Gendered Relations in the Gym

As individuals age, the risk of developing chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, sarcopenia (muscle mass loss), and osteoporosis (bone mass loss) increases1 2. Weightlifting has proven to be an effective method in the prevention and treatment of such chronic diseases in both men and women2. For example, weightlifting can help decrease or even prevent the prevalence of osteoporosis in post menopausal women, who are increasingly at risk of fractures due to hormonal changes affecting bone mineral density1. Significant gender disparities exist in meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines for resistance training3. While women are less likely to meet the recommended guidelines3, gendered social norms create significant barriers for both men and women in a gym space, either by limiting the scope of physical activity engagement within that space, or preventing engagement altogether.

Dichotomous gender relations in the gym are becoming increasingly prevalent, contributed in part by the socio-spatial processes3 occurring within them. According to a 2018 study investigating the gendering of physical activity3, gender stereotypes are consistently normalized in the gym. As both men and women’s bodies are reproduced socially, masculine body ideals place in value strength, whereas women’s body ideals place more value in being thin and toned4. As a result, weightlifting activities in the gym are more associated as masculine, whereas cardio based activities are more associated as feminine3. This led to both genders engaging in drastically contrasting and perpetually limiting exercise routines in order to remain within their perceived bounds of masculinity or femininity3 4. Women even experienced a double standard at the gym, where they were judged for both breaking gendered practices, like lifting heavy weights, or conforming to gendered practices by doing cardio3.

Gender relations were even found to be spatialized, where hyper masculine environments created inaccessibility for both men and women3. In both cases, these experiences decreased the desirability of the workout space. Some men experienced an intense and sometimes intimidating atmosphere of amplified masculinity from other men that pushed them to finish working out as quickly as possible3. Women were found to engage in the gym for less time, and reported feelings of intimidation and lack of competence compared to men lifting heavier weights3. Women also tended to occupy less space in the gym, often due to experiences of micro-aggressions from men3. Such experiences included being crowded or rushed out of spaces, refusal from men to share equipment or space, unsolicited critiques or advice, and being approached prior to other men to share equipment3. When asked how their workouts would change if they were the opposite gender, both men and women expressed a desire to engage in workout regimes more stereotypically associated with the opposite gender3. For example, women wanted to lift more, and men wanted to stretch3.

While it is important to acknowledge that gendered stereotypes that are embedded deep into gym culture, it is equally as important to remember that individuals have their own training and fitness goals. While their chosen activity may have the appearance of reinforcing gender stereotypes, it may very well in fact just be within their training regime. Addressing the spatio-social processes creating these stereotypes should not be an exclusively binary process, like getting women to lift more or men to engage in more cardio. It is more so important to examine if these gendered relations dismantle opportunities for individual’s training goals. For example, a weightlifter may be able to increase their muscle gains and subsequent performance though increasing their range of motion from stretching; on the other hand, a long distance runner may benefit just as well from weightlifting by increasing strength and subsequently decreasing risk of injury. At the end of the day, different types of physical activity will have many benefits regardless of such activity.

So the question is, how can we create more opportunity in the gym? Gender specific or women’s only gyms may provide safe and valuable opportunities for weightlifting and other physical activity. However, these types of gyms may not be a sufficient solution to increasing gender equity in the gym, as these spaces can leave intact these dichotomous gender relations and have the potential to even reinforce co-ed gyms as a male exclusive environment3 5. Challenging these stereotypes can also be a good step in the right direction. Trying to avoid reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes, like seeing men as “bad guys” in the gym3. Mindfulness in space consumption and interpersonal interactions may also go a long way to foster a more welcoming environment. While stereotypical gender relations may not be explicitly obvious all the time, it is important to keep in mind the exclusionary effect it can have on individuals and their personal training goals.

Sources
  1. Effect of weighted exercises on bone mineral density in post menopausal women. A systematic review – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18171491/[][]
  2. Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease – https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2017/01000/Strength_Training_and_the_Risk_of_Type_2_Diabetes.5.aspx[][]
  3. “It’s gym, like g-y-m not J-i-m:” Exploring the role of place in the gendering of physical activity –  https://nottingham-repository.worktribe.com/preview/1487995/Coen%20et%20al%20SSM%202018.pdf[][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][]
  4. Gender in the Gym: Evaluation Concerns as Barriers to Women’s Weight Lifting – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%252Fs11199-010-9800-8[][]
  5. Gendered Experiences in the Gym – http://knowledgecommons.lakeheadu.ca:7070/bitstream/handle/2453/4217/RizzoS2017m-1b.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y[]

2 Comments

Add Yours →

Well written and balanced perspective vs a strictly feminine perspective or bias.

Great Blog! Keep it up

Steve

Excellent article. It rings true for me, as a woman who has chosen to stay away from gyms because of the “attitudes” and stereotypes I’ve experienced over the years.

Leave a Reply