Gym Rats

Why Women Exercise Less than Men

Kira Leadholm
Feb 7 · 11 min read

“The most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the gym, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty.” — Plato, the Republic

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Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash
  1. The Ab Roller

It was my cardio day. I descended from the elliptical, dripping and probably smelling like a musty sock. As I wiped down the machine, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I removed my headphones, disoriented as Beyoncé was replaced by mechanical whirring. A stocky, bald man stood before me. I recognized him as one of the regulars.

“I came here looking for the ab roller, and I found you,” he said, with rancid breath oozing towards me. I stared at him. Did I know him? His smirk was replaced by a frown and knitted brows. “It’s Kira, right?”

“Uh… yeah.” I said. He waited for me to go on.

“It’s Mark. We have class together.” I studied the man’s face, grasping for an iota of recognition. I recalled the image of a braggadocious man in glasses and a knit cap. Mark, an ex-Navy Seal and Second Amendment-enthusiast, sat across from me in my writing workshop. His lack of cap and glasses had rendered him unrecognizable. I pointed this out and he chuckled. I forced a laugh. We spoke briefly about historical fiction and our respective novels, until Mark posed a brazen question: “So, why do you come to the gym?”

“Same as you,” I said. “To stay in shape.”

“Are you an athlete?”

“I used to run track in high school?” I offered.

“Oh. You don’t do bikini competitions or anything?” I imagined myself prancing around a stage, daubed with makeup and orange bronzer. I nearly choked.

“No, I don’t.”

“Well you really have the figure for it.”

When I’m in the weight room, I look for strategic places to exercise, where men like Mark can’t stare at my ass. Because the walls are lined with mirrors, this usually means doing my deadlifts in a secluded corner or under the stairs. When I get dressed to work out, I try to achieve an impossible equilibrium: cover maximal skin while avoiding heat stroke. I dread the days when my last clean pair of bottoms are my spandex booty shorts.

The architecture of my gym encourages voyeurism. The entryway is a gargantuan rotunda, bordered by a balcony that houses the cardio machines. The wall to the right boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that look in on the pool; the back wall offers views of the weight room. Everyone who enters the building — students, professors, tour groups, random stragglers — can see everyone in the building. It took a thirty-second google search to discover that the architects were all men.

Mark claimed to have been looking for an ab-roller, but they’re housed in the first-floor weight room.

2. The Sweet Spot

Years ago, as I was doing a wall sit, staring at my watch to count the painful seconds, when a husky, bearded man approached me. I kept my headphones in and avoided his gaze, hoping he’d understand the signal — he didn’t. He hovered so close, leaning his veiny arm against my wall. I removed one headphone and stood up.

“You know, if you sat this much lower” he raised his thumb and forefinger, leaving an inch between, “that would be your sweet spot.”

“Okay” I mumbled, moving to put my headphone back in.

“Wait,” he said. “I’m not just a random guy saying this. I was a trainer for five years.”

“Okay, thanks.” I jammed my headphone back into my ear, and ducking beneath his arm, I scurried away.

Because of this interaction, I’m hyperaware of my form at the gym. I worry I’m not squatting low enough, lunging deep enough, or jumping high enough. I want to prove that I, too, am qualified to use the gym.

Is this all in my head? Was the ex-trainer just a pervy anomaly? Perhaps. But if my burning sensation of being watched is psychological, I can hardly be blamed for it. Men are taught to look at women; women are taught to be looked at by men. It is the reason that the female nude as an art object has prevailed through millennia; it is the reason that publications like Playboy exist; it is the reason there are entire industries directed toward female beautification. I’m not alone in this sentiment — 90.4% of women do not enjoy being stared at while exercising, and 49% don’t want to be given advice.

I’ve always wondered if the ex-trainer would have approached me if I were a man. If his advice was a misdirected attempt at flirting, or an overt expression of power, then definitely not. If he believed he was being altruistic, I still doubt it. I’ve never seen a man advise another man on his form. To do so would reveal that one man had been watching the other, paying attention to the shape of his body. It’s a social taboo that stems from homophobia, or at least the fear of misinterpretation.

