Heavyweights Only: Body Exclusion in the Weight Room

If you feel at ease in the weight room, think about the space you might be taking up. (Courtesy of thoroughlyreviewed.com via Flickr)

I am not a professional fitness expert, but I am plenty competent in a gym. But when I go to the weight room at the Rains Center, more often than not, I get nervous.

I feel like a different specimen, disrupting the prototypically masculine, testosterone-infused space. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, hyper-aware of my every move and pressuring myself not to mess up. On top of all that, I also fear unwanted conversation, perhaps other gym-users, probably men, telling me how to better my form or complimenting me on an exercise.

For most of my life, I avoided weight rooms entirely. It was not a space where I felt welcome. I saw very few women or non-stereotypically male bodies in weight rooms. Women in the gym stayed almost exclusively on cardio machines, so that’s where I went.

In college, I became interested in lifting weights. I would sometimes see women in the weight room, but not often. It took two years of college before I worked up the courage to venture into that space. To this day, I maneuver the weight room with anxiety.

This experience is not unique to me. For a while, I would lift weights only with my other female-identifying friends. We went in solidarity. Because we previously had experiences of feeling ostracized and uncomfortable in the weight room, we used strength-in-numbers to ease ourselves into a space dominated by bodies unlike ours.

We prefer to go to the weight room at non-peak hours, particularly when the male varsity teams are not present. When we go, we assume a certain level of vulnerability. If we want to lift weights, we have to accept or ignore this feeling.

The exclusivity of the weight room has been documented more generally, too. A Guardian article highlighting the health benefits of weightlifting for women begins “weights areas in gyms have long been viewed as intimidating, testosterone-drenched spaces,” and a Reddit thread on fitness agrees: “I am a little bit tired of women's experiences being ignored. I'm tired of women being told that they are being sensitive.”

But the exclusivity of the weight room is not just about male bodies excluding female bodies. It is more nuanced. It is about the exclusion of certain types of bodies, specifically bodies that stray from gendered and racialized norms.

Accordingly, the weight room often denies bodies that deviate from the dominant standard of white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, muscular bodies.

Moreover, the association of “healthy” and “fit” with skinniness is over-emphasized. Thin does not necessarily equal fit, says cardiologist C. Noel Bairey-Merz of Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, yet bigger bodies are often ostracized in the gym.

While Western cultures overwhelmingly view exercise as a means to weight loss, exercise offers well-documented health benefits like reducing risk of life-threatening diseases, and improving mental health.

For those who wish to exercise, access to gyms should be unrestricted physically and emotionally. While there are no posted rules barring certain bodies from entering the weight room, there is a tacit atmosphere that discourages these bodies from working out. The colleges advertise inclusivity (whether or not they achieve it is a different question) in classrooms and clubs. Therefore, public spaces like Rains and other gyms should welcome all, not just those who fall into a certain physical category.

Completely changing the environment of these spaces would require a huge societal shift in the construction of gender norms, and that is no easy task. So how can we feasibly increase inclusivity in the weight room?

I can only think of changes that would have made my friends and I feel more welcome in the space. Underlying these thoughts, though, is an overarching theme: who is taking up space and how they are doing it.

If you feel at ease in the weight room, think about the space you might be taking up. Are you making excessive noise (you know what I mean: grunts, groans, moans, etc.)? Are you using a larger-than-necessary swath of floor space for your exercise? Are you invading others’ privacy (whether you mean to or not) by staring at them or commenting on their bodies and routines?

These are all actions, some subconscious and others conscious, that can create an exclusive atmosphere. They are actions that cause discomfort, and may discourage some from even entering the weight room.

Not everyone enjoys working out, and some may never set foot into the gym, and that is more than ok. But for those that want to lift weights, let's all try to make that not only possible, but also comfortable.