Gender and the Gym
“You need to be more aggressive.”
I nodded quietly at my baseball coach and walked back to home plate, where I attempted to muster up all the energy in my lithe, eight-year-old body to hit the ball. My helmet felt too big on my head. My milk-white pants felt too tight on my legs. I already had two strikes, and I knew that I was a swing and a miss away from my third. It didn’t even matter at that point. I wasn’t “aggressive” enough to play baseball, and I couldn’t pretend to be.
From an early age, most boys are expected to embody ideals of masculinity — strength and competitive attitudes — often in physical activities, like sports. Unfortunately, sports never really stuck with me.
During soccer tournaments, I would try to entertain myself with an inner monologue. I’d even sit on the field when I sensed the ball wasn’t going to be kicked in my direction. Basketball was fun at times, but my short stature made it difficult to compete against my much taller, faster and more athletic teammates. I played tennis for several years, but I never felt skilled enough to commit to it. Of every sport I played, baseball was the most excruciatingly tedious. I would often either be sitting in the dugouts or standing in the outfield, both of which were paradoxically the best and loneliest parts of my Minor League career.
It wasn’t until the end of eighth grade that I found a sport more suitable to my interests: cross-country running. I would spend each fall semester of high school running with my teammates in the dry San Fernando Valley heat, sweating and heaving until my calves grew sore. I felt incredible knowing that I was getting stronger and faster with every meet and practice, beating my personal records and starting to feel like “a man.”
As co-captain of my team during my senior year, I was thrust into a position of leadership that encouraged the macho, aggressive mentality I eschewed when I was younger. I needed to use a “manly,” aggressive voice to prove I could be a strong leader for my team.
Before becoming captain, I never expected to be the best runner or athlete or version of a man, because maybe I was never meant to be. I ran because I liked it, because it was good exercise and because it was easy. But perhaps I also ran because I felt the need to show myself and others that I was capable of expressing my masculinity in the most socially acceptable way possible: through sports.
For someone who doesn’t fully fit the dominant mold of masculinity, sports can be alienating. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found this alienation doesn’t escape the college campus either.
The Intramural Sports Building and the Central Campus Recreation Building are the largest gyms on campus, and they’re free and accessible to undergraduate and graduate students. Given the academic rigor and heavy workload of the college atmosphere, exercising at the gym makes for a great stress relief. It also helps that gyms have been statistically found to increase GPAs for college students.
U.S. fitness centers reached a total membership of 57.25 million in 2016, with roughly 36,000 membership-based exercise facilities nationwide. Clearly, gyms are an important part of American and college life, and as such, they often reflect the same gender-based norms that dictate men lift weights and women run on the treadmill. Only 21 percent of women participate in strength training, according to a 2017 study from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Many female students at the University of Michigan find the gym to be a rather intimidating place — especially the weight room.
“As a girl, I know most people don’t expect me to do anything other than cardio,” LSA junior Ali Rosenblatt, said.
Since Rosenblatt’s freshman year of high school, she has been consistently doing a mix of cardio and weight training. While she has become used to working out in the weight room, Rosenblatt still senses a stigma against women lifting weights at the gym, since weights are generally associated with “manliness.”
“There’s usually a look of, ‘What’s she gonna pick up?’ ‘Does she actually know what she’s doing?’ ” she said. “People kind of look for you to mess up. I have a lot of friends who don’t want to go, whereas I see boys who clearly do not know what they’re doing, but they’re comfortable because it’s a ‘boys’ room.’ ”
LSA junior Phoebe Hopp echoes Rosenblatt’s sentiment.
“You never really feel like you’re just working out for yourself,” Hopp said. “Every time you do work out, it feels like there’s an audience.”
At non-campus gyms, Hopp says she has been interrupted by guys trying to instruct her on how to use the equipment and sometimes even use that opportunity to ask for her number.
“It makes your workout feel like it’s somehow inferior to the other guys that have been working out,” Hopp said.
Building self-confidence can be tricky when appearance — looking physically strong — is at the forefront of gym culture. Even for people who have been working out since they were young, like Data Science junior Isha Kathuria trying to perfect one’s body can be an emotional burden. Since she got her first gym membership at age 13, Kathuria has grown accustomed to the gym atmosphere.
“A lot of times, there weren’t very many people at the gym I went to, so I was able to become very comfortable with myself being there,” Kathuria said. “When I went to bigger gyms, I was already comfortable with myself. I don’t really pay attention to what other people are doing and just focus on my own workout.”
But it’s easy to become self-conscious of one’s body image given the influence of social media, where Instagram fitness models gain popularity for posting pictures and videos of their exhaustive workouts and toned physiques. Kathuria subscribes to fitness users like Whitney Simmons and Linn Lowes, both of whom have accumulated about one million Instagram followers.
“When I haven’t worked out in a while and feel down on myself, I avoid going on Instagram Discover so I don’t have to see the videos,” Kathuria said. “You have your own body and you have your own goals, but they shouldn’t be based on what other people look like.”
While watching these videos can negatively impact one’s self-esteem — Instagram, in particular, is a known detriment to mental health — Kathuria says fitness models can sometimes be helpful when explaining the strenuous nature of their process.
For someone like Janae Marie Kroc, a well-known bodybuilder from the Ann Arbor area who identifies as transgender and genderfluid, the idea of conforming to the societal standard of masculinity has never been easy.
“As a muscular male, (working out) is largely seen as a positive thing,” Kroc said. “People respect it. When you’re dating, it’s a plus.”
