body image · fitness

Treadmills in Sheds? Yes, That’s Happening for Reasons That Aren’t Okay

shed-clipart-shed_tng_standard_feltDid you see the UK Huffington Post article earlier this week that said women are working out in sheds for fear of being judged? Sam and I were working on our book this morning. I’m on the part about the feminization of fitness, which led me to thinking about how form-fitting fitness clothing keep lots of women away from getting active.

Sam has blogged about that before. See her post “No way I’m wearing that: body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women in sport.” The irony is that the more absorbed we get in a sport the less likely we are to be concerned about how we look. I can tell you this: the last thing on my mind during the marathon on Sunday was my appearance (well, okay, I didn’t want to be caught sobbing on camera, but that was all).

We got chatting about that a bit (instead of writing) and then she reminded me about the shed story from the other day:

Women are steering clear of fitness for “fear of being judged”, a new Government report has revealed.

Another heartbreaking reality was that those who do want to keep fit are choosing to exercise in their sheds, hidden away, out of fear of being laughed at.

The report comes after Public Health England revealed that the number of women achieving recommended levels of physical activity was far lower than men – 31% of females engage in sport once a week compared to 40.1% of men.

The report, which has been collated by the Commons’ Health Select Committee, labels “fear of judgement” as a key factor when it comes to why women’s fitness levels are below par.

Kay Thomson from Sport England said: “Three quarters of women want to become more active but something is stopping them – fear of judgement.

“Judgement about appearance when exercising, ability to be active, confidence to turn up to a session, or feeling guilty about going to be physically active or doing something when you should have been spending more time with your family.”

It’s sad and alarming that fear of being judged about their appearance or their level of ability is keeping women from doing something that can, in fact, create confidence and an alternative body-narrative that isn’t so focused on looks.  More than that, getting active is a matter of social equality. If women are so worried that they will be judged harshly that they are either not getting active at all or are putting their treadmills in the shed, that’s a disturbing comment on the way fitness media, fitness culture, and normative expectations of women’s bodies work to exclude, marginalize, and dis-empower women.

The exclusion is well-articulated in the words of this woman who participated in the survey:

She revealed: “When I looked online for information, there was lots about weight loss and running but nothing about running just as an overweight person, the psychological aspects of that and how tough it is when you are constantly shouted at, laughed at and clothes in fitness stores don’t fit you.

“It feels like the whole sport is not geared up for you.”

Fitness activities and physical exercise are not just for people who are already thin, not just for the young, not just for those with athletic builds or natural talent.

We need a more inclusive approach that does not body-shame people and does not perpetuate the idea that only a certain demographic has a right to engage in physical activity. I’ve written before about this idea of inclusive fitness. We are far from that ideal and the UK study presents clear evidence that more needs to be done to deliver a different message:

“I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public,” she said. “But that is part of the problem. Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them.”

“They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”

She added that larger women aren’t able to get hold of sports kits which fit them properly, which presents another barrier: “No woman wants to dress in men’s clothing to go out for a run when there is already the risk of being laughed at.”

In my post on inclusive fitness, I said:

I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.

It’s not just in the media that we need wider representation, but also in everyday life. If larger women can’t even find workout gear that fits appropriately, then that sends the further message that such activity is not meant for them.

In the UK, there is a movement afoot to create a more attractive picture of physical activity to a wider group of women:

The Government now hopes to address these barriers and issues by releasing a programme on diet and physical activity which works to examine how women, those with disabilities and overweight people, can be encouraged and supported to be more active.

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign is also helping to get women moving by showing “real women” working out – in a bid to help others summon up the courage to get active.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and whether the campaign will succeed in creating a truly welcoming and positive attitude towards diversity among those engaged in physical activity.

Meanwhile, I think we can all agree that sheds may be great places to store our gear, but no one should feel so judged that they choose the shed as the place to use their gear.

10 thoughts on “Treadmills in Sheds? Yes, That’s Happening for Reasons That Aren’t Okay

  1. I think that the article I refer to can be found on the Elephant Journal site. A woman from India came to the U.S and compared the yoga classes here to the ones in her native country-outfits especially.
    I am glad that people are focusing on solving the problem.

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  2. I hadn’t seen this article, but it’s heartbreaking. I remember how self-conscious I was when I first started running, always trying to get out before anyone else was up and avoiding crowded routes–and that as someone who has always had a pretty athletic build (albeit, with very limited natural athletic ability). I welcome any campaign that aims to make the transition to getting active easier for women of all shapes and sizes — and would personally run down anyone who dared laugh at someone making that effort!

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  3. I just stumbled across your blog for the first time and love this post! 🙂 I really love the quote about how when people see others like themselves achieving something. Definitely something that motivated me to work out and eat clean was when others my age and fitness-level started to do so to 🙂

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  4. Mmm… Interestingly, a new student hall of residence was recently opened in the centre of our town, who a gym on the ground floor, slightly elevated from street level, full height floor to ceiling glazing, with treadmills and exercise bikes. Literally any student using the gym is on display. I’ve heard (negative) comments from passersby about it but I think it is no different than jogging outside. I wonder how the students feel – I’ve never seen it really busy but then I’m not there evenings or weekends.

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  5. I’ve felt this way myself and I had a friend who was so scared of being judged about her weight at the gym that she lost a stone through 5am running sessions (because she knew no one was around) and THEN started going to the gym. It’s scary that so many women judge other women. I’ve been in the gym and at least 6 girls have been in there with a full face of make up on and all the latest sports gear, and there’s me with a sweat patch on my bum, frizzy hair, bright red face and wheezing, it’s easy to feel ‘not worthy’. Hopefully all these positive campaigns will help to change that

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  6. This is part of my mission, to be a fat person running in public and encourage others to do so too.

    Sometimes it amazes me that the activity I love is a radical act.

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  7. The This Girl Can campaign really took off when the first advert aired. If only they’d had a tech t-shirt and/or vest range to go with it (in a wide range of sizes obv) they could have linked it all together with availability of sports gear and taken the campaign to another level.

    I belong to a women-only online running community of over 10,000 and we have CLAMOURED for This Girl Can kit so we can advertise our affinity with the campaign. So far they’re still “researching”. What a missed opportunity to take the idea off the television and onto the streets.

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  8. That is the sentiment that I will be able to join the gym if I lose some weight first. Really sad to think about! I hope the campaign does some good and that maybe we could adopt something like that here in the US!

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