The two weightlifting sections within the Intramural Sports building at the University of Michigan have gained nicknames among my friends. The floor with the squat racks, platforms, cables and heavy weights has been deemed “the big scary.” The smaller gym, scattered with machines and free weights, is delegated the title of “the little scary.” Although these names are comical to me, and explaining them to others always gets a laugh, they demonstrate the reality of being a girl who goes to the gym. As weight rooms are typically male-dominated, it can be hard for women to feel safe, confident and comfortable while working out and learning about form, techniques and machines.
These feelings of intimidation stem from a few factors. Many people, especially men, don’t understand the negative associations many women feel with the gym because they feel that people at the gym are just “focused on themselves” and do not care about what others are doing. While this is probably the reality for them, the numbers show a very different reality for women.
In a survey conducted with 1,300 women, 76.2% reported having received unprompted advice at the gym; 75% reported catcalled or heckled at least once a week while working out; 87.2% reported that they had at one point felt unsafe at the gym; 55.7% reported that they have changed the way they dressed in order to stop being pestered; and 63.8% have had to switch to a different gym or alter their gym schedule to stave off being harassed.
Women’s fear of being harassed at the gym is not a presumptuous concern. It’s imminent and prevalent, and it’s driving women away. Additionally, women are genetically predisposed to lift less weight than men, due to lower levels of testosterone. This means that women who are just starting out in the weight room often lift less weight than the men around them are lifting, only increasing feelings of intimidation and of being unsafe.
Although the uninviting environment is a large factor in why women are disinclined to lift weights, another factor is the expectation placed on women’s bodies. When depicting the “ideal” woman or model, many factors are variable, such as a hair and eye color or height, but the consistent factor in the media’s portrayal of the ideal woman is a slim build. This depiction leaves out not only women who naturally have more fat but also women who have a muscular or “bulky” build. The result? An increased pressure on women to diet and exclusively do cardio.
Women are about 10% less likely than men to meet both federal leisure-time physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening categories. This demonstrates a need for women to be educated on the health benefits that come with lifting. Not only does lifting increase your metabolism and muscle growth, but it has a multitude of other health benefits, such as decreasing the chance of chronic diseases as well as improving sleep, mood, balance and posture. As anxiety continues to affect a large portion of our population — with women being twice as likely as men to experience generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorders and major depressive disorders — the benefits of weightlifting go way beyond just the physical advantages.
The last main deterrent from weightlifting for women is not having someone to go with. There are many benefits of starting one’s lifting journey with a gym buddy — in fact, it’s a super common way for people to get into it. However, when there are four times more men in the weight room, it’s much harder to find a female companion to start lifting with. Although going with a male companion is an option, considering the previously discussed overwhelming masculinity of weightlifting spaces, this option is not always the most inviting.
Last year, a gym named Blush Fitness went viral on TikTok for only allowing women. Although controversial, the comments were flooded with approval from women, with comments ranging from “I would feel so safe” to “if there were more of these I would totally go.” The enthusiastic reaction from women (countered by a slightly less enthusiastic response from men) to this gym shows how spaces for femme-presenting people to work out could be a real solution to the ongoing negative associations of being a girl at the gym. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of female-only gyms, although it’s a great start. Smaller remnants of this practice can be incorporated into gyms through all-female workout rooms and spaces within gyms, or girls-only hours.
The topic of separating by genders is a tricky and controversial one, not accounting for much of the variation in modern gender dynamics. But, until we make progress in the treatment of women in male-dominated gym spaces, this is a necessary and achievable change. Not only would women feel safe from the eyes and harassment of disrespectful men, they would also be around a range of women’s bodies — including women who are more muscular and stray from the general archetype of a “feminine” body.
Women who need to cover their hair and bodies around men for religious reasons would have more freedom in these all-female spaces as well, because they wouldn’t need to cover those parts without men present. Women could feel more comfortable wearing whatever clothing they want while working out. As women become more confident in lifting and working out, they would be less intimidated to work out in male-dominated gyms once they feel ready. As gyms continue to be an unsafe and unpleasant space for many women, the need for all-female spaces to explore weightlifting and exercise is essential in our society.
Claudia Flynn is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com