Photography by Luke Austin-Paglialonga
Coach Brad is a magnificent, roaring Clydesdale of a man, standing 6-and-a-half feet tall, with blond hair, a golden complexion, and deep-set blue eyes. He speaks in a core-shaking baritone. His head looks like it ought to be atop a pedestal in the antiquities wing of the Met, where it could be quietly admired. His facial features are so architectural that I scribble in my notebook, “Looks part Klingon.” Then Coach Brad slaps his hands together and booms: “Excellent! You should all be taking notes, like this guy!” I haven’t a clue what he’s been talking about for the past five minutes to our timid group of misshapen nerds, but have jotted down odd words like “burpee,” “snatch,” and “jumping squat.”
Each level of the Black Box, an open-floor-plan CrossFit gym in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, is divided into four “pods.” Some CrossFitters from other gyms around the city criticize the Black Box for its factory-like atmosphere, where classes of different skill levels, with about 20 students each, stream in and out with blazing efficiency all day long, nearly every hour from about 5 a.m. until 8 at night.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, about a half dozen of us are in the southwest pod of the second floor for Elements Class 1, our introduction to CrossFit. All around us there’s a psychotic whir of jump ropes slicing through the air, well-bred young women in yoga pants and ponytails swooping like orangutans along wooden rings suspended from the ceiling, and scores of people crawling guerrilla-style along the floor. The whole thing has a sort of Taylor Swift-meets-jihad feel.
Three days ago, when I set out to report on doing a month of CrossFit, I was put in touch with Craig Convissar, a 30-year-old attorney and one of CrossFit’s biggest cheerleaders. We met at one of the Black Box’s monthly LGBT workout classes that he helps organize. He’s a self-appointed liaison between LGBT CrossFitters and the gym through a Facebook group called Black Box: Guerrilla Queer WOD (it has 229 members). He’s also active in a citywide LGBT CrossFit community called OUTWOD. “WOD” is CrossFit jargon for “Workout of the Day” and is pronounced “wad.”
“I’ve definitely gotten stronger, and my cardiovascular endurance has gotten way better,” Convissar says. “I know I’m a much better athlete than I thought I was.” He’s been doing CrossFit for almost two years, and before that took trampoline classes and had been a member of a gym geared toward the musical theater community.
“I look at it this way: I have a share in the Pines with nine other boys. Most of them look better than me when they take their shirts off, but I know that in a physical fitness competition I could crush any of them,” he says, which I find bizarre because it looks like he could club a seal with his biceps and deflect bullets with the pecs stretching out his crossfit south brooklyn T-shirt.
He also has huge, bloody calluses on his hands. When I ask another CrossFitter, Steve, about his own scabby calluses, he says, “I guess I haven’t found any lifting gloves that I really like yet,” which I later learn is probably a lie. No one in CrossFit wears lifting gloves, because massive, disgusting, bloody hands are a sort of hanky code among members — a way to spot your own in society, as well as a badge of honor.
CrossFit gyms, in further parlance, are called “boxes.” They are pared-down, bare-bones facilities that reflect the gritty CrossFit philosophy, which mixes Olympic weight lifting, calisthenics, and gymnastics with that eye-rolling paleo diet (what the cavemen would have eaten!) — heavy on meat and veggies and forbidding sugars, grains, and dairy.
After the gay workout, a guy named Jake invites a bunch of us to his rooftop around the corner for drinks. “If you’re on the paleo diet, you can only drink wine and tequila,” he explains.
Jake is one of the few not excessively cheerful people in CrossFit.
“I hate New York,” he says. He’s leaning against the ledge, watching airplanes fly northward along the West Side of Manhattan while his fellow CrossFitters gather in circles to talk about CrossFit. He has a hobby of memorizing flight paths and can identify aircraft from the ground, saying things like, “That’s a US Airways Embraer 190, probably the 3 o’clock from Reagan to LaGuardia.”
“CrossFit is designed for someone who doesn’t have a life outside of CrossFit,” Jake says. “All these guys have really drunk the Kool-Aid.”
Steve, who does CrossFit six days a week on top of swimming and boxing classes at two other gyms, pipes up from several feet away. “They actually didn’t drink Kool-Aid at Jonestown,” he says, referring to the 1978 mass cultic suicide of more than 900 people. “It was actually Flavor Aid.”
As part of our warm-up, we move back and forth across the pod several times, first like a crab, then like a bear, then like Frankenstein. Everyone looks completely stupid. It seems to me an exercise in humiliation designed to crush the ego and subjugate.
I spot Craig in the pod next door and flash him a big, dumb grin while waving exaggeratedly, but he only looks at me wide-eyed and gives a cryptic nod before darting away. It is sort of like the most popular girl in school being spotted by that differently abled girl she was nice to that one time.
