I strength train in a small community center gym. It is filled with the full range of humanity who live in my diverse community. When I started working out there four or five years ago, as far as I could tell I was the only woman who regularly lifted weights. Only in the last year or so have I begun to see a shift where there are other women who lift, at least a little bit, with some regularity. Nevertheless, it is still very much a man’s domain. And perhaps because weightlifting is so deeply connected in our psyches with manliness, machoness, and physical dominance, I find that I encounter a larger-than-usual population of the toxically masculine. From aging athletes who feel that it is their rightful territory, to arrogant and ignorant newbies puffing up to attempt to appear competent, I must interact with men who at best don’t seem to recognize that I may belong there, too, and at worst, those who seem to resent my presence.
I am not proud to acknowledge it, but I have adjusted to this reality in dozens of subtle ways that allow the status quo to remain in place. The gym at my rec center remains a man’s space. All of these adjustments are done to keep the men there at ease and to avoid conflict. I would like to think that I’m just being considerate, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s really about not entirely feeling like I belong–that I’m still imposing on a space that isn’t equally mine.
Here’s a sampling of what I do:
–I work hard to be efficient with whatever equipment I’m using. Old-school gym culture suggests that folks can “cut in” and share equipment, but this is not something I see at my gym. Instead, folks stay where they are until all their sets are done and then the next person takes over. If I’m doing several long sets, I am always aware of who is around me who might be waiting for whatever I’m using. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable if I can tell that they’re waiting for me, although I do not usually see the same consideration in reverse.
–I make it very clear which equipment I’m using. I put my workout log onto the bench before I get up to get a drink of water from the fountain. Or, sometimes when it’s really busy, I don’t get up at all. This avoids the awkward “I’m still using that” conversation. I’ve had men start to roll away a bench I had put a barbell or dumbbells next to as I was setting up a lift, and I had to ask them to please leave it there. Two-thirds of the guys just don’t seem to have processed that I was using it. Perhaps the other third of the time, they shoot me a look that suggests their needs are greater than mine.
–When I’m doing lifts like rows in which my decolletage might show, I do them towards the wall. For that matter, any exercise that might seem “risqué” is done with as little audience as possible. I’ve caught the eyes of men who were noticing me, and it can become uncomfortable quickly. For about a year, there was a guy who I found myself making sure always left before I did, so there wasn’t any chance that he’d follow me out. He stared at me with unabashed focus every time we were both in the gym. It scared me, and I never confronted him about it.
–I wear earbuds to listen to music and to signal I don’t want to have a conversation. On a related note, I don’t make eye contact except to check on if someone is done with a piece of equipment. I rarely smile, so I won’t be misunderstood to be flirting, and I avoid looking too stern (RBF), so I don’t look too mean. I aim to be neutral.
–I wear a t-shirt or loose tank top over my sports bra all year long, even when it’s blazing hot and the AC goes out at the community center. I wear no-show panties to avoid any pantyline and high-rise leggings that keep my backside covered. I don’t want my appearance to be misconstrued as attention-seeking. The handful of times I’ve felt it necessary to inform someone that I was married, the responses I got back were less-than-respectful. As a result of these, I have also started wearing a silicone “wedding” ring when I lift.
–I avoid correcting or giving feedback to someone, even if their gym faux-pas are problematic for me. If they are sitting for half an hour on a bench I need, I don’t ask them how long they’ll be. If they’re staring at their phone next to where I need to go, I wait patiently for them to move along. If they walk between me and the mirror, I keep my annoyance to myself, even if I need to spot my form on that lift.
Despite these considerations, I have had equipment picked up and walked away without being asked if I was using it. I am yelled at about once a year. Last year, a guy started screaming at me for “wasting time” while I was resting between sets. Only last month, another guy started yelling at me (“Don’t YOU tell me what to do!”), aggressively leaning in, when I asked him if he could “please walk around” so I could do an overhead press without him directly in front of me. I’ve had benches taken over while I was standing next to them. Backhanded compliments like “I know it seems weird to be asking you, but could you show me that lift,” are common. I act flattered instead of wondering aloud why they shouldn’t ask me.
