Unfolding from a plank on a mat, I see his sneakers approaching.
“Are you done with your workout?”
“I’m not sure.” I pull back into a child’s pose and then flop over.
“You look like you’re done. Did you do your weights?” A dark heart of sweat blooms across his chest.
“A few. I just don’t like it here tonight.”
He looks around. Our gym. The place we come almost every free Tuesday evening after he picks me up from the metro. “You don’t like it here?”
“Not tonight,” I say.
“Okay,” he shrugs. “We can go home anytime. Let me know when you’re ready.”
His confusion is understandable. We arrived less than 40 minutes ago. At this point on most evenings, we are both coming down from our cardio grind and making the circuit of weight machines in the center of the fitness room. We don’t end up on the mats until an hour or more in. Tonight, though, I visited four machines and abandoned the circuit after a single set.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come to this gym. One of a network of nine county rec centers where I have been a member for nearly ten years, it’s as much a home-away as the library or park. Two or three days a week, sometimes more, you can find me at one of the locations doing Zumba, pounding a treadmill, swimming, or taking the kiddo to a class.
These places are community centers as much as they are gyms. Gray-haired folks play pickleball while preschoolers tumble around in tutus. Local high schools hold their swim meets here. Day camps entertain school-aged children with mini golf and nature hikes throughout the summer. Adaptive programs provide adults with special needs the opportunity to use the pool and fitness equipment. Even my own dear mother has recently renewed her membership after a lapse of several years. She is now seeing a personal trainer, and I’m looking forward to working out with her.
This is the Gym of the People. Yet tonight I feel completely out of place.
The source of my discomfort doesn’t fully crystallize until I escape to the mats at the edge of the fitness room. Looking around from this safe remove, it is clear.
The men are out. In throngs.
When I arrived at the start of my workout and mounted the lateral elliptical facing a window, two men had already reached a good heart rate on the machines behind me. During my 33 minutes getting my own blood pumping, neither of them disembarked. I could see their reflections behind me in the dark glass. Their twin gazes faced my back through the entirety of my workout. I refused to wobble.
When I stepped off, fortified and ready to stride, I passed three men tending to their cores in the stretching zone. Six eyes tracked my progress across the room. The wobble threatened but still I stayed steady.
Then at the circuit, a man perched on every other machine. Men lingering near the weights, resting between sets. On all sides, facing exactly where I happened to be. Men.
The wobble wins.
It’s a safe bet that these men have their own workout goals for the night, and those goals have nothing to do with me. Not one of them says a word to me. No one stares too long or acts like a creep. The men comprise a range of ages and body types, ethnicities and fitness levels. No tangible threat here, nothing to put my finger on. Just dudes at the gym doing gym things.
Whether or not these men are actually paying attention to me doesn’t mitigate the unease. A critical mass had been reached — one I didn’t know existed, quite honestly. In a place I often consider a second home, I no longer feel at home.
Navigating the gym can be torture for a great many of us, particularly those who do not present within a narrow range of body types. These spaces also tend to attract people — men most notably but not exclusively — who enforce unspoken expectations about whose bodies are allowed to move comfortably through the gym and what behaviors are acceptable. Machines are unwelcoming to fat or disabled bodies, locker rooms can be downright hostile to trans folx, weight rooms caves are often daunting and hyper-aggressive.
In her recent piece in Medium’s Elemental, “Can the Fitness Industry and Body Positivity Coexist? Virginia Sole-Smith explores the twisted body dysmorphia of fitness culture and the inherent barriers to access that it keeps reproducing. For every awesome, revolutionary endeavor like Decolonizing Fitness, there are thousands of mainstream fitness professionals who perpetuate the fetishization of thinness and sexist beauty norms. Women are expected to be striving for the flat belly and the bikini body. People of all genders, in fact, are swimming through a slurry of toxic masculinity when they head to the gym.
As a cis-gender, middle-aged, straight-sized white woman with no visible disabilties, I face almost zero outward weirdness at the gym. I grew up with a gym-rat father and have been working out for my entire adult life. This means I have an abundance of confidence around weights, equipment, classes, shared showers, and all the implicit norms and expectations of Gymlandia. I can pass in the gym as one who “belongs,” yet I never fully shake the sense that the space is being policed.
This policing is hard to pin down. An echo of it might come from a corner by the leg press. Or I hear it from friends who are struggling to get back to regular workouts. It’s not uncommon for people at the gym to say hateful things, sleazy things, racist things, man-splainy things, fat-phobic things, and misogynistic things. They leer. They smirk. People take clandestine photos and videos to post on social media. You can hear the folks lifting weights razzing each other with ableist and homophobic taunts.
