Feminism and gymming

April 8, 2008 rooroo

For a while I’ve been trying to articulate how I feel about weight training and how that relates to me as a feminist. I thought how I feel about other men at the gym would help. Generally at my gym, the guys are pretty cool. Most of them put their weights back, say hello, ask me if I’m done with something rather than taking it (take heed, that fitness instructor) and are always open to alternating on equipment if the place is busy. In all my time there, two of them have said how much they admire seeing a woman doing weight training. It was a nice thing to hear and was very sincere both times (despite my boyfriend saying they were trying to sleep with me. If I was open to their advances, it would be a good place to start).

I’ve never directly had any negativity. Sometimes I get stared at, especially if I’m doing lower body work like deadlifting or squatting, but it’s not something that overly bothers me. I’ve had a couple of guys having a look in my direction and have a snigger with their workout buddy, but I don’t take it personally as I think underlying anxieties can manifest in picking out the person who is most ‘vulnerable’ to that. As a short, geeky looking lifter with an extra x chromosome in relation to theirs (unless they have Kleinfelters syndrome) I’m an easy target. Other times, some guys seem to respond in a panicked, “What are you doing here?” look on their faces. Again, I think the free weights room is a place where guys can put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform, especially when you see the guy next to you grunting with an extra 5kg in each hand, so seeing a woman (and a woman who can lift heavier) may exacerbate that, as they may have assumed their ‘sanctuary’ has been invaded. Then again, this is me thinking in a very narcissistic manner, it could be absolutely nothing to do with me and more with them worrying that they left the house with the iron on.

Back to feministing, and I recently saw this piece on The F Word, “Push-ups – exercise of the patriarchy or the feminist?” I ended up getting into a long winded discussion on whether lifting heavy weights causes damage to the female reproductive system (I’m screwed if that’s the case; a retroverted uterus *and* strength training damage?!) but I’m still trying to think about what the piece was saying.

I agree with what the author of the original piece is saying:

Here’s a newsflash about why women have a hard time with push-ups: We don’t do them. We don’t do other kinds of weight training that would build the necessary strength. You could be relatively fit, but that doesn’t mean you would go out and run a marathon with no training unless you are crazy. You generally have to practice anything to be able to do it. So what if some men start off having an easier time with push-ups? (And, by the way, I know from training experience that plenty of men are not automatic experts.) There’s no reason women can’t knock out a good set, and do them well from the feet in time.

I was never taught how to do a proper push up. I learned that from reading the step by step guide at Stumptuous. At school, we were girls, and girls did girl push ups, on their knees, and never told to strive for something better, or something to make us stronger. I hated doing push ups on my knees. I felt weak – I was weak and it looked pretty silly too. It took me weeks to be able to do 10 push ups in a row without ending up face first in the smelly gym mats. After time, I was able to do 20, and then I started doing them with my feet elevated. I’m waiting for the day I can do them while in a handstand position.

When I think of the inherent question in the article, I’m finding it difficult to see how it could fit in the mindset of being an exercise of the patriarchy. In my mind, patriarchy isn’t a room full of white, middle class, middle aged businessmen howling away at ways in which women can be oppressed. I see it more as an invisible force that keeps women from getting to positions of power, and prevent men from getting out of positions of power (I’ve heard male nurses being ridiculed for being in a ‘nurturing’ position). As far as I’m concerned, it harms men as well as women, which is why I’m a feminist. I don’t want a son of mine to be called ‘girly’ for liking the colour pink, just as I wouldn’t want a daughter of mine being called ‘manly’ for doing strength training.

If push ups help me to develop in a way that helps me to feel confident, at ease with myself, boost my self esteem, make me physically as well as emotionally stronger, I don’t see that can be given a label to something which I consider holds us back.

It would be nice however to get out of this gendered assumption that men go to the free-weights room to ‘bulk’ and women stay in the cardio area and on mats to ‘tone’. Women in men vary in many different ways, but in terms of musculoskeletal structure, there’s little difference. And there are so many reasons why women should do some form of strength training, but sadly, so many don’t out of this fear of ‘turning into Arnie’ (funnily enough no one says, “I want to run, but not too much, I don’t want to turn into Paula Radcliffe!”) When I lift heavy weights, I don’t see what I’m doing as ‘masculine’. Yes, I can get competitive, have a desire to lift and look strong, but I don’t believe these are or should be exclusive to men.

A woman once told me she didn’t want to go into the free weights room because, “All the men are there and they know what they’re doing and I’ll feel really stupid.” It’s sure intimidating at first, but the truth is, some guys don’t know what they’re doing. Some are so anxious to stack on weight and be something they’re not, they do things with incorrect form, to the extent they’re wincing or rubbing the affected body part afterwards. Some guys only do bicep curls and the chest press, nothing else. It might not be right to say, but because women are not expected to be strong from the outset, there’s less pressure, so more time can be spent on getting things right with lighter weights, or just the barbell and then moving up.

Lastly, it would also be nice if women could occasionally be less cruel to each other. We’re saturated with criticism of other women’s bodies, especially weight; it would be nice to cheer each other on, rather than looking a person up and down when they’ve walked into the gym, or saying how certain exercises look, “butch,” and “manly.” I often wonder how men and women would interact with each other if there was an even split in the free weights room. Would there be competition for the attentions of the other, or would people just knuckle down and get on with their chin-ups?

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Entry Filed under: feministing, gym, musings, people watching

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