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.

Fighting the perfect shape

Growing up, I was extremely skinny. Though I met parts of the ideal body image, I was always asked a lot of questions about not eating enough. Ironically, I was a massive junk food and candy eater. Grass was greener on the other side and I ached to put on weight. At least to stop the inappropriate malnutrition questions being thrown at my mother.

Puberty and certain lifestyle changes had a surprise waiting for me. I began to slowly but steadily put on weight. Surprise, surprise! I was extremely unhappy despite the fact that my wish had come true. Till I began to read and critically analyse body image, I was reduced to covering up the flab and dressing in loose fitted clothes. Finally giving in to the uneasy feelings, I wandered into a doctor’s office to get some clarity on the weight gain. Only to find out I had a health condition (Poly Cystic Ovaries Syndrome) that had certain correlations with weight gain.
Body image is a huge problem across the world. Fat shaming as well as skinny shaming is a common practice. This has led to a lot of eating disorders world over. Only off late are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa being discussed with the seriousness they demand.

While working with media students in Hyderabad, India, I have heard a lot about the temptation to succumb to severe crash diets to get that perfect body. In India, we enjoy policing of the neighbourhood variety. A friendly neighbour who is watching the gradual weight gain drops a off-hand comment about the fat. It perhaps trigger shame and eventually crash diets. Recently, a woman in India was turned away from a store and asked to go to a gym. Similarly in London, women and men were handed fat-shaming cards. Both of these incidents had a lot of response from women speaking up about the viciousness of fat shaming in our society. The slippery slope between fat and ugly make matters worse for those struggling with confidence.

Movies, television, magazines don’t help this struggle with our body. The actresses seem to get skinnier and we aren’t even fully questioning the role of photoshop in this debate. Fortunately, actresses are speaking up about the insidiousness of the tendency to photoshop women’s bodies.

Similarly, individuals  and groups fight this downward spiral of a uniform body type through campaigns rooted in self-love. The recent #BeyondBeautyInitiative of Wear Your Voice Mag is a beautiful campaign breaking the stereotypes of ideal body type. Women of all sizes are photographed.

Similarly artists are imagining society with representation of all kinds of women. It is interesting to see women reclaim this space to assert our rights on our bodies over the right of the market to determine which body is legitimate or beautiful.

Health and weight gain

Like I mentioned above, I have a condition where I am prone to a lot of weight gain. One of the characteristics of Poly-Cystic Ovaries Syndrome is weight gain because often those women have resistance to carbohydrates and sugar. Accompanied with it are also symptoms of excessive body hair particularly on the face, arms etc. One of the biggest problems of this syndrome is the drop in self-esteem of women as they fail to meet society’s and market’s description of an ideal body type.

I am not insinuating that all women who are not skinny have health problems. It was true in my case but that is a rarity. This is another issue as we tend to talk about health issues and weight gain together. But the truth is what the bathroom scales did not tell me was that the extra weight gain or the body hair did not make me any less beautiful. Perhaps we need to fix the problem by demanding better representation in media. What we see right now is a uniformity that is appalling and misleading. Taking back our bodies is not an easy battle, but it is doable – together. And perhaps a good place to start as we enter year 2016 is to not throw the word fat around as an insult.

Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Astrid / Flickr