One reserves CrossFit classes online, and although you can cancel up to an hour beforehand, you get penalized for no-shows. I find that going to class makes me angry. I despise doing activities in a group. I tend to think that even walking down the street with more than one other person is humiliating. My therapist used to say that anger is just depression turned outward. If I were still seeing him, he’d probably ask, “Where does all this anger come from when you have to go to CrossFit class, Chadwick?”
Judy’s here today. She’s got powerful hips and a sensible Tiger-mom shag and has a persnickety, forward-leaning manner of walking on the balls of her feet. Her gym attire is always spotless and overly appropriate, and we keep ending up in the same classes. Our coach today, Ted, is another remarkable specimen: tall and broad with a great ginger beard, a Roman nose, and a man bun. He looks a bit like one of the sexier dwarves from the Hobbit movies. Along with kettlebell swings and jumping pull-ups, our workout today includes running a block down Sixth Avenue. Nine times.
“Ugh, I hate running,” Judy whines. “Do we really have to?”
“Let’s stick together,” I say to her. “I hate running, too.” But she looks at me as though I just ripped a fart in church. There’s a type of CrossFitter I’ve come to call the Seven-Foot-Tall Invincible White Man. Usually under 35, they work in finance and strut around the box topless, draped in sweat, with a maniacal 1,000-yard gaze, feeling very pleased with themselves. One passes by, and he’s got a tattoo of a black power fist stamped on the middle of his back, which I find hysterical. I point it out to Judy, but she moves to the other side of the huddle as Coach Ted goes through the workout.
A CrossFit gym opens somewhere on earth every few hours. In the 1990s, a personal trainer in Southern California named Greg Glassman kept getting kicked out of gyms for his unorthodox training philosophy. In 1995, he started his own operation in Santa Cruz, and in 2000, he founded CrossFit Inc. In 2009 there were around 1,000 CrossFit-affiliated gyms in the world; six years later that number is approaching 13,000 (for comparison, in 2014, the global number of Starbucks stores was 21,000). CrossFit claims between 2 million and 4 million members, with more than 100,000 “level 1 certificate holders” (trainers), according to Russell Berger, a spokesperson for CrossFit.
There is no board of directors at CrossFit Inc. Glassman owns 100% of the company and has been known to pop into affiliates across the country unannounced. CrossFit ruthlessly pursues legal action not only against non-affiliated gyms for brand infringement, but against researchers who question the safety and effectiveness of the workout. The company has also been accused of retaliating for negative press coverage. Glassman has been quoted saying things like, “We’re changing the world. We’re doing all the right things for all the right people for all the right reasons,” and “The strength and value of CrossFit lies entirely within our total dominance of other athletes, and this is a truth that cannot be divined through debate, only competition.” In a recent interview with CBS News, a correspondent remarked that the way he talks about CrossFit sounds like preparation for war.
“Yeah, why not?” he said. “Getting ready for war, getting ready for [an] earthquake, getting ready for mugging, getting ready for the horrible news that you have leukemia. What awaits us all is [a] challenge, that’s for sure.”
I phone Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst in Manhattan and volunteer for the International Cultic Studies Association. He moderates a support group once a month for cult survivors, sees several former cult members in his private practice, and wrote the book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. He is also a former member of Siddha Yoga, which, in a 1994 New Yorker article, was exposed for widespread abuse and cultishness.
“At the head of [any cult] is a person whose narcissism has led them to believe they are superior to others and therefore entitled in ways that other people are not to control people,” Shaw explains. “What they basically are saying is, because of my superiority, I and only I can give you what you need to fix you and make you better, to make you be what you’re supposed to be, and you need me.”
“In a cult, there is a mission,” he continues, “whether it’s world peace or spiritual enlightenment or whatever. Religions often have a mission — say, to build a community of the faithful who support each other and do good work. Well, if you look at the church [as being that], they are fulfilling their vision. When you look at a cult who say they’re creating world peace, they’re not creating world peace. They are, however, creating a very wealthy and powerful leader. That’s the difference.”
Contrary to popular belief, says Shaw, even everyday, healthy people are susceptible to getting involved in cults. “Everybody can be at some point in their life vulnerable to be lonely or frustrated or despairing or discouraged, and cults make tremendous promises,” he says. “They’re great advertisers. They offer solutions. They are friendly and they have communities.”
Today in CrossFit we learn the assisted handstand, the hollow position — essential for mastering gymnastics moves — and the double jump rope. Our WOD is “Fran,” which Coach Ben says causes most people to puke the first time they do it. CrossFit celebrates vomit and blood. In fact, the corporate mascot is a homicidal-looking shirtless monstrosity called Pukie the Clown. WODs are named after women — Fran, Cindy, Mary, etc. — “because they’re total bitches,” Steve tells me.
