Many times, when I go to the weight room to lift, I am one of the only, if not, the only female in the room. If there are other females they are often with a male counterpart. During what I would call “peak” gym hours, there are noticeably less females in the gym. During less busy times, there are more females in the weight room. However, I’d say there is never more than 5-7 of us in the weight room at any given time and that is definitely a high average. I have been lifting weights since high school but then I was mostly lifting with my softball team. I also belonged to a gym whose demographic was older individuals as it was connected to a hospital and offered special memberships for the employees there.
So, coming to college and lifting in that weight room was my first real experience with a gym with a younger demographic. When I first really got back into lifting two years ago, I had a friend to go with. We’d navigate the male dominated gym together and it made both of us feel much safer and comfortable. Now that friend has moved on from my school so I usually go alone. Without that initial motivation and person to go with I probably would not feel as comfortable in the weight room as I do.
When I’m working out in the weight room, a lone female amongst 20-30 males, I either feel like I am being stared at like an object or I am being completely ignored. Feminist theorists call this the male gaze. I cannot even count how many times I’ve been run into or ignored. I am at least as tall as most of the males in the room so the amount of time I’m bumped into is definitely disproportional to my size. I feel completely invisible, like my presence there is not as worthy because I’m a woman in a male dominated space.
Or the opposite is true. I’ve had multiple men approach me telling me how to do a lifting exercise that I’ve been doing for over 6 years or asking me irrelevant questions about my workout. Let me be clear, it is not the being approached that bothers me. In the gym, or anywhere, I respect someone who approaches me for conversation because I appreciate the nerve it can take to approach a stranger. It is the way they approach me or maybe, my interpretation of the way they are approaching me. I know the proper technique for all of the exercises I do and I do not need a stranger to approach me to tell me about my form. I would not have a problem with it if that same person would approach another man, someone he doesn’t know, about his lifting form. Unless I am completely cynical, I do not believe that would ever happen. If it did, I cannot imagine the man receiving the criticism would take it very well. I cannot speak for all women, of course, but I do not appreciate being seen as a helpless person in a situation where I am actually very comfortable.
Being approached by random men in the gym is, albeit, a very rare occurrence for me. The most common form of objectification I experience at the gym is just plain, old-fashioned staring. It happens less often now because I tend to go to the gym at the same time every day, thus I see most of the same people every day. If I do go around a different time or new people are there, I feel that stare. It is a proven fact that women are viewed, by men and women, as parts rather than a whole (which is how men are perceived by both men and women). I feel this even more strongly when working out. Though I’m confident in who I am and my body, it is hard not to feel more critical of myself when I have others staring at me so intently.
Though I am confident in my abilities in the weight room, it is quite clear that I am not the expected person or body in there. I feel like an outsider even though weight lifting is a healthy behavior that anyone is capable of participating in. Though I cannot speak for all women, I know that this is not an uncommon feeling. Other female friends I have spoken too and LGBT friends have made it clear it is just as uncomfortable for them. Especially for gay men, the weight room may feel like a dangerous place. Most Americans, according to a recent survey, disclosed that they believe LGBT people would not be safe at a sporting event, I believe this could include weight rooms. Anyone who does not fit, or who cannot pass, as this hyper-masculine weight-lifting man feels out of place and unwelcome. If we are not living up to society’s expectations of who is accepted in the weight room, we will be unwelcome.
The culture of weight rooms and by extension sports in general, needs to change. Women have the right to feel comfortable in any space they are in. Especially when the health benefits of lifting weights are arguably even higher for women because it helps to strengthen bones thus leading to decreased risk of osteoporosis. Weight lifting is healthy, it’s fun, it’s stress relieving and so many other benefits, everyone should feel safe if they want to participate in this type of exercise. And if women, or men, do not want to lift then that is also their choice. Every space should be welcoming and comfortable for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristics.