Women in the Weight Room: Goddesses of the Gym

If there’s one place men and women fall down the rabbit hole of outdated cisgender stereotypes, it’s the gym.

In the breaking dawn of such contemporary times, it’s fascinating that such a mundane place holds the power to reduce gender roles to the same twisted, bland archetypes once telecast by Eisenhower era sitcoms. But regardless, the difference between men and women as established by how and where they exercise in the gym, brings these outdated ideals back to life in a contemporary context, now in Technicolor.

Everyday in the gym, while men and women bounce about in brightly colored nylon trappings on treadmills, ellipticals, and stair steppers, the equal usage of machines by both men and women is not a consistent practice throughout the facility.

This is most obvious in the weight and strength training areas, which have become primarily dominated by men. The complete lack of female presence here indicates an exclusionary component associated with this particular part of the gym that isn’t present in the rest of the facility.

Now, perhaps it’s because I don’t go to the gym very often. Personally, I prefer to align my gym visits with celestial events like Haley’s comet; but this divide between men and women seems strange to me for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, because strength training, like cardio, is a healthy exercise. Additionally, it’s also an effective means for producing a caloric deficit which is required for losing weight, a popular reason for going to the gym.

Moreover, almost all of the equipment in the weight and strength training room is designed to build and tone muscle mass which, in some cases, can help achieve desired gym results better than cardio alone. More importantly, these machines tend to have a lower impact on joints than typical cardio equipment, making them, in some respects, a healthier workout .

So why is the weight and strength training room a place so few women dare to tread? Because of my incredible zeal for journalism, I decided the best way to investigate this would be to go undercover. As, you know, someone who regularly exercises. You’re welcome.

In order to make the most out of my investigation, and also to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself while trying to exercise in what I consider a modern day torture chamber, I decided to go with a close, personal friend of mine, Tarek Sabbah. Not only is Tarek a good friend, but he’s also a seasoned patron of the weight room.

I decided to conduct my investigation on a typical Tuesday night at 7 o’clock. I met Tarek outside of his apartment building and we walked to the Wooden Center.

When we got to the facility, I began to see the same pattern I always had on my infrequent trips to the gym.

While women pedaled away on spinning bikes or trained for post-apocalyptic futures filled with marathon running cannibals on treadmills, the cardio equipment comprised the extent of their presence in the gym.

When I walked into the weight room, it only confirmed this. There wasn’t a single woman in the weight room. And as I walked amongst the glittering machinery all contributing to the ubiquitous metallic clink that echoed through the gym, I started to realize why.

The first thing that took hold of my attention was the smell; the cloying scent of Old Spice was sticky, stinking, and mingled with sharp notes of sweat. And as I slowly became accustomed to it, the next thing I noticed were the heaping throngs of men spread out amongst the machinery, each one of which seemed to be glaring at me.

God, what was I doing here? I just wanted to get a Cinnabon and go home. I looked over at Tarek who seemed oblivious to it all, smiling and taking sips from whatever was in his blender bottle. I started to realize that this was probably why women didn’t exercise in the weight room very often, especially by themselves. It was intimidating. And made even worse by the fact that I knew it shouldn’t be.

The gym is a place used by men and women alike, but I couldn’t help feeling so threatened. Large groups of men were continually passing by, each of whom stared. I was afraid I was doing something wrong, or embarrassing myself somehow. I felt even worse considering that Tarek seemed so unmoved by this.

In the midst of my thought process, he looked over at me and whatever odd expression must’ve been plastered across my face. A strange look crossed his face, probably unsure as to why I was looking at him the way that I was. He shrugged and we walked over to the squat rack. It was already in use.

“Just wait right here,” he told me. “I’m just gonna see how much longer this guy has left.” Tarek walked up to the man, who had the bar hoisted onto his shoulders, and his back to us. He looked intimidating, and I can’t say I would’ve felt completely comfortable bothering this man myself, even if it was just to see how much longer he had. But Tarek walked up to him with ease and his trademarked smile extending from ear to ear.

