I have a love-hate relationship with the gym. I love to exercise, and I love the feeling of accomplishment when I reach a goal or have a great workout. But there’s one thing I hate about gyms: men. Their intimidation— although unintentional, I hope— can be overwhelming for me. Being surrounded by constant grunting and masculine energy and muscles bigger than my head makes me never want to go to the gym again.
I find this ironic because I usually go to Planet Fitness, where they boast about being a welcoming, not at all intimidating environment. Walking in to see muscle tees and an uncomfortable amount of skin and veins makes me want to hide and give up. I really like Planet Fitness, so this is not intended to be a harsh critique. Their equipment and prices are better than the other gyms I looked into, but I just don’t like constantly being surrounded by such discouraging, masculine energy. The adrenaline and gratification after completing a set or pushing myself to a heavier weight makes it feel worth it, yet I catch myself questioning my belonging regardless.
I know that many people can agree that being a woman or feminine person in a gym setting is uncomfortable because I have heard stories firsthand about constant harassment at the gym., such as women being recorded and gawked at while exercising, being asked out, or approached for other reasons, such as for unsolicited advice.
I cautiously watched a woman get chatted up by a man at the gym just the other day to make sure they didn’t appear uncomfortable in any way. It turned out that the man was a trainer working with them, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. The guilt I would feel if I was unable to see the discomfort in them would be crushing, especially given that this discomfort is all too common for me as well. Being followed around, called out to, and harassed is a heavy burden to carry each day at the gym. The obstacles women face in fitness spaces range further than the expectations and goals they walk in with.
My current gym experience parallels where I started. I was introduced to weight lifting in my senior year of high school, when I was placed in the strength training class for my physical education requirement. Being only one of three girls, I was mortified. The boys in my class all thought they were Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70s and it was annoying and uncomfortable. I was insecure lifting ten pound dumbbells as they grunted and yelled while benching over 100.
Despite this, I learned to enjoy weight lifting. I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert by any means, as it’s just a hobby, but having a physical outlet to work on myself has made my life feel more whole. Having a sense of control is important to me, and being able to work my way up with dumbbells and adding intensity to various workouts overtime fulfills me. I can see my strength growing with however much work I put in to try.
In terms of my body, I don’t have any goals for what I want to look like; I just want to get stronger. I have issues with feeling small and insignificant, so exercising to build strength gratifies me. The way I look at it is this: I’m only 5’0, and while I can’t control my height, I can control my strength and how I present myself. I just want to feel good, and exercise fulfills me in many ways, so I am on this journey to get stronger and feel better about myself.
I think that’s just as valid as people who want to body build, but it feels intimidating to be surrounded by this crowd when I’m committing to this as a hobby and for my own goodwill.
Something that actually guided me to focus on myself and not so much on other people’s fitness journeys was the pandemic. I didn’t have a gym membership pre-covid– at that time, I was still a senior in high school, so I used my school’s resources-- but it was still weird to suddenly stop weight training since I didn’t have equipment at home.
For months, I didn’t exercise at all, which I think is understandable given the circumstances, and I just didn’t care about fitness to be honest. There was, and still is, a lot going on, so what does my body specifically mean relative to the rest of the world and current events?
Somehow this mindset of realizing I don’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things motivated me to start exercising again because, well, who cares? No self-righteous, puberty-ridden boys were in my room, so it was my space to claim.
YouTube really helped me learn to strength build on my own time without any equipment, so I wouldn’t be where I am without some of these channels. I got really into yoga for a while, and I followed Yoga with Adriene’s videos. She’s the best, in my humble opinion, and her videos range from 5 minute beginner flows to hour-long, intense, full-body yoga workouts. It’s very flexible (no pun intended) regardless of what you may need for a workout.
I realized I wanted more than yoga in my exercise routine, so I started looking toward other YouTubers for that sort of content. I really like Chloe Ting’s videos. I know she became really popular during the pandemic as well, and I understand the hype. I also used Mish Choi’s videos, particularly her pilates routines, and overall I had a lot of fun using video guides to exercise as opposed to using a physical gym space.
Before I continue, I just want to give a content warning for the mention of weight loss and other potential triggers related to eating disorders. Skip three paragraphs if you are sensitive to these topics.
One drawback to YouTube though is that when you subscribe to fitness channels, a lot of the recommended content you’ll get is about weight loss and getting skinny and lots of provocative content that is potentially triggering to people. Personally, it upset me to see this type of content constantly advertised to me in bold fonts because that just wasn’t what I wanted. Like I said before, I am on this journey just for fun and to feel good and confident. It distresses me to see that content aimed for women always contributes to becoming the patriarchy’s ideal woman: skinny, food-conscious, and conventionally attractive.
I hate that exercise often has the association with “getting skinny,” particularly for women who want to “get in shape.” It makes me feel like my path is wrong, that I should also aspire to lose just a few pounds to better conform. Maybe just a bit of fat off my stomach could help? No. I have to remind myself to stay on my own course and try to avoid the perilous diet culture.
Some people do exercise for the purpose of losing weight and that’s fine, as everyone is on their own path to whatever feels right for them. I just don’t think the assumption should be made that all people, especially women, who want to exercise do it for the sole purpose of weight loss or conformity to beauty standards. That’s a whole other can of worms, so I’ll just finish that thought with this: it made me really uncomfortable personally, so I ended up unsubscribing from most of the fitness pages I followed.
Once things began to open up earlier this year with the vaccine rollout, I started to think about getting a gym membership. Working out from home was great and worked for me for a while, but I was considering upgrading to a gym for the purpose of having equipment and more space. My semester ended in May, so I decided to invest in a membership to Planet Fitness to keep during the summer before I leave for college in August.
I try to get to the gym two to three times a week, which I find is a great schedule considering that I work part-time, and it feels like enough. I spend the majority of my gym time using the squat rack and the bench press, although I also enjoy smaller workouts like bicep curls and weighted sit ups. I go at a pace that feels comfortable while simultaneously pushing myself to use heavier weights or do just one more rep. I feel satisfied with this, and I’m excited to see what my college’s gym looks like this fall.
It still feels discouraging, though, when I notice men scanning my body as I walk from machine to machine or when men stare at me while I squat down with a hundred plus pounds sitting on my shoulders. I tune everything out by listening to the pop-rap music the gym has blasting on the speakers, but sometimes this is not enough to ignore the unpleasant looks and the shrinking feeling I have.
Fitness is an important part of my life, and I feel like being a woman who goes to the gym, especially a small woman, is an experience that’s not really talked about. I’m not trying to get into Chris-Hemsworth-as-Thor shape, but it would be nice to put on some muscle.
Most of all, gym culture needs to be less intimidating and oppressive to women, both in online communities where weight loss is the coveted goal, and in person where men are more dominant in this area of interest.
For more reading about the impact of fitness, and other topical ideas like athleisure and diet culture, on women, I recommend reading Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror, particularly the chapter, “Always be Optimizing.”
About the Author
Lola is a Latin American student based in New York City attending Smith College who loves to write about a variety of subjects. You can find their work in The Sophian, which is Smith’s newspaper, and Citrus, Smith’s fashion magazine. She loves to read as well, and currently loves memoirs like Broken by Jenny Lawson and Hunger by Roxane Gay. They are passionate about art history too, and are pursuing a bachelor’s degree double majoring in english and art history. She loves hugs, early mornings, YouTube binges, and fruit salads. Someday they want to publish their own book and you can always find them wandering around a museum in the city.