I finish putting my dumbbells back on the rack, and turn to face the young woman who has addressed me. I’m not at my best – or rather, I am at my best, because I’m at the gym, and I’m sweaty and pumped, and I don’t care how stinky I am. This always makes me feel amazing.
“Hi,” I reply with a smile. I politely pull my earbuds out of my ear and pause my music. My gym is fairly friendly, as a rule. People nod and smile when they recognise each other. When not working out, sometimes there will be wry comments about the weather (I live in Melbourne. It doesn’t matter what the weather is. Comments will always be wry in nature). That’s about it, though – I’ve never had anyone interrupt my workout.
“I’ve seen you around at the gym before, and I just wanted to say, you’ve really lost weight! You look great!”
“Uh… thanks,” I say, holding my smile in place. I may need pegs to do so.
“Sorry to interrupt, I just thought it’s always nice to hear, you know?”
“Yeah… no worries.”
And she returned to her bench and I stood there, slightly flummoxed.
And then I left the women’s only room at my gym.
If you are a fat man, people will assume you go to gym to lose weight.
If you are a man who is not fat (or not considered fat by general social standards), people will assume you go to gym to get large.
If you are a woman of any size, people will assume you go to gym to lose weight. It’s possible that if you are a woman who is quite small and slim, people will assume that you are at gym to keep weight off.
The idea that maybe one goes to gym to get stronger (I like carrying heavy things, particularly of the “steel scuba tank and dive weights” variety), or perhaps to increase one’s physical endurance (I like walking through scenic environments), or even to combat certain injuries and disabilities (I need to strengthen supporting muscles so that my various joints don’t partially dislocate and result in painful connective tissue injuries…)?
Oh no. That’s a wacky idea. Just nutty.
This just in: I hadn’t, at that point, lost weight. It’s possible that there was a slight difference in body composition (muscle vs fat) as I’d been pushing the weights quite heavily. I weighed myself after this woman spoke to me, and sure enough, the number on the scale was exactly the same as it had been the last time I weighed myself (admittedly a month or more prior to this).
My response was even more complicated than that, though, because I don’t generally watch people at the gym. Sometimes I notice if someone is doing something I think particularly impressive, but I probably won’t remember what that person looks like later. I am not there to notice people. I am there to work out.
How would you know? Have you been watching me? What did I look like the first time you saw me? Was I so massive that your gaze was drawn to me purely from the gravity I generated, and today you saw me and realised I was generating less gravity?
(I briefly paused to consider how awesome it would be to be able to generate gravity, although it could cause considerable difficulty in one’s personal life)
Is body size and shape the thing you really need to notice about people? Or is it just something you try really hard to notice only at the gym?
The frustrating thing is that the woman was trying to be nice. She was attempting to pay me something that society considers to be a compliment. She was trying to be encouraging and motivating. She did – and this isn’t a magic bullet, I know – mean well. In a way, it was sweet. It’s nerve wracking to try and pay a compliment to a stranger. Back when I used to go to pubs and watch live music, I would often want to go up to the band afterwards and tell them their set was awesome, but I would be so very nervous doing this, especially if I had to interrupt something to deliver said compliment.
However, if someone at the gym wants to pay me a compliment, you know what I’d like to hear? I’d like to hear a compliment on my form with the free weights, or someone being impressed at the weight I am pushing. That would give me a buzz. I’d even be happy to hear someone notice how often I am there (my home away from home), and say something nice about my dedication.
But the body size shit? It does my head in, and I know I’m not the only one.
And I thought the women’s gym room meant I would be safe from all that shit doing my head in. Naivete, thy name is Kate.
Before my current gym, I’d never been to a women’s only gym, or a women’s only gym room. It was simply something that never held interest for me. I’d never been “approached” by guys at a gym, or (as far as I knew) ogled, or harassed, so I figured that there was no need for me to head to a women’s gym. I thought I understood why some women might find the idea attractive, particularly if they were self-conscious, but I didn’t feel it would make any difference to me. After all, I was so focused on my workouts, I’d barely notice being ogled unless it was amazingly obvious, right? And everyone else is there to work out too! They’re not watching me – they’re just doing their own thing.
As such, when I toured my new (current) gym, and was introduced to the women’s area, I paid polite attention to the facilities and privately noted it as something I would never use. Why would I need or want to? All the machines and weights and mats I needed were down in the main gym.
One day, I went to do a set of weights and found that the dumbbells I wanted were in use. There was only one set for that size, so I shrugged, fished out my access pass, and went upstairs to the women’s gym to use the dumbbells up there instead. I might as well use the option if it was there, right?
And then, while I was in there, working out, I finally learned what the appeal of the women’s gym was.
I didn’t actually know that I was stressed in the main gym. I didn’t actually know that I would hunch a bit and keep my eyes to the floor when pacing through the free weights room, to avoid eye contact. I had no idea that I was keeping mental track of all the men around me. I didn’t know I was doing those things because those were completely involuntary and reflexive actions.
I didn’t know I was doing that until suddenly I didn’t have to do it anymore.
Let me explain.
Feminists like to talk a lot about something called the male gaze. It’s not an accusatory term (although it can sound that way to a certain kind of man). It can be a tricky concept to explain, and it’s not something I think about a lot because, as a woman, it’s just part of my life. It was only when I started to really think about it and how it impacts my decision-making process that I started to get quite angry. It is essentially the idea that the world is constructed based on the projected appeal to men (it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea).
