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On the first day of my junior year of high school, I walked into my second period weight-training class to find myself one of just three girls in the 20-person group. My teacher, a man who had played rugby in college and considered himself a master of lifting, asked for my name and told me that later, he’d show me how to use the machines. I wasn’t quite offended that he assumed I didn’t know how — the history of female participation in this class was dismal. After two years of taking it, I can confirm that there were plenty of women more interested in their phones, socializing or opting for a nice stroll around the track for our 41-minute period.

My teacher was bewildered when I asked him if I could wear leggings in class instead of the requisite black gym shorts — I was disturbed by the idea of lifting in floppy shorts. Nevertheless, he agreed to my request. I continued to bewilder him for the rest of the year, it seemed.

The class, to me, was an opportunity to fit in a quick lift in the middle of the school day; it was an opportunity I’d never had before. My year-round participation in sports made it difficult to find time to incorporate weight training into my routine, because I was always rushing off to practice after school and on Saturday mornings or to regattas on Sundays. I could explore the weightlifting world in a smaller, more intimate setting, without the pressures of a big, expensive gym for adults. To some girls, this might seem like the absolute worst scenario — voluntarily lifting weights, in the middle of the school day, among a bunch of teenage boys who are also your classmates? For some reason, I embraced it. Nothing helped me calm down ahead a test in precalculus quite like completing a 40-minute workout immediately beforehand.

One of the most rewarding things about the class didn’t revolve around my own progress as an athlete, although that did excite me. The best thing, for me, was noticing how, over the course of the year, the boys I was sharing the weight room with gradually began to accept my presence as one that was both sustained and impressive. It went from a relationship where they would correct my form and snicker as I moved around the room to one where they were helping me reach weights that were too high up for me or offering to spot me. Slowly but surely, I cemented my place in the weight room.

More than evolving relationships with the boys in my class, I watched as the girls who had originally been choosing to avoid the actual weights at all costs (instead, begging our teacher to take a few leisurely laps around the track outside) shift mentalities as time went on. By December, they were completing ab circuits. In March, I noticed that they had begun to use the kettlebells and dumbbells scattered around the room. I don’t give myself credit for this transformation, but I can’t help but wonder if my presence and willingness to interact with weights had encouraged them to try it themselves. At the very least, I hope that I made them feel more comfortable in that setting.

The weight room is not a place that feels very welcoming to women. While there’s nothing that is blatantly stopping us, there is a constant undertone in every gym I walk into that conveys to me that I do not belong there.

Upon walking into Northwestern’s Henry Crown Sports Pavilion weight room my first week here, I realized nothing would be different. I stood at the entrance of the weight room, right past the big glass doors, and I counted. That Thursday afternoon, there were approximately 47 men and one woman—that woman being me. I sighed and set my things in a cubby, then I got to work. While I still get that awkward twinge that lasts just a couple seconds, it has dulled considerably over the last couple of years. Every time it happens, I think back to the girls I knew in my junior and senior year weight training classes.

When the thing stopping us from taking on the weight room is our own fears, the only way forward is to confront them head-on. I want my presence to be comforting and encouraging to other women who are still working on battling internal pressure and anxiety in that space. Now that I can do it, I feel that I have an obligation to lend my support to other women who feel as I did or as the girls in my gym class did. A little awkward, a little worried about people (men) looking at me, extremely self-conscious, in the very beginning, about the fact that I had no clue how to use half the machines in the room. But things can change, and they will, once you decide that no one can make you feel that way unless you let them.

Sometimes women ask me how I got to this point. I tell them that it’s 2019; no one has the right to keep me out of a gym or any other public space. I have a deep commitment to my personal health and fitness, and the opinions (or my fear of opinions) of college-aged men will never have the power to influence that. The more women who can reach that same spot, the more we will begin to infiltrate weight rooms and plenty of other spaces that are overwhelmingly dominated by men. The presence of women encourages even more women, and that’s when progress will commence.

Image Courtesy of Creative Commons

Jenna Spray

Northwestern '23

Jenna is a journalism and legal studies double major at Northwestern University. In her free time, she enjoys binge eating dark chocolate and studying Italian in hopes that she can one day become an honorary Italian citizen. As a washed-up high school athlete, fitness is one of Jenna's passions, and her goal is to encourage more young women to get in the weight room. You can find her curled up in her bed watching Gossip Girl or using the squat rack at your local gym.
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