Lift Like a Girl

Since the beginning of this project, I have been lifting weights one to three times per week for one hour sessions. During weekdays, I train at RIMAC on campus, but on weekends I go to LA Fitness. I workout with either my female roommate, my boyfriend, or by myself. My roommate has never lifted before, so when we go together, I must explain the exercises and techniques. However, my boyfriend has more expertise than both my roommate and I combined…multiplied by two. He knows the names of the muscles each exercise targets, the optimal amount of weight and repetitions, and which exercises to complete. I prefer to train with my boyfriend because otherwise, I feel like a fish out of water in the weight pit/sections. But why is this? Why do I feel uncomfortable in only certain areas of the gym?

For the past several weeks, I have been observing the gender dynamics of the gym. Women dominate the cardio equipment areas (stairmaster, elliptical, treadmill, stationary bicycle), and men rule…well, everything else. On any given day, no matter the time of day, day of the week, holiday or not, I always see more women in the cardio area and more men in the weights territories. There are a few men who run on the treadmills and there are a couple women lifting weights, but not much deviation.

I could roam the cardio section and not think twice about it; however, when I cross the invisible line into the weights areas, I feel like I don’t belong. I am neither male, nor a big, buff bro, therefore, a minority. In the weights section, I feel like a subject of the gaze–almost as though I am under constant scrutiny because the men are looking at me. Last week, I observed two girls on the assisted chin-up machine. Mid chin-up, a bro walks over and politely tells the girls they are gripping the bar wrong. They thank him and obediently correct their grips for the remainder of their sets. How did this correction make them feel? Why did they obey him? What if the girls knew he was wrong and they were doing it right? Would they have argued against them? Even if the girls thought the bro was wrong, I think they probably would have obeyed anyways because of the gym’s gendered power dynamics. Girls in the weights section are presumably less knowledgeable than the men, thus, need help/correction/guidance, regardless of whether they ask for it or not. Men have authority in the weights territory because they are the majority and bodybuilding is “their sport.”

I have found it difficult to feel “at home” in this setting. I would even say the weights section is intimidating for females. Once my friend told me she decided to “grow some cojones, go do a few squats, then leave ASAP.” If she had to muster the courage to enter this area, then obviously she was intimidated. Her choice of words is also interesting in that she says she must “grow” male genitalia in order to even enter the space, then leaves “ASAP” due to discomfort or insecurity.

Additionally, I have also observed the sexualized male gaze at the gym. When I work out, I wear yoga or sweat pants with a baggy, short-sleeved t-shirt and some old Oasics running shoes. However, many women at the gym sport spandex booty shorts, colorful Nike running shoes, and tight tank tops with bright sports bras. Even though they’re just working out, women want to look sexy because they know they will be objects of the sexualized male gaze. I actually found Instagram accounts devoted to “fitness fashion,” which show women how to match their sports bras to their spankys to the swoosh on their Nike shoes in a “sexy” way.

In “Measuring Muscular Strength,” Carolyn de la Pena explains that “men who walked away after Zander’s trots and Sargent’s pulls could rest assured that though they might not ever outbox, outlift, or even outride the average working man, their bodies alone possessed machine power for the modern age” (88). This mechanization of the body is quite apparent at the gym; not only are people utilizing machines that can be traced back to early designs made by Sargent, but also sculpting their bodies to attain the ideal physique. Athletes often gear their work outs towards their particular sports with an objective in mind. However, bodybuilders lift weights to harness and enhance their “bodies as machines.”

Works Cited

de la Peña, Carolyn Thomas. “Measuring Mechanical Strength.” The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American. New York and London: New York University Press, 2003, 50-88.

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One Response to Lift Like a Girl

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Your attention to the gendered spatial politics of the gym seems right on to me based on my experience in other university settings. Being in the minority is hard in any situation, particularly so when you are assumed to be in a lesser position of sorts–in this case in terms of your knowledge and ability. Though you should not have to “man up” to enter such spaces, I admire that you are. It is by challenging such spaces and their implicit politics that change can occur. What would it look like to implement gender education in spaces such as the gym? I’ve pondered this before, and would enjoy knowing what others think.

    You also point out how women can be complicit in their own objectification and sexualization. This is tricky terrain, and important to think about. I wonder how the reading on surfing helps you to think about these issues? Additionally, what other metaphors along with body as machines do you notice in the gym?

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