Redefining the Gym as a Feminist Space

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.

Moving Forward

So how can we all – women and men – make the gym (and exercise) a more liberating and equal space?

Occupy:

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.

Support:

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.)

Love:

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.

Breaking the Silence on Vulval Pain

“Well, you need to have sex, if you don’t it will only make things worse,” the gynaecologist told me.

At the time, I was a single woman at the age of 24. For lots of people, being told to have sex wouldn’t be much of an issue, but when you experience pain during sex like I do, those are hardly the words of comfort you want to hear.

Since the age of 18, sex has been a problem for me.

As a young girl, sex education didn’t teach me which feelings are normal and which aren’t, and I never learnt anything about issues or difficulties I might face in the future.

As a result, for years I thought painful was how sex was supposed to feel.

Other women must experience this pain and just get on with it, right?

But from the way everyone else spoke about sex, I felt confused. It didn’t match up with my own experience. I felt lonely, isolated and upset, so I turned to a doctor for help.

I visited my university doctor 12 times over the 4 years I was studying.

“Maybe it’s this…”
“Maybe it’s that…” 
“Can you test me for this..?”
“Can you do a swab for that..?”

I went back time and time again with my own internet-researched-suggestions of what might be causing the pain I was experiencing and what the solution could be. During each appointment I was examined, assured that physically I was fine, and told it’s all in your head”.

Being told a problem is ‘in your head’ is never easy to hear. At the time, I understood it to mean that there was no solution available to me and I would need to work this one out on my own. Did I need to be more relaxed? Was I too tense?

I was young and clueless and I had no guidance whatsoever.

It wasn’t until I eventually opened up to my mum that I realised I wasn’t being proactive enough. Yes, I was doing all of the research I could do on my own but I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I didn’t even know at this point that I could request a referral to a gynaecologist myself.

Years passed by, and I visited the hospital every 4 months in the hopes my next NHS appointment would shed some light on what was happening to me, but the process moved slowly. Each scan ruled out another potential cause of my symptoms, which I knew was a positive thing – but with each month that passed, the experience began to take its toll on my mental wellbeing.

I started to fill the gaps between these appointments any alternative method I could think of – Acupuncture, Hypnotherapy, Psychosexual Counselling… Each new option gave me a glimmer of hope, but time and time again I had no luck.

I felt let down by my doctors. I felt as though no one was taking me seriously.

I’ve cried in medical appointments more times than I’d care to admit and each referral to a different department left me feeling abandoned – as though no one was willing to take the time to learn about the pain I’d been experiencing for years.

I was the one coming up with potential solutions and offering ideas to my doctors, but every suggestion I made was cast aside. I even had one Gynaecologist laugh and shrug while casually asking me, oh, what are we going to do with you?!, trivialising what I was going through even further.

According to the NHS, vulval pain affects women of all ages, although symptoms often begin before the age of 25. A study on almost 5000 women in America showed 1 in 6 women experienced the symptoms of vulval pain for 3 months or longer, with 60% of women visiting more than 3 doctors, many of whom provided no diagnosis.

How is it that so many women are experiencing the same problem, yet so much of the medical world is completely oblivious to our pain?

Instead of being supported, we’re being made to feel like we’re ‘crazy’. I believed something was really wrong with me until one day, I found an online forum that changed everything.

All of a sudden, I found a group of women from all around the world providing support and advice for each other. It was unlike anything I’d experienced anywhere else. It was the conversations I had in the forum that led me to find a doctor in the UK who sounded as though she had not only heard of, but actually treated, many people in my position.

After all that time, all it took was a 15 minute appointment to lead to the diagnosis I’d been searching for. It may have taken me 8 years to get here, but I can finally say it;

I have Vestibulodynia.