I am ok with the idea that the way I lift weights it outside of normative femininity. However, I question the “rules” I have set out for myself to share space at the gym. I’m conflicted about it–I genuinely don’t want to be in conflict with guys while I’m there; however, there’s been frequent enough issues that my rules have been adapted in response to them. Many of those conflicts were due to the man in question seemingly having his own sets of rules that aren’t based on any mutual community mindset but rather things that work best for himself as an individual. His individual needs take precedence over mine. And how do I speak up for myself, when the act of saying anything at all is often met with aggression, intimidation, and posturing? Or on the flip side of things, when they are attempting to be accommodating, they are actually condescending and belittling–how do I say, thank you but no, I don’t need you to rack my weights for me or carry that dumbbell back? I can lift it myself, and that’s the whole point of being there.
And so I’m stuck. Do I go about standing up for myself and my needs and thereby continue to have conflicts, or do I adjust my behaviors to reduce conflict so I can have as pleasant a session as possible, but perpetuate and enable a gym culture that is not accommodating to women?
What say you? Do you stand up for your needs and risk conflict and confrontation? Are you open to feedback at the gym or does it feel like an imposition while you’re “in the zone?”
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
23 thoughts on “Doin’ My Part to Keep the Gym a Safe Space for Men (Guest Post)”
I absolutely do all of these. I know for a fact that shyer men also over accommodating as I’ve had conversations with gym partners about some of these behaviours but they certainly do not have the added casual sexism/infantilism and outright creepiness to deal with on top of general gym anxiety. It’s incredibly frustrating because I am hyper aware of myself doing this stuff but the backlash doesn’t always seem worth it when all I have is a few hours to myself. I’ve literally had a man come down to the gym in my building with a cup of tea, sit on a bench and give me unsolicited pointers after insisting that I take my earbuds out to hear him while in the middle of a lift!
Yes, that is the conundrum for me, too–do I make an issue of it because it’s not fair treatment, but then ruin my “me” time with a conflict? Or, do I let it slide, so I can move on with workout? I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced this, too, but I find it comforting to know I’m not alone. (The cup of tea would be a new one on me, though! Yeesh!)
I think one simple step to take is to involve management. I would share some of your experiences. Management can often make small subtle changes that can change the environment. Even something as simple as rules posted that include some reminders about manners or you will be asked to leave can help. If they have trainers, maybe encouraging female trainers to be in the weight area at certain times of day, things like that.
I would love to see a female trainer working in there–now you say it, it seems surprising, but I don’t think I have! Maybe I’ll mention it to the front desk. Thanks. 🙂
Makes me so grateful for my current gym where none of that garbage goes on. I used to work out at a community rec center where unsolicited advice about my lifting technique, people being rude about camping on equipment and moving stuff was a thing.
How did you select your current gym? Could you tell it was an improvement pretty quickly, or did it take some time? Finding a new gym is definitely one of my possible solutions.
Yeah, I gave up using public gyms partially because of this kind of discomfort, but also because gym environments are not friendly to my neurodivergent brain, and because I kept getting sick when the uber-dedicated brought their germs with them to their workouts. I now work out at home with a rowing machine and free weights, and I swim at my local public pools.
That said, I understand why others might find working out at a gym to be a better fit for them; there are certainly things that one can do at a gym that aren’t possible with a home setup. I hope you find a good solution that lets you have a workout without a bunch of harrassment tacked on.
Yeah, I would need a full rack of weights and dumbbells, and some cable machines too, to do at home what I do at the gym! It would be great, though!
Really the only thing I lack is a lot of the cable stuff; that’s the main limitation. With the bench and free weights I have I can do most of what needs doing for me, since the bench can be modified for different barbell/dumbbell lifts and has a lat tower and quad extension/hamstring curl/preacher curl thingie.
