My gym is a safari of body types. There are young bodies, old bodies, lean bodies, plump bodies, sweaty bodies, hairy bodies. There are bodies lifting barbells, bodies bent over the water fountain, bodies on the running track. I know that some gyms seem to only cater for the lithe and muscular, but my gym is a true hodgepodge – I have seen kids as young as four swinging on bars whilst their parent pumps out another set, and there is an elderly gentlemen with abs of steel and hair to match who is in almost every morning. But this collection of sweating, grunting, heaving bodies is a male safari, and it is a wilderness where the rarest creature is a woman.
It is not that a woman never enters the melee. Often they can be seen in their natural habitat, the treadmill (sorry, I’ve stretched the metaphor far enough) or even grinding out a long, painful slog on the stepper. But on weight machines, squat racks and benches, women are a rarity. I don’t have access to the membership statistics of my gym, but from purely anecdotal evidence I am often the only woman in the weights section. I am hyper-aware of my femaleness when I enter; often I am the smallest person there, lifting the lightest weights, surrounded by men slapping each other on the back and dropping their weights with a grunt and a clang. I don’t begrudge these men their bromances or their glances in the mirror – I have never been sexually harassed in the gym, and most keep themselves to themselves, churning out their sets and respecting general gym etiquette. But it is not uncommon for women to experience sexism in the gym – between 2013 and 2016, the Everyday Sexism Project received 984 testimonies from women writing about their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault in the gym. I have a friend who has been ogled so often for so long by the man next to her that she now only goes to the gym with a friend; another who was asked if she was lost when she sat down on the bench next to a group of teenager boys.
These cases of sexism are not the only reason women do not venture into the weights section. In the work place, a lack of female presence can be attributed to many factors, a crucial one being unconscious (or conscious) bias during processes such as interviews. All that is needed to enter a gym is membership – the gatekeepers have little power. But society genders exercise; there is still a vague but powerful notion that weights make you ‘bulky’, and are therefore a male domain, whilst cardiovascular exercise is the way to lose weight and is therefore an acceptable form of exercise for women. Although instagram stars such as Grace Beverley, Nikki Blackletter and Alice Liveing are encouraging more women to brave the weights section, in reality there is still a warped perception of how different exercises affect your body. Not only this, but the way in which an exercise is perceived to change your body means that it can be categorised as male of female, rather than simply good for you. There is no reason why an overweight man cannot use a treadmill to improve his cardiovascular fitness, and there should be no reason why a woman who wants to be stronger shouldn’t use dumbbells to do so. For those who are still concerned that weights will make you ‘manly’ – a tricky word in itself – women simply don’t have enough testosterone for this to occur. Will your muscles grow? Yes. Will you feel stronger? Yes. Will you look more ‘toned’? Yes, possibly. But you will not end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger (and neither will most men).
The combination of a reluctance on the part of women to enter the weights section and cases of sexism mean that women who do lift weights are often in a minority of one. To look around and see only men bigger, stronger and more numerous than you heightens anxiety, makes you hyperaware and triggers something akin to a survival instinct. This is not a conscious reaction, nor is it the fault of the surrounding men, but it is nevertheless uncomfortable, as though you have walked into a meeting and silence has immediately fallen; you don’t know they were talking about you, but the nagging paranoia and tension remains.
I will continue going into the gym and lifting weights. I feel empowered, it is cathartic and I enjoy it. But I will also continue to wear headphones, to avoid benches next to large groups of men and to feel it is not my place. When the only other woman you see is in the mirror it is difficult not to feel like this, but it is my place, it is any woman’s place and I will continue to try to make it so.