If you walk into a gym, anywhere in the world, I think you’ll notice a similar pattern.
There will be women frenzied at cardio machines, and there will be men grunting as they lift weights. Whether in Mumbai or Amsterdam, the pattern persists; women and men seem to use the gym differently.
While this might seem like a harmless statement, in fact, it reinforces gender norms. It is loaded with expectations of what an ideal body type is. And it restricts use and access of certain facilities.
Gyms as Gendered Spaces
I first noticed this difference when I began spending more time at the gym. I realized that while I would comfortably lift weights at home, it felt a far less inviting activity at the gym. Men tend to dominate the weight-lifting sections and, in some instances, are guilty of ogling or staring at women.
In fact, there have been a handful of times when I felt ready to go over to the ‘men’s side’ to access the weights. But each time I went, it took me extra energy to feel comfortable and claim my space. I relate to this piece on Ravishly, where the writer describes finding herself apologising to men as she used ‘their equipment’.
The same narrative applies whether women are occupying space on the streets or occupying space in the gym. Gyms are primarily considered male spaces, and men seem to inhabit them with comfortable entitlement.
So is it their fault? Perhaps in part. But it’s not that simple.
Harmful Body Image
In gyms I’ve been to, I usually see women either running or following what look like Instragram-style workouts which require minimal equipment. While these workouts have made working out very accessible, particularly for women, they can propagate a restrictive ‘ideal’ body type.
These types of workouts are not a recent phenomenon, but date back to the 80’s, when Jane Fonda popularized the at-home workout. To some extent, she was successful in getting more women to be active. However, a constant influx of images of a singular body type is toxic, not just for girls but for women of all ages.
I have often had friends tell me that they don’t want to get ‘too bulky’ or that they need to amp up their cardio because they ate a chocolate brownie.
This is not to say that I have a perfect, healthy relationship with my body. I am complicit in perpetuating this behavior as I strive to meet standards that I do not think I actively chose for myself, but which society has handed down to me.
Not only do traditional gyms reproduce unequal ways of accessing space for women and men, they also reproduces a certain body type ideal.
So how can we all – women and men – make the gym (and exercise) a more liberating and equal space?
Women: Push the boundaries. Take up space at the gym wherever and whenever you want – unapologetically. It might help to take a female friend along with you at first.
Men: Make space for women. Ensuring others can make use of the same space as you requires an active mindset.
Women: We need to support one another. Compliment other women, help one another out and don’t be so quick to judge. (And on a side note, lifting weights can make you feel invincible!)
Men: Any fitness advice? Given that you have had quite a head start in the gym, I’m sure you’ve learned some things along the way! (But avoid being patronizing or using this as a chance to hit on a woman.)
For us all, let’s look at the gym and exercise as a means of self-care and a way to look after ourselves.
Our quest should be more for happy hormones and a healthy lifestyle, and less for a specific waistline. Enough research has shown that lifting weights for women has many benefits, so if you have been hesitating so far, I encourage you to take that extra step.
Yes, it can feel unfair that we have to fight for our space. But if enough of us do it, whether it is at the gym or on the street, we make more space feel available to others.