But I agree: if you need those other pieces of equipment for the workouts you want to do, you need to find a good gym. There’s only so much you can do with a home setup, unless you are a millionaire who can outfit a whole gym in the basement or something, and I haven’t quite arrived there yet…. 🙂
FFS this makes me mad. In 2019 we’re still accommodating such toxic male behavior? It’s bullshit. Involve management for sure- show them this blog post & all the comments you will get. Think of all the younger women who shouldn’t have to keep putting up with this crap: we all have a right to an equal amount of space in this world. I would clearly be creating conflict for a [hopefully] brief period to effect longer term change, definitely with the support of management. Perhaps start a female training group? Good luck! 💪🏼💪🏼
I know, it really is disgusting that these sorts of behaviors are commonplace even today! And I’m only just wrapping my head around how I’ve gone along with it all these years. It makes me think about the dialogue happening around improving race relations in the States–that the people with the most privilege have the largest responsibility to change. At the gym, my privilege is mixed–I’m white and middle-classed, but I’m also female and queer. I guess I wish it didn’t rest on my shoulders alone to fix it, as I often feel threatened and afraid. I wish the “nice guys” around me would stand up for me, too.
Honey, I’m female and queer; if I was at your gym, I’d have your back. I’d be agitating for female-only sessions, if the guys can’t rise above the toxic masculinity you describe and change the gym culture! Definitely talk to management- my support is with you, especially on International Women’s Day today x
Your experiences at the male-dominated gym made me mad and sad at the same time. I’ve switched out of the gym to personal training lately. But your post took me back 25 years when I used to work out as a grad student in a tiny gym that was almost completely men. My solution back then: a workout buddy (another woman). Working out with another woman makes a big difference. We didn’t care what others were doing and we paid attention to no one because we had each other as back-up, to work in with, and to eyeroll with when a guy did or said something ridiculous. Not a solution for everyone but it made a difference. Good luck navigating the space. It sounds atypical for these times to have such a very male-dominated gym. I hate to suggest that they may run you out, but are there more diverse options near by? I also like the idea of involving management by drawing this to their attention (like maybe show them your post!). Thanks for this.
Hello Tracy! Thank you for your support and sympathies. I would love to have a workout buddy–that sounds like a great solution! Local fitness culture for women is more centered on yoga and running, it seems. The women who lift at my gym often look to me like they’re athletes cross-training for the season. I wonder if I could find a gym where there’s a subculture of female lifters of all abilities who hang out? Or maybe I sign up for a group training session with a trainer? It would be fun to have a trainer, in any case. 🙂
I’m lucky in that I work out at an old school grunt type of gym where there are few women lifting weights seriously, but where most everyone knows and respects each other. I do call men out for selfish behavior (like long-term blocking the squat rack in a way that makes it impossible to take turns) but I know that the majority of the men, and definitely the trainer, support me.
In the beginning I did get offers to help pick up the heavy weights, but I just responded that if I can’t do it by myself what’s the point? I will add that I usually deal with issues with a smile on my face and a lilt to my voice…I figure I confuse them that way 😂 I shouldn’t have to use the old “female wiles” card, but it’s (unfortunately?) a technique I’ve fine tuned over the years, both in and out of the gym.
I do think the revolving door of new members is a part of the problem. The guys who have lifted around me year after year are usually at least tolerable, and some are genuinely friendly and supportive. But “regulars” rarely reach critical mass. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last two times I’ve been yelled at happened around the holidays when there’s an influx of “newbies.”)
Thank you for writing this. As difficult as it was to read, it was insightful and allowed me a glimpse of all that a woman has to think about at the gym.
I’m a man. A man who lifts. A man who would love to see lifting lose its “machoness” and would love to see a lot more women feel comfortable to lift. Resistance training has demonstrated physical and mental benefits for everyone.
I absolutely believe the “machoness” of lifting doesn’t serve most men much better than it serves women! I would think it scares a lot of men off who would benefit from it because they don’t want to have to place themselves in that aggressive hierarchy.
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