Most of the time these things either happen under the radar or they don’t happen at all. Most of the time, the people at the gym are kind. They keep their eyes on their screens or half-focused off in the distance, they do their own workout, they step back from machines to allow others a chance to get a set in. That’s part of why microaggressions and negs — especially in a place that usually feels welcoming — can make a person bit dizzy (Wait, did that just happen? Am I imagining things?)
After all these years in the Gym of the People, it’s odd to notice that I still feel like I’m passing. Is someone going to call me out? Accost me? Eject me? This creeping sense of unease is absolutely related to the number of men in the space. Not just proportion of men to women, but the general claustrophobic anxiety that relates to being in close proximity to numerous men. It happens in crowded subways and on city streets. Definitely in bars and at sports events.
Like so many people who present as feminine (and the many more whose presentation threatens gender norms), I have learned to survive in such places by hiding a little. This shows up as giving men a wide berth, ducking out from under potential interactions, and generally staying small. Maintaining personal distance and an unfixed gaze is body-lingo for “not interested, busy with my own stuff.”
When that distance starts to close, I am trained to be on alert. Whether this approaching person presents a danger or simply a benign but uninvited exchange, I keep myself steady enough to respond effectively. A girl has to be ready to pivot out and do it without getting hurt. This forced steadying requires pulling my attention away from my own workout goals to manage the impending interaction. And yes, that pull is as taxing as a kid yanking on my arm as I try to finish a phone call. It turns me into a coiled spring. Not a pleasant state for a workout.
That rigidity is not the opposite of the wobble. It’s core of it.
If you haven’t heard of Schrödinger’s Rapist, now is the time. In 2009, in her “guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced,” novelist and private investigator Phaedra Starling writes,
When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you – to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy – you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.
Like Schrödinger’s infamous cat in the box, both dead and alive. Both innocuous and threatening.
… Upon meeting a man, we have no information about him other than the general stats. We collect more information as we go, but that information does not erase the uncertainty. It just changes the odds. The only way we know for sure — the only way the box can be opened, as it were — is if the man proves himself a rapist by committing a rape, either against us or against someone else.
I crave a break from the box. It’s so nice not to have to make a decision about opening the box when all I want to do is a few lat pulls. Considering how many boxes cross my path in a day, I don’t want to encounter one at the gym, much less find myself surrounded by a bunch all at once.
So here I am now, hunkered down on the mat in the corner. Safe.
I am not alone in this need to retreat. In her fascinating study of the geography of gym use, Stephanie Coen examines how place relates to the gendering of physical activity. Among her findings:
Both men and women avoided spaces or altered workout practices to avoid encountering hegemonic masculinity, but women additionally performed a series of more deferential practices to further minimize their consumption of space in the gym… Women were also on the receiving end of micro-aggressions that effectively crowded them out.
Crowded them out.
While the primal fear is about being attacked and killed, a more surface anxiety is about Some Dude acting toxic and pushy. “Hey, smile! It’s not that bad!” while I’m climbing on the stationary bike (this happens every time one particular old white dude passes by.) Some Dude eyeing me from one machine to the next. Some Dude mouthing something under his breath when I don’t return his pleasantries. Some Dude tracking me as I pack up.
Me looking over my shoulder to see if Some Dude has followed me as I head out to the parking lot.
As if the dudes aren’t enough to manage, we’re also negotiating the gendered design of the equipment and the space itself. Coen study also offers that “gender and heath has as much to do with places as people.” The configuration and architecture of gyms are not neutral. They shape the way we use them and how we interact with each other.
Fitness equipment, like so many objects used by people of a range of body types, are designed for an archetypical man’s body. In her 2019 book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Journalist Caroline Criado explains the gender data gap and explores how researchers in fields from medicine to transportation fail to collect data on women.
What are the chances that the interior designers of my Gym of the People took women’s workout habits and preferences into consideration when mapping this place? (My guess: slim to none).
My partner is packing up, cutting his workout short without complaint for reasons neither of us fully understand. As I make my way from the mat to the cubbies, I give the fitness room a scan. Cardio machines ring the space, facing out towards windows and walls. Circuit weights are clustered in the center. It’s true that looking out at a window can be a pleasant experience. But whose pleasant experience? When cardio equipment favored by women faces outward, it puts its users in a position of having their backs to the center of the room where men tend to gather. The sense of being watched is impossible to shake, and it may be more likely in this setup that we are being watched.
One way women can subvert constricting gender norms is to stride into masculine spaces and claim them as ours. Even when populated by Schrödinger’s Some Dude, we recognize that we have to be the agents of imagination and liberation. To do that, we have to get right up next to the box. If not open it, at least pound out a set of box-jumps, ready to face whatever might spring out.
Some days, I have the strength to do this.
Other days, I just want to relax into my own rhythm and shed the vigilance required to be that kind of strong.
Believe me, I recognize the irony. Here in this container designed for strength training, it’s one of those other days. Today, I leave the space to the men.
It will still be here to reclaim when I’m fortified and ready to stride.