Originally from a small town in northern Michigan, Kroc has maintained a passion for exercise since childhood. By age 12, Kroc was working out consistently. She entered bodybuilding competitions during her high school years and continued lifting during her time in the Marine Corps. Currently, she trains five days a week, doing cardio every morning and following a bodybuilding diet of oatmeal, chicken and rice.
“It’s always about trying to be better than yesterday,” Kroc said.
But since beginning estrogen therapy, Kroc has noticed a few changes in the way people at the gym perceive her.
“As a woman, it’s completely different. Immediately, it draws a lot of stares and negativity. People question your sexuality. Especially being transgender, you get pushback from your own community.”
Though she now mostly trains at home, Kroc has added “post-estrogen PRs” to help broaden her workout goals to gain as much strength as possible during her transition.
“It’s still about progress, it’s still about moving forward. But now, it’s basically a different set of rules and a different framework,” Kroc said.
Despite the obstacles Janae faced in the midst of her transition, she found solace in the other women in the bodybuilding community.
“They struggle with all the same things when their femininity is questioned in the pursuit of muscularity and strength,” Kroc said.
The weight room may not be as welcoming as it should be, but working out there isn’t the only way to stay in shape. In addition to her ventures to the CCRB, Rosenblatt partakes in weekly yoga classes at the Center for Yoga on the corner of East William and State Streets, where she says some of her male friends also practice.
“There’s a stigma against yoga as a more feminine workout,” Rosenblatt said. “But my (male) friends who go to yoga classes know it’s a tough workout.”
Along with yoga, CrossFit provides a more inclusive alternative to the classic weight room. Mika LaVaque-Manty, a political science professor and the director of the LSA Honors Program, has been going to Joust Strength and Fitness for nine years, a CrossFit gym in Ann Arbor founded by three women. Though CrossFit is notable for its intense, grueling weightlifting, plyometrics, gymnastics and powerlifting exercises, it has taken steps toward narrowing the gender gap by applying a more group-centric approach, in which men and women are given the same amount of attention and agency in reaching their workout goals.
“You’re suffering together, supporting one another, having fun together, and not competing against anyone else,” LaVaque-Manty said. “In so many sports, the things that we associate with masculinity and often with athletic excellence like strength aren’t the things that make somebody be better athletes.”
He pointed out that CrossFit gyms generally don’t have mirrors. With greater gender and age variance, CrossFit gyms have provided a conscientious approach to fitness in regards to challenging and shifting preconceived notions of gender, body image and masculinity.
But the question still remains: How do we enforce more inclusivity at gyms here on campus, and what exactly would that look like?
Mike Widen and Lisa Shea, the director and associate director of University Recreational Sports, take that issue into account when determining how to improve activities and spaces offered at the CCRB and the IM Building. When setting policies, Shea and Widen receive feedback from students, faculty, alumni and the Rec Sports advisory committee about what changes need to be made to on-campus gyms.
“Students play a valuable role in the process because they see it from both perspectives,” Widen said. “They experience the spaces themselves, but they also understand the logistics of what makes a place like the gym the environment that it is. Whatever the decisions we make, we want to make sure that recreational sports are inclusive to all students, regardless of gender.”
Since the IM building reopened last school year after renovations, the space has made several significant changes regarding inclusivity, such as the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms.
“It’s about the environment and physical structures of making our space feel welcome,” Shea said.
In addition to the gender-inclusive spaces, Shea added that incorporating a tubular design, softer colors, a wider entrance space, greater visibility and lighter-weight strength and cardio equipment helped implement a more comfortable and inviting atmosphere at the IM building. The rec sports’ Group X program also gives students a more individualized curriculum through small group training in yoga, mindfulness, meditation and movement.
Widen and Shea both hope to apply similar gender-inclusive improvements to the CCRB, which is slated for renovation in 2021, following the completion of the North Campus Recreation Building’s renovation in fall 2018 and the restoration of the Michigan Union.
While gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms are creating progress in inclusivity at the IM building, Kroc believes education is a key solution to combating hyper-masculine mentality at the gym, to make it a safer space for women and gender nonconforming people.
“Being open helps a lot,” Kroc said. “For me, being as big and muscular as I am, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes it very difficult for me to pass. Even when people read me as a female bodybuilder, I’m often bigger than anybody they’ve seen before. My muscularity also offers me a small measure of protection because people are less likely to be aggressive with me.”
Men at the gym aren’t just perpetuating a hyper-masculine mentality; they’re affected by it as well. A 2017 study on masculinity from the Journal of American College Health found that college-aged men are under significant social pressure to conform to masculine gender roles. Trying to embody these hyper-masculine traits has also been linked to mental health issues, such as depression and substance abuse, and less favorable attitudes toward getting psychological help, according to a 2016 study from the American Psychological Association.
Usually when I go to the gym, I’ll first do 15 minutes of running on the treadmill, followed by exercise machines, free weights and pull-ups. Whether it’s at the CCRB or the IM Building, I am constantly aware of my skinny frame in comparison to the much buffer men standing near me. Through the mirror, I can feel the weight of others’ stares on me, even as I attempt to focus on myself and my physical growth. But seeing how these men have perfected themselves is a hard thing to come for someone who doesn’t participate in a sport anymore.
But going to the gym shouldn’t be about acting the most “aggressive” or looking the most “masculine.” It should be about improving our physical health, appreciating our vulnerability, understanding our limitations and, ultimately, finding our own inner strength.