I’m aware that men are victims of objectification as well, and to claim that my gaze never drifts to a pair of sculpted biceps would be a lie. But the effect of the female gaze upon the male body, specifically at the gym, is less palpable. Men far outnumber women at my gym. All those pairs of eyes, cast upon a lone female subject, makes her feel like a zoo animal. I don’t think the ex-trainer had malevolent intentions. He never considered how demeaning his advice might be.

3. The Invisible Woman

I’m not sure what’s worse — being dehumanized or feeling invisible.

I had just finished a set of tricep dips when I felt a tap on my shoulder. (It’s always a tap — why do people find it acceptable to touch strangers?) I removed my headphones and turned to face the man who had flagged me. He was more of a teenager, really; a gangly kid with a shock of unruly hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

“Are you using that?” He gestured towards the dumbbell I was holding. I stared at him, unable to decide if he was being impudent or idiotic. He waited for my answer.

“Yeah. Sorry” I said, furious that I had apologized. He shrugged and left.

At least the kid asked to use my weight. I often set down my equipment, to take a sip of water or to change a song, only to realize that a man has snatched it. My space is encroached upon, or taken altogether, and on more than one occasion, a man has bumped into me, mumbling that he didn’t see me. These incidents suggest that my presence is inconsequential. If I’m not on display, I’m an inanimate object, as meaningless as a cinderblock wall or a sweaty dumbell.

The gym is a gendered space. Men dominate the weight room, while women are shunted to the cardio area (though men are welcome there, too). In the weight room, men fist-bump, grunt and roar, spot each other, and laugh with guys they’ve just met. You’re either in the boys’ club or you’re a woman. As a result, women go to great lengths, such as altering their workouts or forgoing to the gym altogether, to shrink in time and space. When women infiltrate masculine spaces, they’re met by eye rolls and sighs — shock at the obscene idea that a woman might use a squat rack.

This male camaraderie begins in the gym and extends to the professional sphere. I often tell my dad, the CEO of a small investment firm, that he favors the men in his office. They hit the gym during lunch hour, have a fantasy football league, and drink beer and watch sports on the weekends. I urge him to make connections with his female employees; It shouldn’t be hard — I can count the women in his office on one hand. Every time, he comes up with some excuse: “Oh, May wouldn’t want to go to the gym with us. She doesn’t work out; Amelia’s just quiet because she doesn’t speak English very well; Carla always travels for her son’s sports games on the weekends. She wouldn’t be able to come.”

Athletic men are practically worshipped in our culture. This reality is expressed in every high-school rom com, in the treatment of professional athletes, and in the success rates of athletic men. No movie that I’ve seen portrays the star of the women’s rugby team. Few people can name a WNBA player. Un-athletic women are often at a disadvantage in the workplace. Women are slowly infiltrating masculine realms, but it feels like we’re chipping at the glass ceiling with a paperclip.

4. The Wife Beater

I remember a man at the gym who caught my attention, partially because of his swollen physique, but mostly because he wore a neon-green tank top emblazed with pink block letters that read: “CONSENT IS SO FRAT.” For the next hour, I kept looking at the man, let’s call him Roid-bro, unable to shake my desire to confront him. When I finished my workout, I returned to the locker room without so much as a peep, fuming at myself.

As I made my way to the exit, I saw that Roid-bro was still pumping iron. A torrent of rage came over me, and I stormed into the weight room and right up to Roid-bro, who had just retrieved a pair of 95- pound dumbbells.

“Excuse me” I said, “I want to know what your shirt means.”

He looked at me like I had asked for the Queen of England. “Why?” In the moment it took me to gain my composure, he began to chest press the dumb bells.

“Well, because I find it offensive,” I said.

He continued to lift the weights, and when he responded, his words came through puffs of breath. “‘So frat’… means something… is really cool.” He set down the weights and looked at me, speaking slowly, like he was addressing a four-year-old. “So like, it means consent is really cool.” His use of the transitive law was astounding.I thought about my best friend, who was molested by a family member for years. My friend whose abusive relationship forced her in and out of rehab. My friend who was raped at a frat party, after which the school forced her to take a leave of absence.

