In 1992 when I moved to London, Ontario, I took a membership at Gold’s Gym so I could continue with the demanding weight-training routine I had established as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Gold’s was close to home and had all the free weights I needed. I liked the atmosphere in the gym and felt, for the most part, that they took the women who trained there as seriously as they took the men.
But there was one thing that nagged at me each time I went. Where the sign on the door of the men’s locker room said “Men,” the sign on the door of the women’s locker room said “Ladies.”
This may seem like a minor thing to some people, but it really bothered me for a few reasons.
For one thing, if you’re going to go with the old-fashioned nomenclature for the widely accepted gender binary, then “Gentlemen” would be the contrast category beside “Ladies.”
But we don’t see “Gentlemen” in the gym (or anywhere much, for that matter, besides “gentlemen’s clubs,” which, last I checked, were a fancy name for strip clubs).
More than involving an asymmetry in the application of categories, we should be concerned about locker rooms for “Ladies” because the word “ladies” has a disempowering effect. It calls to mind “ladies who lunch” or ladies who need gentlemen to throw down coats over the mud so they (the ladies) can have a clear, mudless path to the horse-drawn carriage and not dirty their fine silk shoes.
It sort of has the same impact as the color pink (see my discussion of pink here). Harmless in itself, but heavy with social meaning and a fairly Victorian ideal of femininity.
This isn’t the message or image we need as we enter the gym to do things that make us healthy, strong, and capable.
Sam has blogged about ladylike values before. She talks about the mismatch between ladylike values and athletic values. She lists a few clashes:
- Performance clothes aren’t “ladylike” (tight and no petticoats).
- Acting confident and commanding, as most sports require, isn’t especially ladylike either. Ladies are quiet (unless gossiping) and should really just sit politely and look pretty.
- Lots of sports require physical contact with others, and that’s definitely not ladylike. Where is our modesty, for goodness sake?
- And what about spitting and so forth? You can read Sam’s blog post if you want the details of bodily excretions and how they figure in some sports
I agree with Sam when she says: “I think we women athletes may need to say goodbye to our inner ‘ladies’ and channel our inner ‘bad girls.’”
But a locker room for “Ladies” doesn’t encourage us to do this at all.
Back in 1992, I wrote a letter to the gym that outlined something along these lines, about how “Ladies” was disempowering and “Women” was empowering, and how on the list of all the places in my life that I would appreciate a default attitude towards me that takes my power seriously, the gym is definitely up there.
I was reminded of that letter recently by a friend whose summer tennis club still has “Ladies” and “Men’s” categories. She was going to suggest to the board that the asymmetry be removed so they would have the “Women’s” category and the “Men’s”. It astonished me that this would still be an issue anywhere in 2013.
My friend wondered whether I still had a copy of the letter so she could reference it. I do not. It was so long ago that it probably went out with a stack of floppy disks that require MS-dos to open the files.
I’m happy to say that my gym actually took my letter seriously and changed the sign. And my friend reported to me yesterday that her club found her argument for the change to “women” convincing.
Language has subtle and covert power over our social attitudes towards all sorts of things. Seemingly small changes that help to re-shape social messages about who is dainty and who is strong can have a positive impact on everyone.
For many (may I say “most”?) of us, when we engage in our athletic pursuits, we aren’t interested in being ladies.