Athletics and the art of physical training have been dominated by men since Ancient Greek times. Men trained for war, for glory and renown, and for aesthetic ends. The goal of attaining what the Greeks believed to be the ideal body shape still lingers today. Yet in the ancient world, women were almost entirely excluded from physical training. This is unfortunately still relevant in today’s time—women are physically and mentally left out of the spaces where strength training occurs. Despite modern progress, the greatest inequalities today between the genders in the world of fitness are to be found in the pursuit of strength and muscle.
To help understand women’s fitness today, fast forward a couple millennia to the late 1900s, when personal fitness became more of a for-profit rather than for-wellness industry. The aerobics revolution in the 1980s spearheaded by Jane Fonda created a huge rise in popularity of cardio workouts, and directly influenced the stereotype that women must do cardio. Fonda revolutionized at-home workouts, giving another reason as to why women should not need to attend commercial or specialized gyms. She also promoted treadmills—no wonder women thought they were meant to stay in the cardio area.
The multitude of fitness DVDs like P90X and Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred, alongside online workout programs such as Kayla Itsines Bikini Body Guide, emphasize getting fit or losing weight in a short time span rather than gaining lifelong strength and wellbeing. Today, social media and “fitspo” advertisements have a profound influence on this matter. Many accounts sensationalize “toning up”, which make it seem like fat loss and sleek abs (but not a full 6-pack, because that’s too manly!) are the most important things a woman can achieve in her fitness pursuits. Rather than strength, health, and athletic excellence, cosmetic goals often dominate. In short, fitness, cardio, and aesthetics were supposedly one and the same. Despite the modest use of resistance training in some of these systems, it came to be that cardio was “more female” and weights “more male” in the public eye.
Cardio, of course, is great for both women and men – and by all means, it is important to do what you enjoy. However, there are many basic misconceptions when it comes to weight training, which is the practice of using weights to provide resistance and cause microscopic damage to the muscle, ultimately leading to an increase in strength and muscle mass. Popular “strength sports” include powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding, strong(wo)man, and CrossFit. Just saying “lifting weights” is an oversimplification.
An all-too-common myth is that if women lift weights, they will become “bulky.” This myth is often perpetuated by media that focuses solely on physique competitors, who follow extremely strict dietary regimens and who are at their leanest right before a competition. Whatever “bulk” or extreme leanness these women may have is a massive distortion of the body type of a typical female lifter. Women can lift hundreds of pounds with wildly varying body types, whether small or large, and with muscles that can be either defined or undefined. The women who do in fact look “bulky” have spent many dedicated years training towards this specific goal. Men with significant hormonal muscle-building advantages sometimes try for years to bulk up and fail. Thus it is impossible any woman will “accidentally” wake up with too much muscle. In any case, if a woman does want to become more muscular, she should have the power to do so without facing judgment from others.
Yet the “getting bulky” myth is only one small aspect of why women are not inclined to strength train – another prevalent aspect is that women typically face intimidation in the weight room. Considering the previous history of fitness, the weight room is still heavily gendered. Upon entering the Western rec centre weight room, Lauren Giandomenico, a third year MIT student, says she “felt as though the metal-pumping, big-biceped, grown men with beards were not only terrifying, but more importantly, I felt I was invading their space.” Giandomenico says her biggest problem with gym culture is “the intrusive ‘male gaze,’ my interpreted need to ‘prove myself,’ and the subtle ‘man’s world’ experiences…this is a systemic problem in all gym culture.” Her example proves the amount of courage required to surmount the difficulties women have to face daily at the gym, especially if these underlying thoughts never truly go away.
Although it may seem like creating a “women’s only” section in the rec centre would help in decreasing the intimidation that women experience, it would only be treating the symptom of a larger systemic problem. Giandomenico agrees: “truly, the change must come from an educational standpoint, where boys/girls/women/men are socially and instrumentally taught to create safe spaces that can be as equally accessible by girls and women as their male counterparts.” That is to say, the gym needs to be de-gendered.
Indeed, all sections of a gym must be inclusive for everyone to achieve both strength and mental success. We must all work proactively with students and administration to create this space. A famous ancient motto states that we should strive for a healthy mind in a healthy body (mens sana in corpore sano). This is key. Our mental and bodily health is tied together, and without feeling comfortable in a lifting environment, it becomes extremely difficult to progress on either of these fronts.
Despite all these prevalent issues, there is hope for gym culture. Women are becoming more involved in strength sports and are empowering each other along the way. Check out the continuation of this article in our corresponding video on openwidezine.com, where we interview some female powerlifters and hear about their responses to gym culture.