Dress Codes and Gymtimidation: How Society is Keeping Women Out of the Gym

I was in the zone. My Spotify playlist of Dolly Parton and Lizzo songs was pumping through my headphones as I completed my second set of hip dips on the bench at Skyline gym. 

“Um, excuse me.” My workout was interrupted, but what came next ruined my day even more. 

“It’s okay for this time, but make sure next time your shirt covers up here,” the student employee said to me as she gestured to my chest.

I was wearing a tank top as I frequently do at the gym, but this was my first dress code warning. And I was confused. Because as I looked around Skyline that day, I saw a number of guys also wearing tank tops, some that had the armholes cut down to their waists. 

So, in the shadow of my shame, I asked the employee why it was okay for the guys to be wearing tank tops, to which she really did not have a clear answer. She did not even try to make the excuse that it was for health and safety reasons. All she could say was that my shirt, compared to the men’s shirts, showed “too much skin.” 

After this experience, I wanted to get out of the gym as soon as possible. This is the dangerous result of the double standard of dress codes. Because while the men in the gym that day got to continue their workout without being bothered, I was left flustered and even more insecure than I already tend to be at the gym. 

Related: How to Get Over Feeling Intimidated at the Gym 

And I am not alone in this experience. 

After sharing what had happened with female friends and family members, I received an outpouring of similar stories. And looking online, you can find stories from other college students who were left embarrassed and outcast as the result of sexist dress code policing.  

Many argue that gym dress codes are beneficial as they may help prevent the spread of infections like MRSA and ringworm. However, these dress codes are not universal across all gyms and are not enforced equally, suggesting that their purpose may be misleading. 

Here at Mason, the dress code for any recreational facility is a full-length shirt, athletic pants/shorts and athletic, non-marking shoes. The Mason Recreation website further explains that shirts should “cover full chest and back.” 

According to Mason Rec, dress policies are supposed to be “uniformly enforceable,” but tend to disproportionately impact women. If it were a real health concern, they would be enforced across all genders. 

Both genders are also allowed to wear shorts and shirts without long sleeves, suggesting that the gyms are not entirely concerned with the spread of skin infections, as ringworm and the like can be spread on appendages as easily as backs and chests. 

And, while these dress codes are being strictly enforced for women, cleaning the machines is more of a suggestion. Women are called out or even asked to leave, but nobody who fails to clean a machine experiences the same. Trust me, I have seen it one too many times.  

So again, it seems as if the dress code’s facade of being about health and hygiene is more about once again oversexualizing and controlling the way women dress. 

The Mason Rec dress code even states that “Modest dress prevents anyone from being offended by what others are wearing (or not wearing).”

Dress codes are not just embarrassing, they are holding women back from pursuing their fitness goals, a travesty since even getting women in the gym in the first place can be a huge challenge.

A FitRated survey of one thousand Americans found that 64.9 percent of women have avoided the gym due to anxiety or fear of judgment, compared to 36.1 percent of male respondents. 

“I hoped I could find the courage to go to the cardio room one day but never imagined going into the weight room filled with testosterone and people staring,” said Sayeeda Chowdhury in an interview with Glamour. 

Chowdhury is now a powerlifter, but like many, the gymtimidation was a real deterrent to stepping up to her full fitness potential. 

According to a 2018 report by The Lancet Global health, women are less likely than men to get enough aerobic exercises. And when muscle-strengthening activity is factored in, that gap widens according to a 2018 report by the CDC. 

The very design of gyms is likely one of the culprits of these dismal reports. Stark gender lines appear to be drawn in gyms, with men clustered around free weights and women filling the cardio machines. 

Resistance exercise has been shown to help build and maintain bone density, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and reduce the risk of falls. So keeping women away from such exercise is impacting their overall health and future. 

All bodies are capable of doing amazing things, but keeping women out of fitness spaces, whether it be by sexist dress codes or gymtimidation, is holding them back from exploring all types of workouts. 

However, the outlook is not completely bleak. 

Related: How Exercise Changed the Way I See Myself 

Today, 47 percent of all USA Weightlifting members are women and the team is ranked among the top 3 in the world. This exciting record proves that women are interested in fitness and strength training, but just need to be shown that they belong in those spaces. 

Enacting change in dress codes and even the layouts of gyms can help anyone outside of the cis-male circle feel more comfortable. And, next time you are at the gym and see a woman who is struggling with a machine or is lifting, do not be just another voice of judgment, be a voice of support. 

“Between my sets, if I see a female lifter or someone who looks nervous as I once did, I smile to make them feel comfortable,” said Chowdhury. “The gym is for us all and no one should feel they don’t belong or aren’t good enough to be there.”