This is not a hot take: that’s both the sadness and the point.
I’m going to be that person who tells you about going to the gym. And I’m not going to apologise for going. Because I have a story – one that isn’t in any way new, but I wish to add to the pile nonetheless. A pile that’s colossal, at capacity, and yet could (and most likely will) be added to by every woman I know.
The male gaze. The zeitgeisty phrase for something sinister and even more enduring. Being made to feel uncomfortable in a “male-dominated” space (or, sadly, pretty much any space) is a tale as old as time.
There is a huge sign at my gym that asks, “What’s stopping you?”. It’s provocative, to say the least. Some partial answers could be: tiredness, embarrassment, my own insecurity.
The actual answer? Men.
(You know the caveat, I’m not going to say it.)
There is not a single time that I’m at the gym – five days out of seven – that I’m not made to feel uncomfortable. That I don’t have to ask my boyfriend to stand behind me as I dumbbell row because I’ve caught guys trying to peer up my shorts. That I haven’t gotten dressed thinking about them, and what attention I might unwillingly attract, rather than how efficiently my clothes will allow me to complete my exercise.
Earlier this month, I went to tie my hair up (so that I’d be able to see the weights I was lifting) only to be told by the man next to me that I didn’t need to worry about what I looked like because “it’s the gym, darlin’”.
Are these the worst things that could’ve been said to me? No. Would they have been said if I wasn’t a woman? Also no.
Earlier this year, Glamour reported that the gym gender gap was keeping women from working out, and ultimately affecting their health. Calling on US studies that showed that marginalized groups have it even worse—young black women were the least likely group to report any physical activity, and given the discriminatory policies trans and nonbinary people face in sports environments, experts suspected their participation rates were even lower. So, it’s necessary here that I recognise the privilege I hold as an able-bodied, slim, white woman and how that means I have it far easier. To think how much worse it could be if I wasn’t makes me feel sick.
The point is that this isn’t a hot take. It’s a take drained of colour from being washed, dried and spun too many times. And yet it still happens.
71 percent of women polled by FitRated.com admitted to experiencing an interaction at the gym that made them uncomfortable. Every gym-going woman I know can attest to that, and then some. I am not professing to be the first woman intimidated at the gym. I wish I could be the last. They’re hardly ever “just” looks or comments, but the frontier of much larger issues: a basic lack of respect, being one. Earlier in the year, my boyfriend told me that he’d been compelled to alert a girl at the gym of the men who he’d overheard were following her as she worked out. I have never been approached whilst working out with a male, but have every time when I’m solo. When I’m alone at the gym I wear headphones, even if I’m not listening to music. It’s a feeble attempt at creating a barrier. Sometimes, I almost get away with it, until I feel the tell-tale tap on my shoulder, I know I’ve not.
I found GRL Talk subject Poorna Bell’s @seemystrong Instagram community in a moment of doubt. It’s a place for followers to be in an unashamed celebration of themselves, for whatever it is they have achieved in their pursuit of strength. It is a place for positivity and support, but even in this ‘safe space’ women cannot be completely immune to interjection, as Bell, a competitive powerlifter herself, knows all too well. And there’s the hashtag #womenwholift which opens up a trove of astounding achievements, despite it all, and I’m reminded how resilience is often so synonymous with my gender.
I wonder, with spaces like that online, how long it will take IRL to follow. My guess – too long.
Check back the first Saturday of every month for more GRL, Uninterrupted.