(side note, and brief example: when I was a teenager, I used to play AD&D and various other table top role playing games. The sketches and artwork in these showed some, ahem, highly idealised images of women, generally large breasted, very slim, and usually extremely passive victims, with the occasional exception of the female warrior, who was also nearly always extremely busty. At first I thought, “Oh well, guys can perve if they want,” but then I noticed that all the pictures of guys were really unattractive to most of the girls I knew: if they were shirtless or scantily clad, they were massive, exceptionally bulky, body-building types, and if they weren’t that huge, they were clad in robes and cloaks and hoods to add to their mystery. Essentially, the women were drawn to appeal to men, and the men were drawn to appeal to men. RPGs are an extreme example – long story – but this is the best way I have of explaining the male gaze. The concept itself goes beyond sexuality, although in this case it’s probably best described as the straight male gaze)
In case anyone is puzzled, in no way do I think that the men at my gym are particularly predatory or unfriendly or scary. I haven’t spoken to the vast majority of them – mostly it’s the usual smile and nod, “Are you finished with the bench?” – and everyone has been perfectly amiable. I have not felt harassed. I have not felt ogled.
I have felt like I didn’t belong. I have felt like a interloper. In the free weights area and the benching area, the ratio is usually one woman (if any. Usually there are none at all) to four or five men (at least in the off-peak times, when I like to frequent the gym). In the front half of the main gym, we find the leg press machine, the assisted chin-up, most of the leg machines, and the mats. This is where I’m most likely to see other women.
But walk through that opening into the free weights room, and you’re in Testosterone Territory™. And I feel like I don’t belong. I stand out like a sore thumb. I felt like I was being judged (for being unfeminine? For thinking I knew what I was doing with weights when weights are a Man Thing? I’m not entirely certain) despite no evidence that this was occurring. It’s a social pressure, not an individual one.
(that last is called stereotype threat and is a documented phenomenon)
I brush that feeling aside and I do my workout, but until I worked out in the women’s gym, I didn’t notice how tiring it was; I didn’t notice how much extra anxiety I was carrying around – anxiety about being subject to the male gaze and male judgment – until there was no male gaze to worry about.
You might argue that the reason that the women aren’t down in the weights area is because there is a women’s room, and I suspect there’s an element of truth in that. Unfortunately (and this is another issue), the women’s room is basically cardio heaven.
With some dumbbells.
And some light barbells.
I actually had to go down to the main gym to find a barbell heavier than 12.5kgs for my bicep curls. The next weight up is 15kgs. That’s not a huge weight for a woman to do. Everyone is different, but while I know plenty of women who couldn’t curl that, I know a few who could yawn and do it one-handed (and who would probably ask why you’re doing bicep curls anyway. Sister, do you even lift?).
I maxed out the seated leg curl machine in the women’s gym very quickly (it’s a hydraulic peg machine, but apparently the maximum stress is about 35 kgs or so). Downstairs, 34 kgs is one of the lighter weights on the seated leg curl and I have yet to get beyond that (my abs cave and my lower back starts to arch).
The message is this: if you want to do heavier weights, you don’t use the women’s gym. That seems simple enough, unless you understand the need for a women’s gym in the first place. The idea that I could just relax and do my workouts – without feeling out of place or like some gigantic buffster was going to start criticising my form or that I was worried about getting in the way of someone who “deserved” to use the weights more than I did – was amazingly freeing.
…except that I do need the heavier weights, and the perception that the heavier weights are a man thing actually contributes to the anxiety about the male gaze, male judgement, stereotype threat and feeling like an interloper in your own damn gym.
And since that woman paid me her very kind compliment, I’m now aware that there are people who notice other people in the gym, and I’m also viscerally aware that the female gaze is also capable of assessing my body, and judging, albeit with a different focus.
This is not something I wanted to know.
I don’t have the solution, except to encourage women to use the free weights area and to kill this myth – the myth that just won’t die – that physical strength is unfeminine. We need to kill this idea that actively pursuing increased physical strength is so unfeminine that you might as well not bother putting heavier barbells in the women’s gym.
I don’t think most male gymsters have any problem with women in the free weights area. It should be as safe a space as the cardio room and the machines. And if they do have a problem with women in the free weights area, then those particular guys are the problem. Mostly, though, it’s a social narrative.
I shouldn’t be trying to avoid eye contact because I feel like I don’t belong, and I shouldn’t be struggling with frustration and guilt because no-one has actively made me feel like an interloper – it’s simply a product of not fitting into the common social narrative of women-do-cardio, men-do-weights. It’s a product of not being there to lose weight, but to get stronger. It’s a product of coming into contact with that narrative, time and again, and having to dismiss it, time and again.
“No, I haven’t lost weight. I’ve gotten stronger, though.”
“No, I’m not trying to get smaller. I’m trying to get fitter.”
“No, I’m not worried about bulking up…” (mutter)
It’s a product of that narrative being enforced by the women’s gym being well-stocked with low-stress hydraulic machines and light barbells and cardio machines only.
Focusing on what my body can do instead of what it looks like is the single most healing attitude shift when it comes to having a good relationship with one’s body. I don’t work out to declare war on my body. My body and I work out together, because when we work together, we get stuff done, and sometimes that stuff includes picking up heavy objects. What I keep in my pants should have nothing to do with that.
Post. “Morning coffee feminism” is a blog post series, basically telling short stories about times where sexism and gender essentialism has impacted my life. They’re mostly what are called “micro-aggressions”, the little things that just start to add up like crazy over a lifetime. I was just going to write one post but it was reaching novella length, so here we are! Feel free to share your own experiences or opinions in the comments.