At the University of Michigan, sexism is often subtle. It’s hidden in plain sight, lodged in the school’s culture and traditions in ways that are hard to see and even harder to address.

One unexpected location of sexism? Campus gyms.

Ideally, campus gyms are a space for students to unwind from the stresses of college life and stay physically active. In long Michigan winters, snow and freezing weather make outdoor physical activity nearly impossible. From November to March, the three campus gyms (North Campus Recreation Building, Central Campus Recreation Building and the Intramural Sports Building) are the only places where students can exercise indoors without paying membership fees for access to off-campus gyms, yoga studios or other workout spaces.

However, many female University students feel that Recreational Sports’s dress code policies, specifically those enforced in exercise settings, treat their bodies as dangerous and distracting.

In an online petition to change the IM Building’s dress code, Information student Ankita Avadhani wrote about her roommate’s experience with being asked to cover up or change.

“I am absolutely appalled by the University of Michigan’s Intramural Sports Building,” Avadhani wrote. “Today my roommate went to the IM building to work out in between classes. In the middle of her workout she was approached by an employee who told her that she was reported by someone using the space for wearing a sports bra … at the gym.”

The petition, which as of Oct. 20 had 604 signatures and 48 comments, explains that the roommate eventually left after being told she needed to cover up because she was violating the dress code. The Recreational Sports’s participant guidelines for facilities states, “Members must wear appropriate athletic clothing while working out and must wear shirts in all activity areas except the pool and saunas.”

“Yet, when I go to the gym, I frequently see men in cut-out shirts which fully expose the rib-cage and torso side,” Avadhani wrote in the online petition. “This has become such common form of gym apparel, it is now a cliché commonly referred to as ‘bro-tanks.’”

We are not blaming the IM building, its employees, or the University of Michigan,” Avadhani wrote. “We are simply asking them to reevaluate their policies. Their current attire policy prioritizes the discomfort members have with women’s bodies over the benefits to physical and mental health for women. This alienates women who are seeking out a judgement-free place to improve their overall health and wellbeing. We need to change the dress code because sexism has no place at the University of Michigan.”

Numerous women commented on Avadhani’s Facebook post, which included an image of what her roommate wore at the gym, with accounts of their own experiences with dress code violations at campus gyms.

Irregular enforcement of dress codes at college gyms is not unique to the University of Michigan. In 2017, a College of Charleston student was asked to cover up and ultimately leave the gym for wearing a long sports bra and leggings, an outfit which she was told did not comply with the gym’s dress code. Another student had a similar experience at a New York University gym last fall.

Both students were told that the dress code was meant to ensure that the gym remained sanitary.

In 2016, a student at Santa Clara University was asked to leave the campus gym after being told that her crop top could facilitate the spread of MRSA (a bacteria-resistant infection) and that it also violated the university’s Jesuit ideals. A quick Google search brings up page after page of similar stories.

In private gyms, the issue is no better addressed. Women are frequently cat-called while exercising and subjected to sexual comments about their bodies. At best, these violations make women uncomfortable. At worst, they can end in violence and tragedy.

Women’s bodies are especially vulnerable to harassment during physical activity, and the attitudes that permeate campus gyms are not unrelated to this vulnerability. Unnecessarily gendered dress codes don’t keep gyms sanitary, they simply create environments where women feel as though their bodies are on display for others to examine and visually dissect. Dress codes that target female bodies place the blame for harassment and sexualization on women. They reinforce the idea that men are not to blame for their actions, and that women must censor themselves to avoid violence.

While the University’s Recreational Sports dress code is not overtly sexist, the accounts of many female students suggest that women may be held to it more strictly than men, which is simply unfair. Recreational Sports should take women’s complaints seriously, and they should reconsider why, exactly, sports bras are considered inappropriate attire. I can’t help but wonder if it has more to do with the sexualization of women’s bodies than concerns about cleanliness.

I’ve been to the CCRB, and no one is monitoring everyone, ensuring they sanitize their machine after using it. If Recreational Sports is worried about exercise equipment spreading illness, that seems like a far more productive strategy than trying to reduce the amount of exposed, sweaty skin.

When so many very big unfair things are happening to women in America, real rights, respect and safety all feel monumentally out of reach. While being asked to wear an extra layer at the gym may seem unimportant compared to more extreme forms of discrimination and bodily harm, sexist enforcement of dress codes is just another example of the self-policing women must perform in public. By not allowing women to exercise in the clothes that make them most comfortable, campus gyms reproduce the same problematic environments that give way to more blatant forms of sexism.

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