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Let’s Throw In The Towel With Gender-Segregated Gym Spaces

By Deanna Ruseska

“Tilt your hips up more like when you fuck a chick,” says the gym worker. The remark is repeated as he stands behind a 16-year-old boy whilst ‘explaining’ how to correct his squat technique. I stare ahead and pretend not to hear the remark through my Airpods whilst I squat 70 kilos next to his power rack. In the meantime, the boy is more fixated on how much weight I can lift, opposed to acknowledging the worker’s sexual commentary.

This situation is rare, and I am not talking about the inappropriate sex talk. I am talking about a woman lifting weights in a gym and not caring what other people think about it. The social conditioning and segregation between where each gender ‘belongs’ in the gym is ingrained into its culture. Many women find the free weights section far too frightening to enter alone according to Kate Dale from Sports England’s This Girl Can campaign, whilst many men perceive cardio classes as embarrassing. These are attitudes I have witnessed in the last two years since joining a commercial gym, once escaping the comfort of my four-year home setup.

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), recent studies from The University of Waikato show 52 percent of women have already cancelled gym memberships and do not plan to return, opposed to 45 percent of men. The study also revealed that women are more likely to enjoy the flexibility and convenience of online workouts and are prone to hating the way they look whilst they workout. A 2019 survey from GolfSupport found that 72% of the 1,438 women surveyed were scared of being harassed at the gym, whilst some felt objectified and intimidated in the heavy weights section.

I believe that same gender gyms (such as the all-female Fernwood Fitness) are counter-productive to the goal of reducing male to female harassment in gym culture. Fernwood Fitness promotes pilates and yoga classes without the male gaze. While these environments provide a safety net and deflect away from the gym anxiety, sexual abuse and body shaming women predominantly experience in conventional gyms, I believe same sex spaces are counterproductive. They support stereotypes that an ideal female figure is thin and slim, promoting cardio and light weights to “tone”, while discouraging those from getting “too muscly” and so therefore enforcing existing body anxieties.

Commercial gyms need to alter their physical space and culture. Most have surrounding mirror walls and fluorescent white lighting, which can intimidate some people who walk into the room and feel like they are the main act in a theatre production. Moving specific weight and pulley machines side by side opposed to across from each other, away from unnecessary mirrors limits people’s ability to eyeball. The lighting can also be dimmed, so you can see far enough to observe what you are doing, but not too far to watch someone from across the room.

Verbal and sexual abuse can also be prominent in the personal trainer and client relationship, which can lead to heightened anxiety whilst training. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario women face who are more prone to asking for guidance and are twice as likely to be harassed in comparison to men according to the 2019 Exercise Bike study. Physiotherapist and Macquarie University lecturer Dr Kathryn Mills said, “although women and men participate in physical activity at comparable rates, women are more likely to engage in forms of activity where there is a social aspect.” In response, gyms could adopt a more corporate sign up process tailored to stricter no harassment policies by asking members pre-screening questions such as, “Are you okay with a drill sergeant approach from a trainer or do you prefer a gentler attitude?”. This could provide people with a clearer contact point if they experience misconduct at the gym. 

This restructuring is not only for women. I acknowledge that young men also experience abuse and are affected by the weight room culture. However, I argue that women are comparatively more vulnerable and those who have strict religious beliefs about showing their body to the opposite gender may need a same sex space to feel safer. So, I am not suggesting we strip people away from personal choice and have no all-female or male gyms in existence. Instead, the promotion of these spaces should be reserved for the minority and attention should instead be focused on creating a motivational environment where both genders encourage each other to embrace all possible fitness avenues.

The constant push for young men to lift more, and the information women are fed enforcing the need to shred fat, are outdated approaches. The scenario where offering sexual direction on how to lift weights should cause more alarm than a woman at a power rack doing squats. This reality can be achieved with adequate physical and contractual re-modelling from all-gender commercial gyms to encourage women to feel more empowered training with men and vice-versa.