No Woman’s Land

I’ve had to experiment with many different variations of workout spaces. As a rower, it is imperative that I not only workout, but also train hard. I’ve been forced to get very creative with how I train when I have been unable to use an actual gym or when it hasn’t been necessarily safe for me to go for a run on my own. However, some of the most challenging moments of my training have come when I’ve had access to a full gym at home.

I’ve been using Planet Fitness on and off for nearly five years. I never really had an issue when I was only using the cardio equipment. On my first break from Smith, I returned to Planet Fitness and had to use their weight lifting equipment in order to keep up with the off-season training plan our coaches had designed for us. While it was easy to translate the workouts into something I could do with the weights available to me, I discovered a factor I had never before considered: the audience.

Smith College is one of the Seven Sisters, one of the original American women’s colleges and one of the largest that exists today. This means that even our public fitness center has limited males in attendance. Also, nearly everyone who uses our fitness center has at least a bit more respect than the average gym-goer. I’ve gotten used to not worrying about who’s watching me or how I present myself. This is a privilege that I have taken for granted.

I quickly discovered the middle-aged men at Planet Fitness who were somehow astonished that a young female was lifting more than a ten-pound weight. Apart from the stares, I’ve had multiple men come up to me and “compliment” my abilities. I don’t know which part is more offensive: that they interrupt my workout or that they assume that the base level of ability of a female athlete is so low.

This past December, I had two interactions in a row that sent me over the edge. A frequent PF-goer who spends literal hours standing near the weights was at the bench next to me. I could tell by his body language that he was trying to get my attention, so I kept both earphones in and only looked forward. I guess he felt so compelled to talk to me that he touched my arm to get my attention. I want to scream just typing those words. How can a man believe that he has the right to enter my physical space only to deliver words that he deems so important?

His brilliant musings to me: “You did a really good job on those. Not many girls could do that.”

I clenched my fists, getting ready to spew words of social justice at this little man. I quickly realized that anything that I said in a fit of rage would be dismissed.

“I think it’s society that’s telling women that they can’t.”

It was concise and seemed to get my message across. Societal norms and the presence of men particularly limit what we as a culture believe women are capable of. It is assumed that a woman goes to the gym to run on the treadmill and only uses the weights to do some little tricep move so that she could show off. When someone like me actually deadlifts and squats, it blows the closed minds of these men. How could a girl be doing the same thing I’m doing?

Almost immediately after that initial interaction, a middle-aged man walks up to me and says, “You’re a strong little girl; that’s a lot of weight.” He then puts out his fist for me to bump. Not knowing how to respond, I fist bumped him and there are few things I regret more than that.

He called me a little girl. And he completely underestimated the physical capabilities of someone my age, size, and gender. If I didn’t already know about the eyes that were glued to me while I infiltrated a “man’s space,” I was extremely aware of them now.

Just a few nights ago, I felt the male gaze of a middle-aged man who was seated at the weight machines, just far enough away so it wasn’t obvious, but close enough to have a clear shot of me doing my Bulgarian squats. My mother was with me that night and confirmed that it was not in my head: I was being watched.

Planet Fitness is a judgement-free zone, but what if those judgements are so ingrained in our minds that we can’t help but judge? Some women might mistake this attention for flirtation, but so much of it is a discomfort with the presence of women in a space that for so long was reserved for men. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with this issue. There is the mental component of ignoring their watchful glances, but there is also the safety concern. What if someone tries to talk to me or follows me out to my car, and I don’t give him the female compliance words he anticipates? It’s a scary world, unfortunately, even on Planet Fitness.

Have you had similar issues? Do you have any advice on how to deal with the male gaze?

4 thoughts on “No Woman’s Land

  1. I have definitely experienced the “male gaze” at the gym! It’s made me so uncomfortable that I’ll gather the free weights I need and do my workout in a corner or empty exercise room to avoid it…I’ve even left the gym altogether before.
    Over the last few years, I’ve started buying my own free weights and exercise equipment and fashioned a home gym of sorts in my basement. It works for me because I don’t live very close to a gym and it’ super convenient!

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    1. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with it, too. Unfortunately, it’s rare for a woman to not have experienced the male gaze. You’re lucky, having a home gym is the dream situation!

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  2. Yup! This is not a good feeling at all. Since I started with a personal trainer, I’ve noticed the glares have stopped quite a bit. It’s like “oh she’s serious with her workouts”. Damn straight I am and I was before, but just preferred to wear long black pants and a long sleeve black shirt so I wouldn’t receive too much attention. Ugh! I get why they have women’s only gyms now.

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    1. I’ve found that even if you look serious, the men still come up to us and have something to say. It is sometimes so obvious the societal problems we have! I’m sorry you and all women have had to deal with this.

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