“You know, so many lives have been ruined by people who don’t take consent seriously, and I know you’re trying to convey a positive message but — ” he put his headphones in and resumed his exercise. Other guys were staring and my cheeks grew hot. Were they appalled by my behavior? Applauding it? It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I fled from the gym, hoping no one would see my percolating tears.

At first, I felt like I had wrongly accused Roid-bro. Was I the type of feminist who garnered the reputation of a bra-burning misandrist?

In retrospect, I feel my behavior was justified. To reduce consent to a slangy catch-phrase, and plaster it on a garish wife-beater (the irony is too painful), is disrespectful to say the least. Roid-bro’s response — putting his headphones on while I was talking, exercising as he spoke to me — these behaviors indicated that I wasn’t worth his time.

Since this incident, occupying space at the gym makes me feel guilty. I hate that I feel this way. I know the gym’s facilities are public — mine just as much as anyone — but rational thinking rarely counteracts experiences of dehumanization.

5. Two Girls, One Mind

What irks me the most is my own complacency. When Mark was hitting on me, and when I rebuked Roid-bro, I refracted the blame onto myself. I feared I had been rude to the ex-trainer. I do all I can to be invisible.

This boils down to the bifurcation of the female psyche. On one hand, women are aware of being objects of desire. On the other, we are hyper-conscious of our own appearances, the subjects of our own narratives. Facets of our culture, social media and TV, reinforce this discordance. When a woman is inundated with images of feminine “ideals,” she is aware that the models portrayed are objects of desire. She also compares herself to the models, casting herself as subject. This is why the majority of women who exercise do so to lose weight and tone muscle, while 65% of women forego the gym to avoid judgment. We live inside and outside of ourselves, constantly trying to fulfill societal standards. We can’t win.

There is yet another contradiction I struggle with. Half the reason I lift weights is to subvert feminine stereotypes, to say “hey, women can be like men too!” The other half has to do with achieving conventional notions of beauty.

After a summer in residential treatment for an eating disorder, I returned to the gym, thirty pounds heavier. One of the trainers approached me as I finished a set of squats.

“I don’t mean for this to sound weird, but I remember seeing you around the gym. You look really good. Have you been eating more?”

“Yeah, I have” I managed to say. Part of me was mortified; part of me felt great that he had complimented my physique; part of me hated myself for feeling great.

6. The Problem

Regular exercise yields a host of benefits — stronger bones, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart attack, better sleep, and improved mental health to name a few. To achieve her potential, it’s imperative for a woman to exercise. But globally, women exercise far less than men. Marginalized groups, specifically young, black women and nonbinary folks, are even less likely to get enough exercise. This is because of sexual harassment. It’s because of unsolicited advice. It’s from being made to feel like an imposter, a zoo animal.

My favorite time to exercise is between nine and ten a.m. I’m fresh with morning vigor, I have most of the day left when I finish, and I find myself in decent company. Nine a.m. seems to be too early for most twenty-somethings, so I am joined by the middle-aged and that one octogenarian who’s still kicking it. Everyone is polite, and people keep to themselves.

This quarter, my class and work schedule have pushed my workout to the late-afternoon. 4 p.m. marks the onset of gym rat prime time. Trying to weasel my way into the weight room has become unbearable, and I’ve found myself eschewing the gym for a local yoga studio.

When I arrive for yoga class, the instructors greet me by name. I never worry about my form, and if my spandex shorts are my last clean pair of pants, I don’t give it a thought. Instead of exercising to achieve an impossible standard, I go to yoga to treat my body and detox my mind. I think I’ve become a healthier person.

At my studio, there are a couple male instructors, and sometimes a portly soccer-dad comes to class, but otherwise the studio is all-female. It feels safe, familiar, easy. It feels like a solution, but it isn’t. Even in my happy place, a minute sense of guilt tugs at me.

“You’re avoiding the problem” it says.

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Kira Leadholm

Written by

I am a freelance writer, researcher, and journalist with experience covering international news, climate change, LGBT+ justice, and arts and culture.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Kira Leadholm

Written by

I am a freelance writer, researcher, and journalist with experience covering international news, climate change, LGBT+ justice, and arts and culture.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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