Ask any woman who goes to the gym if she feels comfortable working out alongside men, pounding out sets of bicep curls and groaning under the weight of their routine, whose exaggerated presence seems to leave no room for them to workout. The answer would be no.
I have never been a gym rat; I’m a rock-climber. Exposure to the gym atmosphere came early for me; at age seven I was climbing and training competitively. Although there were always a few women climbing, it’s a male-dominated sport. As a young climber, I understood that I was going to be overlooked. However, as I’ve grown older, this attitude hasn’t disappeared, but grown stronger. I’m viewed more as a spectator than one that is there to climb. My revenge: reluctantly allowing men to cut in front of me, watching as they fail, and then silently swooping in and climbing to the top.
The pandemic closed my climbing gym, forcing me to my mom’s to retain my sanity in these crazy times. Often, I’m the only female working out in what feels like a sea of men. I was taken aback by how they would give me confused looks as I reached for a dumbbell over 20lbs. Or when one asked, “Do you need help putting that heavy plate back, honey.” Or the worst, one guy snatching equipment from under me, mumbling to himself, “I need to use this,” as if I didn’t. To make matters worse, I’m constantly being “checked out” to the point where I feel uncomfortable wearing average gym attire. These experiences are exhausting; I shouldn’t feel the need to justify my presence at my gym– but I’m definitely not alone in these feelings.
In an article by Stylist.co, a survey found that one in four women feel intimidated while working out at their gyms, and around half felt “negatively judged.” The suffocating atmosphere of sweaty testosterone-pumping men and the invisible lines that many women feel nervous to cross at their gym, makes it extremely difficult to feel welcome.
In a New York Times article regarding a 1998 lawsuit challenging women-only gyms as gender discriminating, psychologist Robert Tanenbaum argued, “for various legitimate psychological reasons, like poor body image and past trauma, many women simply could not bring themselves to exercise in front of men.” So the question remains, how can we create more welcoming atmospheres for women in gyms, that reinforce neutrality instead of gender stereotypes? I believe the solution is for women to continue to show up and exercise their right to be there. Although at times it feels as though the stereotypes at gyms are heavier than the weights themselves, women are strong enough to carry them.