Are Gyms Safe Spaces for Women?
A "safe space" is 'a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm' (Oxford Languages).
In early 2020, 'gym harassment' was discussed by the BBC, The Guardian, Refinery 29 and many other high and low profile outlets. The BBC reported that up to 7 in 10 women had faced experiences at the gym that made them feel uncomfortable.
In the Metro, Emily Clarkson discussed the various ways she and other women have experienced harassment in the gym: "being mansplained in the weight area, catcalled on a run, being stared at [and] stood behind or photographed as we squat".
Whilst the fitness industry often endorses building strength and fitness to gain autonomy and empowerment in life, is this encouragement direct at everybody?
Traditional gyms, particularly the weights area, have long been male-dominated spaces (building muscle is often seen as a 'manly' pursuit), despite the fact that weight-bearing activities are essential for women in preventing osteoporosis.
Research in 2003 found that despite an even gender split of people attending the gym, women only made up around 10 to 20% of the weights room, but proportionally outweighed men in the cardio room.
The analysis explained that "many women use the cardiovascular room because they believe it will allow them to be physically fit while maintaining the "ideal" feminine physique" meaning slim and 'toned' - not strong and muscular.
Mainstream attitudes towards this 'ideal' aesthetic have changed somewhat in the last few decades.
Throughout history, in almost all counties and cultures, women with muscular or athletic bodies have been shunned for not conforming to the feminine archetype, which, depending on the time in history, reflects the preference of the male-gaze.
Today there is more conversation and positivity around women having muscles and being physically strong. Still, the dialogue is often focused on reassuring women that lifting weights won't make them 'big' (heaven forbid!).
Chloe Gray noted in the Stylist that "some people are also stuck in the mindset that a woman showing physical strength is a strange phenomenon" and symptoms of this attitude are definitely felt by many women. It only takes one visit to your local gym to see that the weights areas are dominated by men, which can create a barrier of accessibility for women, where they might not feel comfortable (or entitled) to be in and use that space.
In some gym and fitness spaces, however, there has been a progressive move in facilitating women's inclusion. A 2017 study by IHRSA found that communities like Crossfit and Kickboxing had a relatively equal participation of men and women.
Efforts have been made to make women in sport more visible, like the national campaign This Girl Can, which showcased women of every size, shape and ability moving and exercising.
This Girl Can was born as a response to gender disparity in fitness activity, with Sport England consistently finding that women were less active than men.
Since their launch in 2015, alongside wider public pressure for inclusive and diverse visual representation, there has been a noticeable difference in fitness marketing in terms of representation and diversity.
So why is it that women feel hesitant?
In 2017, a report on the gender participation gap in sport found "that 75% of women want to be more active, but [their] fear of judgement about their appearance or ability is their primary barrier for not [participating]. This is in direct contrast to men who are more likely to overestimate their sporting abilities".
Whilst Body Positivity and Feminist movements have made significant strides in promoting the importance of physical health for women, and living to please yourself rather than the male-gaze, it is difficult to combat the cultural hangover of decades of gendered attitudes towards fitness and the objectification women's bodies.
Gyms can be particularly exposing places because they open-plan and often very big.
Sporting outfits are also mostly formfitting because they are designed to enhance physical performance. While women might want to reach a PB at the gym and wear said clothing, they may be hypersensitive to any unwanted glances or approaches because their body is so on show. Afterall, in the words of John Berger (Ways of Seeing) 'from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually....men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at...The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
Though some sporting communities like Crossfit or Kickboxing might feel representative and inclusive, these feelings that arise in the gym; hesitant, exposed, conscious about appearance or ability and general insecurity, indicates that gyms as a whole are not safe spaces yet. Even if gym harassment, comments, stares or mansplaining happens to a far smaller minority than 7/10 women, it is still an issue because it should not be happening at all.
What can gyms do to foster inclusivity?
It isn't inherently wrong for people to approach other people in the gym.
However, it should be the responsibility of the gym corporation to train PTs to know how to approach people in a safe, welcoming and non-gendered way that respects their privacy and time.
It is crucial for there to be a way for gym-goers to safely and confidentially give feedback or seek help if they've been made to feel uncomfortable.
There should also be stricter 'crackdowns' on intimidating and predatory characters.
An Ask For Angela style service at gyms could make sure that women feel properly heard.
Non-gendered, diverse marketing, advertising, promotion and branding will play a powerful role in disrupting gender norms. Simply seeing women weightlifting, men doing pilates and diverse bodies enjoying fitness and strength helps to deconstruct embedded arbitrary ideas of what is 'manly' or 'for girls'.
There is a need to shift the sexualisation of women in activewear. More should be done to tackle the male-gaze.
Misogynistic or hyper-sexualised comments on women's bodies must be called out, and movements like Free The Nipple endorsed.
Mainstream attitudes and perceptions transform with time and progression can continue in sporting circles. The positive body movements that come now will empower women down the line and with effort, intimidation experienced in gym and sporting environments will lessen for everyone, if not be eliminated.
It is difficult to represent everybody all the time, and there will always be personal insecurities that make people feel intimidated in any space. But when it comes to fitness spaces and gyms, the people managing them are responsible for ensuring safe experiences for women.
If gyms were truly safe spaces, they would be comfortable environments for all.