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Claiming Gym Space as a Female – How to Not Feel Pressured Out of the Weight Room

My workout journey has gone through phases of bedroom YouTube workouts and long podcast walks around my neighborhood, which eventually brought me to my current era of going to the gym. Leaving the comfort of my old fitness habits to exercise in a public space unexpectedly drained my confidence. I soon found myself checking Snapchat maps before leaving my house to see who I would have to face during my workout. The bitmojis who made me hesitate to go were all men. 

When school started, I realized I had to tackle a brand new environment: the Eppley Recreation Center, which is the on-campus gym at the University of Maryland. During my first week of school I made it a goal to go to the gym. This goal remained unchecked on my whiteboard for several days and I found myself avoiding my plan by supplementing the gym with other forms of exercise. I forced myself to check out Eppley on a random Sunday night, but when I walked into the weight room to do some bicep curls I shrunk when I realized I was the only female in a room of roughly twenty men.

I wanted to leave. I’ll just go on the treadmill today, I thought. Before walking out, I stopped myself. Why was I going to let my identity as a woman interfere with what I wanted to do at the gym, a communal space open to all university students? 

A gender discrepancy in the weight room is responsible for the lack of women. The “gym bro” culture associated with weight lifting deters women, especially first-time lifters, from claiming their space in the weight room. According to a study by Bryant University senior Colby Norris, 73.3% of men reported going to the gym to lift weights, compared to only 53.1% of women. So, why is this? 

The Eyes of Society, and Male Gym-Goers

Beauty standards are ever-changing for all genders, but thanks to the Victoria’s Secret models and fad dieting of the 2010s, today’s young women have grown  up pressured to be as small as possible. In an article published by Vogue in 2014, VS model Adriana Lima details her intense 90-minute workout routine, which boasts 30 straight minutes of jump rope combined with bouts of boxing. With cardio workouts rumored to result in the ‘supermodel look’ of celebrities like Bella Hadid and Olivia Ponton, it is not surprising many women feel obligated to stick to the treadmill, especially since few of the models we’re told to look up to are muscular. Women have been taught to shrink themselves and the feared ‘bulky’ look most females associate with muscle building keeps them from lifting weights.  

Meanwhile, men have grown up with different expectations. In the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s build in the popular film Terminator promoted a physique attainable only by intense weight-lifting and steroids. Then, from the 1990s to the present, actors such as Brad Pitt and Miles Teller made muscular arms complimented by a six pack the ‘ideal’ look. Today, most men are avid gym-goers addicted to protein and a pump while women are worried about carbs and limiting calories. The desire to attain two very different physiques is responsible for attracting men to the weight room while deterring women. 

Society is not the only force responsible for segregating men and women to different sections of the gym. In a study by The London Economic, a whopping 73% of women said they have felt uncomfortable in the gym, while 91% reported being stared at by male gym-goers. “Almost half of the respondents said they received unsolicited or inappropriate remarks, and some women had photos taken of them”, Andra Maciuca writes. No one wants to feel sexualized during their workout, and unfortunately just one creepy guy can end a woman’s exercise plans. In a TikTok posted by Emma Mueller, she reveals a video of an older man who appears to be following her around the gym as she’s deadlifting. She is visibly  disturbed by the man and waits to continue her workout until he leaves the area. 

It is Time to Claim Your Space

When it comes to exercising, any form is completely valid. You should only be moving your body in ways you want to and comfortably can. Do not let the opposite gender scare you away from lifting weights. If you are the only girl in the weight room, challenge yourself to stick around long enough to empower other women to enter the space and break these stereotypes. 
To work up the confidence to enter these male-dominated spaces, listen to empowering artists such as Lizzo, Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj on your way to the gym (check out this Spotify playlist)! If you are a newbie, find a gym buddy who can show you how to use the machines and perform exercises, so when you go alone, you feel confident in what you are doing. Practice positive affirmations including “I am strong”, “I am dominant” and “I am a powerful woman” to remind yourself you belong in the weight room too. Be firm with what machines you want to use and if one is occupied do not hesitate to ask how many sets the user has left, even if he is a muscly male. You have the right to every resource in the gym just as much as anyone else. Every woman deserves to take up space, both in and outside of the gym. Start owning it!

     
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