We are also introduced to the fist bump, following a golf clap, between you and Coach. You then repeat those moves with the rest of the class upon successful completion of a move. It seems to shore up group solidarity.
Also, Judy saw me smoking outside class and acted as though she didn’t know me. She was walking in behind a pair of Seven-Foot-Tall Invincible White Men.
I’m enjoying life inside the box slightly more. When we leave class tonight, it is the first warm evening of the impending summer season and New York is content and bathed in pastels, and I ride my bike back to Brooklyn. At a stoplight, watching the late-night shoppers on Broadway, I’m overcome with shame. I’ve always had a secret desire to be one of these high-functioning, Manhattan office worker types, the sort who flourish in CrossFit. It’s the life I assumed I would have, but it doesn’t seem to be turning out that way for me. I find those CrossFit gays to be generally warm and uncomplicated. They’re nice people. And I want to be like that.
SLIDESHOW | MEET THE HOT MEN GAY CROSSFIT GROUP OUTWOD
I skip class to get drunk with my best friend, M. I tell him about these feelings and my growing body dysmorphia. I can’t stand to look in the mirror without being critical. I tell him how self-conscious I’m becoming in the locker room at the box.
“Honey, none of those queens are judging your body,” M. says, slamming down a tumbler of whiskey and puffing on a cigarette. “They’re way too busy hating their own bodies to care about yours.”
M. may have a point. I call up Alan Downs, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, who’s the former CEO at Michael’s House, an addiction treatment center in Palm Springs, and the author of The Velvet Rage. Many of his clients are gay men in West Hollywood who are involved in fitness movements like CrossFit and Barry’s Bootcamp.
“They earn you a kind of validation, and you begin to feel like the jocks in high school who were ridiculing you as a kid. They fill that very basic need to sit at the popular table,” Downs explains. “There’s a vulnerability in [gay men’s] development that they really appeal to, that phenomenon of wanting to fit in and be with the other guys.”
He adds, “Then that addiction, that obsession, starts in and you can’t feel good about yourself unless you go, and you go once a day and then you start going twice a day and then you’ve really set these artificial standards. Doing these things doesn’t satiate the hunger for validation. You feel less than even more so. Honestly, the guys who I see — who are the most depressed, even suicidal — are the ones who really struggle with this and have beautiful bodies. And yet it never measures up. They’re never able to enjoy it as you think they would.”
Craig has arranged a happy hour for some of the CrossFit gays at a bar in Chelsea. He shows up late, still in his lawyer suit, with that exasperated nervousness of someone who really needs a stiff drink after a long day. But he’s not drinking, and I think he probably really needs a workout. A CrossFitter named Brian, whom I met on Jake’s rooftop, approaches me.
“How’s it been going?” he asks, beaming.
“It sucks,” I say, but as the sparkle drains from Brian’s face, I begin to feel bad. CrossFit is so important to him that I don’t want to trash-talk it, so I backtrack. “It’s just that I’m very competitive and I’m not good at it yet, and it upsets me because I’m not as good as I want to be,” I say.
“Oh my God, I’m the same way!” Brian says. “That just means you are perfect for CrossFit. That’s the kind of person who really excels. Sounds like you drank the Kool-Aid!” The Kool-Aid joke is never far away with these guys. I wonder if members of real cults use it too. Like, Look at sister wife Erma over there polishing those AK-47s. Boy, did she drink the Kool-Aid!
Coach Mike has us doing a solid 30 minutes of jumping squats, an Olympic weight-lifting move requiring you to elevate a barbell from the floor over your head and then do a squat. I was late to class, and Coach Mike called me out in front of everyone. My name was circled on the dry-erase board as a no-show. I’m paired with two straight guys, and I can’t do the move at all.
“I don’t want to see you squatting, Chadwick,” Coach Mike calls out from across the pod. “You don’t have the flexibility yet. Just practice the lift.” And so I do, over and over, for 30 minutes. Even fucking Judy can do the jumping squat, with twice as much weight on the barbell as I have.
The two straight guys I’m teamed up with keep giving me pointers. “You think too much,” one says. No shit. “Stop pausing when you bring the weight up — it’s one swift move,” the other says. They soon become so annoyed by me, they stop talking. Then, as the clock runs out, I hoist the barbell over my head, extend my hips back, and do a squat.
“Nice job, Chadwick,” Coach Mike calls out. “You got it.”
The two straight guys give me a fist bump, and Judy shoots me a thumbs-up. I step back, woozy, seeing spots, dripping in sweat. I am happy.
*All names have been changed except where full names are given.