part of a given group, I’d be accepted more easily. My ex wasn’t always so cruel, though; he had other, milder insights to offer. People don’t change, he said to me, but they can grow.

I don’t know how much I’ve grown since those brown bag days of staring wistfully at the cool crowd. Whenever I come across any kind of club, I will still perform cartwheels for a membership badge.

But I’ve learned that there’s a kind of narcissism in my insecurities and that, more often than not, people are too wrapped up in their own lives to pass judgment on mine.

It’s unfair of me to unload all of my social expectations onto my fellow CrossFitters; they’re people, not blank screens onto which I can project my self-image. The fact that they don’t drop their weights to embrace me when I walk into a room might not say anything about me at all.

Anyway, my acquaintances at CrossFit are all tremendous athletes. They push their bodies through pain and exhaustion every day. They’re stronger, faster, and more efficient than I am because they’ve earned it. And that’s at least a part of the reason why being a part of a community is so coveted— building one isn’t easy.

Maybe instead of prioritizing fitting in with any arbitrary group of people, I should cultivate my own interests. Maybe if I spend time doing what I love—an ever-growing list of activities that now includes CrossFit—a community will develop around me. But those potentials are a long way from materializing; in the meantime, at least I’m getting stronger.

The box is made of wood and the word “Maverick” has been stenciled on its side in big, block letters. It is 24 inches high and when I land on it, both feet at once, I barely make a sound. The view from up here is great.