Monday, February 18, 2013

Women in Gyms: Working Out in Safe Spaces

Kendra Lee is a law student who is also recovering from an eating disorder. While she was working out at her school's gym, she encountered a man wearing a shirt that said "Please don't feed the sorority girls" on the front and "Campus beautification" on the back.

Lee wrote about the incident in an opinion piece for her school's paper and the general reaction was--like most internet comment reactions--not pleasant.

She explains why the shirt was so triggering for her by connecting it to a larger misogynistic culture where women are seen as objects and not humans. That this shirt showed up in a gym was further problematic because gyms are often places where women feel marginalized and intimidated.

Somewhat ironically, I read about Lee's letter over at xoJane immediately after reading this post about a woman who is using weight training to recover from an eating disorder.

So now I've got this tangled mess of thoughts running through my mind. A gym can be an incredibly empowering place. It's a place where women can get in touch with a physicality and strength that aren't often part of the "feminine" script, and it's a place where we can see how powerful our bodies can be for ourselves instead of only for consumption by others.


At the same time, gyms can be incredibly patriarchal places where women often feel intimidated, harassed, out of place, and unwelcome. Also, the ads for gyms and the primary motivation for many women going to one is focused on (often unattainable) patriarchal standards of beauty.

I really sympathize with Lee. The shirt (obviously) is disgusting and sexist. I understand fully why seeing the shirt would be insulting to anyone, and I understand how it could be particularly damaging to someone who is in this space to begin with as an attempt to recover from an eating disorder.

Lee suggests a ban on offensive shirts in the gym or--as some gyms have done--a set number of hours that are devoted only to women.

Lee's school is private, so this particular incident isn't really a free speech issue (since the First Amendment is only about government-imposed sanctions), but if it were to take place on a public campus, it certainly could be.

My goals are the same as Lee's. I want the gym to be a place free from discrimination, a space where all people can go to feel empowered and strong.

What's got me stuck, though, is that I don't think her proposed solutions actually solve the problem, and I don't know what to propose in their place.

Gym Segregation

Lee's suggestion that the gym propose certain hours for women only is a complicated one. 

I certainly see that some people may feel more comfortable working out in an environment where the gender dynamics are simply removed. When a San Diego YMCA offered a women-only swim time to accommodate Muslim patrons who were unable to swim in front of men, I saw that as a positive decision. 

There were others who disagreed with me. Many people commented on the story to say that it was racist and that we'd never accept a "whites only" swim hour.

Obviously, the people who are making these comments are completely ignoring the power of privilege. A "whites only" swim hour is about giving people who are already in a position of power more power. It does nothing to create equality and only exacerbates the problem.

But people are equally upset about these "women's only" gym hours. Posts like this one decry us feminists of using "reverse sexism" to enact our "double standards" because there was a section of the gym roped off for only female weight lifters.

I don't think this is "reverse sexism" (mainly because I don't think that reverse sexism exists anymore than I think reverse racism exist. Prejudice is prejudice, and prejudice plus power equals oppression). The fact that women are often willing to pay more to work out at female-only gyms or to squeeze their workouts into limited time slots suggests that the intimidation in coed environment is real. There are plenty of gyms where men are the primary (if not sole) patrons, but because they don't run the risk of having that space taken over by women, that segregation remains unstated whereas this one becomes policy.

No. My problem with these decisions isn't with whether they are "sexist." It's about whether they are productive.  Over at Feministing, there's a thread about whether these decisions are actually progressing equality.

"Separate but equal" is not equal, and if these "women only" hours are being used as a way to address the bullying and intimidation that takes place in coed gym spaces, that's exactly what they're becoming. We can't make people be nice to one another with rules. We can only do that with cultural changes, and creating parallel spaces where women can be sent when their desire to not be harassed overcomes them does nothing to change that culture.

The problem is that the only other option requires sending individual people onto the front lines of a battle they may not be willing (or even able) to fight. And while this post is specifically about women because that's what the story that sparked it centered on, this could be about any person who doesn't fit the traditional male-dominated mold of gym-goer. Anyone who doesn't seem strong enough, masculine enough, or tough enough might get bullied out of a space that--by all accounts--could offer them a wealth of personal opportunities for growth.

Telling those people that they can have their own space might address the problem immediately, but what does it do in the long run? And whose responsibility is it to fight that fight? (And if we can't go to the gym in the meantime, how are we supposed to be strong enough to fight it?)


  1. you raise some good questions. i don't know how to fix this problem of gym intimidation. I think i read the same post as you this week about weight training & eating disorders. I commented over there that weight training also helped me to fully recover from an eating disorder. Interestingly, this was free weights, and I did them at home. I had also lifted weights at a gym just after college but it did nothing to boost my body-confidence. I was harrassed regularly at that gym where I was followed quietly by a man who always managed to cross my path or be waiting for my machine. For a year I had to plan my every move to try to avoid him. He ruined my work outs. The problem, as you point out - it's a catch-22. You need the confidence to stare down these bullies - but what if the path to that confidence comes through the gym (where the bully impedes your efforts)? I can't imagine tolerating this man's behavior now. But I am such a different person than I was then...
    Perhaps the answer is in the management of the gym. I haven't looked at the stats, but I bet we need more women-owned gyms. Managers need proper training to look out for this kind of behavior, and perhaps members should have to sign off on proper etiquette when they join. That way women would have recourse against members who break the rules. And rules about positive/tolerant gym behavior could be posted to remind people. That sounds silly, but such signs can imply group consensus around an issue- making the potential rule breaker feel conspicuous. Don't know. Just sort of thinking out loud...

  2. I belong to an all-female gym. I joined because they offered membership for free in exchange for working. When that changed I stuck around because it's the closest gym to my house. In all honesty, I go to my yoga class with my roommate and a group of older women and I freaking love it. I go to the gym to work out and take care of myself. I don't go to look at guys (some of my friends have asked how I can stand not having 'eye candy' at the gym). I don't go to get looked at myself. I go because I want to be strong and healthy. I like that everyone there is female. I feel safe. I feel empowered. and I feel able to take care of myself without worrying about anything else.

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