When I first started going to the gym I was terrified. I felt like everyone was watching me, judging for the weights I chose—which were not very heavy—and most of all, grimacing at the sweat seeping through my disposable mask.
Being a girl in a gym environment was not easy at first, and it didn’t get any easier for a long while. Walking into a room full of men with rippling muscles, cut-off shirts, weighted belts and lifting objects double your own body weight is intimidating. What’s even more intimidating is the gym girls! Everyone has baseball hats, name-brand matching gym sets, performance sneakers and energy drinks in shaker bottles. It is easy to feel alone, confused and unwelcome as a beginner in a gym environment. This leads to many girls shying away into the corners and not using any of the equipment that they wanted to try (often sticking to the cardio machines or quitting altogether). How do I know this? Because it was me!
An article from Glamour magazine cites data from the US Centre for Disease Control that found only 49% of women meet the recommended aerobic exercise level compared to 57% of men. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to experience weight stigma and discrimination. Not to mention all the content fed to women through movies, television and social media about what is an acceptable body image. These are problematic gendered facts about the way we live and it is more important than ever to make a change. Gyms are social spaces that are designed to exclude women and perpetuate certain attitudes in men. Being afraid is ok: but we cannot be afraid to challenge that fear and push ourselves to step outside of what society tells us is acceptable.
Understanding what your body can do, feeling how it moves and feeling the strength it has can make you feel so much happier, more confident and more capable. I’ve met so many girls who workout not because they want to look a certain way, but because it feels good! Once you get over the initial hurdle of going consistently, learning the equipment and building a little bit of muscle, going to the gym has profound impacts on your mental health. I’ve been able to buy and wear clothes that I never thought I could: not because my body looks different, but because I feel proud enough to wear them! The best part has been learning to be grateful for the body I have, the strength that I have and knowing that I am working on myself for myself. There is no feeling like using heavier dumbbells, increasing the weight on the cables or adding another plate to the bar (even if it’s only 5 pounds).
So here is my message to all the ladies out there: try working out with some weights. Go to your local rec center first, and pay drop in fees until you get more comfortable. Or even pick up a few sets of dumbbells at Walmart and work out in the comfort and privacy of your own home/dorm. Splurge on some cute athleisure outfits and show them off! Spend an afternoon putting together a playlist that hypes you up. You don’t need anything fancy, and if you find yourself still loving it after a few months, then join a gym and get any other equipment you find yourself using. Working out isn’t just for men and it shouldn’t continue to be stigmatized that way.
It won’t happen all at once. I’ve been working out for 6 months and I still have days where I struggle, feel embarrassed or make a mistake. But the smiles I get from other girls in the gym, the smile I get when I sweat out the anxiety or the smile I get when I reach a personal fitness goal are like nothing else. I am proud of myself for the first time in a long time. And it is so unfair that men get to gatekeep that feeling. If you were thinking about working out but are on the fence about it, here’s your sign! It’s also a great idea for a New Year’s resolution (cliché I know) but hey, leave the fitness to the men? I don’t think so!