Words: Ellie Pagano (She/Her)
It’s January. The feelings of dread and shame that many experience after indulgence at Christmas are creeping up on you; you feel obliged to plan your first gym visit.
Diet culture has so greatly warped our way of thinking that guilt is part of our psyches; it perpetuates a constant need to better ourselves. Many attempt to combat this by turning to the gym – stepping stones which propel us into a positive new year. But it often feels like we are shunned from gyms before we even reach them. Why, in order to better ourselves, are we already required to be our best selves?
Toxic gym culture can deter people from even reaching the gym. The term ‘gymtimidation’ was coined to describe the feeling of anxiety upon entering a gym. Choosing a treadmill instead of the powerlifting platform and wearing baggy clothes instead of leggings and a cropped top are prime examples of how this intimidation manifests. A study by PureGym claims nearly 70% of women are deterred from sticking with the gym due to feelings of anxiety. There are a range of reasons attributed to this, but most concerningly is the intimidation inflicted by other attendees. A study by RunRepeat, showed nearly 60% of women experience harassment whilst exercising. This harassment takes a variety of forms, most commonly including receiving unwanted attention, being given unwanted comments, and even unwanted physical contact.
Dismayingly, the gym still seems to be a space where ideals of toxic masculinity are co-signed, allowing them to fester into damaging attitudes towards those identifying as female. This disparity between male and female attitudes is not overly surprising as the gym is intrinsically a gendered space. Though these ideologies do not always manifest in physical violence, intimidation alone deters women from stepping into a predominantly male-dominated field. An article composed for the Social Science and Medicine Journal suggests that the practices we feel we should conduct in the gym reflect broader socially instituted ideals of what is masculine and feminine. These ideals have the potential to be highly destructive and are effective in confining women to their constructed ‘role’.
Experiences of gym-based harassment, unfortunately, are not far from home. In November 2022, Glasgow University implemented the ‘Ask for Angela’ scheme in their gym following multiple reports of misconduct. An Instagram poll indicated that more than 30% of Glasgow University’s gym users felt uncomfortable using their facilities. They stated: “Sadly, we are aware of incidents where members have been uncomfortable or felt unwanted attention in our facilities. This cannot and will not be tolerated”.
As someone who regularly attends the university gym, I am only just gaining some confidence in this daunting space. My experience has certainly been hindered due to certain situations which have left me feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed and highly frustrated. Feeling uncomfortable squatting in front of watchful guys. Massive gym bros lingering too close while you’re working out. Being given unsolicited advice by other attendees. These are all things I have personally experienced. All of these situations do not seem particularly threatening in isolation, but it is the accumulation of these microaggressions that can lead newcomers to the gym to feel uncomfortable. Moreover, the revelation that in 2021 searches for gyms that cater only to those who identify as female, non-binary or transgender increased by 69% seems to suggest that the demand for safe and comfortable fitness spaces for women is high.
There are ways to avoid this toxicity if these factors are preventing you from joining a gym. Glasgow Uni has implemented an hour on Wednesdays, in which the gym is only accessible to women, non-binary and transgender people. Additionally, many fitness platforms have culminated a list of ways to combat ‘gymtimidation’, which include visiting the gym during quieter times of day, training with a friend, or hiring a personal trainer.
‘Gymtimidation’ is certainly not on the decrease. The process of dismantling these restrictive ideas surrounding gender will be a difficult one. Whilst there are certainly helpful suggestions for those hoping to get their foot in the door, it seems that many fitness institutions have missed the point in combating these feelings of intimidation – shifting the responsibility from perpetrator to victim. When nerves are replaced with perpetual dread and anxiety, it is important we stop victim blaming and ask individuals to take accountability for their actions.