“Hey man, how many reps you got left?” The man inside the squat rack muttered something back too quietly for me to hear. As he continued the conversation, a group of men walked past me and looked at me as if I had just grown a third eye. The hell were they staring at? As soon as they walked by, Tarek returned.

“Well, he’s got a while left, so instead of just focusing on legs, why don’t we start with arms? I think you should probably start out with 10’s, but if that’s too easy, I’ll have you switch to 15’s.”

Tarek walked over and grabbed some weights of his own while I hunted around for the ten pounders. I finally found them resting in the hands of some man who was sitting in front of the mirror staring intently at himself as he lifted them. I was almost about to ask Tarek to go talk to him for me to figure out how much longer he had left, but then I remembered why I was there. I was uncomfortable, given how certain I was that I must’ve been disrupting some incredibly intimate moment this man was clearly having with himself. However, I mustered my courage and walked over all the same.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering–” Oh God, how had Tarek phrased this earlier? “Um, how many uh–you know, things–I mean reps! How many reps you have left.” Nailed it.  He looked up at me and smiled.

“Eh, a couple more, but it’s okay. Why don’t you take them?” It was something so small but at the same time it was so nice, and made me feel so much more confident. I thanked him, grabbed the weights from out of his hands, and walked back to where Tarek was standing in front of the mirror.

“Do we have to stand here like this? I don’t really like looking at myself while I lift…” I said.

“Come on Alex, you gotta admire yourself as you lift these weights!” I stared at him vacantly, unconvinced. “Well, and you know, for form purposes, it’s just more helpful.”

After the experience, it suddenly became abundantly clear why there never seemed to be very many women inside of the weight room. As someone who had previously never spent very much time there, I hadn’t realized how uncomfortable it could potentially be as a solitary woman in that situation, of being surrounded by large groups of men, who frequently stare. Especially whenever I tried to use some piece of foreign equipment that at first glance looked more like a prop from Saw than it did a weight-lifting machine. And all of this working in tandem with my own unfamiliarity with this kind of equipment.

As I left the gym, I asked a few women what they thought about the weight room. Most women said they didn’t like using it because they were afraid of being judged, oggled, or embarrassed. And it’s not as if these concerns are by any means unfounded. I really just think that one of the best ways for women to overcome them is to push forward through them.

One of the most popular concerns was not understanding how to use the equipment. Over six different women interviewed all stated this as their primary reason for not using the weight room. But instead of feeling intimidated, one possible solution is to take a friend who’s a more seasoned patron of the weight room to the gym. They can explain how to use the equipment and help motivate you as you exercise.

If you don’t feel like asking anyone, or don’t necessarily have time to align your schedule with someone else, another easy fix is to just ask the staff how to use the equipment. They’re literally paid to help you. And yes, while I originally thought that their sole purpose at the gym was to work as fascist enforcers to keep me from putting my bag on the floor, I assure you this is every much a part of their job as keeping the walkways clear.

The next most common concern was feeling the wandering eyes of men creeping over you as you exercise. This is often uncomfortable and invasive. Unfortunately, this happens to be something that rests outside the realm of what an individual can control. While it may seem harmless, men ogling women in the gym isn’t some inconsequential act. In fact a lot of women are really offended by this and because of that, it needs to stop. But at the same time, women shouldn’t allow it to prevent them from doing something they might really enjoy.

However, I think it’s also important to note that the male gaze is not always meant in a sexual manner. Sometimes the male stare, particularly in the weight room, is simply because there are so few women present there. It’s an anomaly.

But weight lifting is a fun, healthy exercise. And while men shouldn’t ogle or gawk at women while they take part in this, if more women try weight lifting, more women might find that they really enjoy it, thereby making the weight room a more gender neutral place and possibly even reducing the amount of strange looks from men.

Never be discouraged for not understanding how a machine works. No one started out at the gym with an inherent knowledge about all of the equipment. Don’t be discouraged by a lack of women present in this part of the gym. By being there yourself, you’ll inspire other women to join you. Ignore everyone else, especially ogling men. You’re at the gym to exercise for you and you alone. Be your own goddess of the weight room!

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