There are more women in the gym than ever before, yet many still experience sexualisation or sexual harassment. Is this because exercise spaces are inherently testosterone-fuelled, or because society normalises fetishising the female body, asks Strong Women writer Chloe Gray.
Fitness Instagram is at times a murky place to be. But recently, amid protein smoothie recipes and leg day workout videos, the conversation has been about an important topic: the sexualisation of women in the gym. More importantly, how to stop it.
There’s no denying that gyms are historically male-dominated spaces. But more and more women are now members and creating a gender-balanced weights room. As of 2019, 50% of gym-goers were women, according to research by RunRepeat – an increase of 32% from 2010. For many, including myself, the gym is a place of empowerment, to take ownership of our own bodies by building and defying our own strength, and community – I’ve made friends for life in the actual gym and online thanks to the hobby.
Yet there’s still a lurking expectation that women who train do it in spite of, or performing to, the constant male gaze. That women need to be careful about squatting in exposed areas of the gym or cover up to avoid the risk of exciting men who are using the same exercise space. The sexualisation of women has implications ranging from a fear of the weights room and a lack of inclusivity for all bodies and abilities (This Girl Can stats show that women are put off by exercising due to how their body looks during exercise – specifically, ‘jiggling’ – and not appearing feminine) to harassment: stats suggest between 38% and 71% of women have experienced harassment in exercise spaces.
When did exercise get sexy?
The fetishisation of female movement isn’t new. Think back to Eric Prydz and Call on Me, the music video that made aerobics hot with close-ups of boobs and hips tightly wrapped in lycra. What was an almost comically explicit sexualisation of exercise is now a more subtle trope on social media that feature butt-to-camera poses to suit the algorithm’s appetite for sex.
Then there’s the fact that society still can’t seem to untangle the act of exercise from the aesthetic changes it brings. The hyper-focus on training for physical reasons has been rebranded over the past decade or so, but still exists. ‘Strong not skinny’ is still an obsession with chasing a look, it’s just that women are now told to chase delts and glutes rather than weight loss – perhaps a healthier, more accessible goal, but still one obsessed with the female body (and responsible for launching a thousand activewear brands that make money off of accentuating this new ideal).
As researcher in post-feminist sport Annaleise Depper writes in a 2019 paper, social media and modern discourse around exercise still encourages us to “‘do’ gendered leisure”. Even diverse and inclusive media campaigns have a huge focus on the body, she notes: “Women are reminded that “others” are implicitly authorized to view and judge female bodies.”
Fitness (and sex) going mainstream
“When I was going to the gym in my early 20s, which was like 15 years ago, there were very few women in the free weights section and there wasn’t access to the kind of activewear and information we have now,” she says. “How incredible is it that we’ve got more and more women occupying the gym floor in areas that have been traditionally dominated by men, like using free weights, barbells, and plates? But the other side of that is that we’ve also seen the explosion of different brands that aren’t only pushing what we wear to the gym for function but also design.
“Exercise is now about a lifestyle – it can feel as though that demands a certain look to be part of it. We need to normalise the fact that really, most of us do walk into the gym without all eyes staring at us – most people want to just get on with training and get the benefits of doing their exercise.”
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And yet, those sexual harassment stats can’t be ignored. It’s the real experience of many women, such as Florie Mwanza, a fitness writer and gym-goer. “For me, it’s primarily comments from male PTs who either have no tact or are just trying to say what they think you want to hear when selling their expertise. I always got asked suggestively if it was ‘glutes day’. Or guys would tell me they can help me get ‘a smaller waist and thicker legs’. They never actually asked me if those were my goals; they just assumed their ideal was what I was working towards,” she says.
Ending sexual harassment at the gym
For some, the answer is to just cover up in a baggy T-shirt and get away from the ‘testosterone-fuelled space’ by training in a corner. That’s a backwards step. In other parts of our life, it’s thankfully no longer acceptable to tell women to change their behaviour to suit the system – we’re over ‘lean in’ feminism in the boardroom, we allow women to own their sexuality in fashion. Yet we think it’s OK to police female clothing and behaviour in the gym because – what? Exercise is so primal that men can’t help themselves but see women who squat as sexual objects because they’re hopped up on testosterone from doing bicep curls? That women are asking for it because they’re in tight clothes that they deem comfortable and cool to move in?
The reality is that women aren’t sexually harassed in gyms because exercise by its nature is a hormonally charged, innately sexual activity. Women are harassed in gyms because gyms are just another location to exist in a sexist society. Around 86% of young women have been harassed in public spaces, according to the UN – similar figures to those who have experienced sexual harassment in the gym.
As fitness culture has become a bigger part of our lives, the sexualisation of it has become normalised because we’re so used to the rest of our lives being seen through the male gaze. The answer is never to tell women to change their outfits or their behaviour but to critique the culture that enables harassment and the people who make women in the gym uncomfortable. As Depper notes, the focus of our conversations needs to shift from what women do with their bodies “towards identifying the cultures of sexism, exclusion and inferiorisation that actively discourage the participation of girls and women [in sport]”.
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In my experience, community-based gyms, such as leisure centres or chain fitness brands, aren’t sexual places. They’re where you’ll find people of all backgrounds, sizes and in all sorts of outfits, headphone clad and covered in sweat. It’s not full of people contorting their bodies to attract a mate or look a certain way, but simply getting their training done. That’s not to deny anyone’s experiences of sexual harassment but to qualify the fact that exercise in itself isn’t something reserved for those who want to adhere to the male gaze and are willing to accept sexualisation.
“I do find that catching the eyes of those who stare you down and ask them if there’s a problem immediately ends the prowling,” says Obayuvana. Of course, not everyone is comfortable with that, but reporting to a member of staff is also important to highlight and stamp out sexist behaviour. Ultimately, the most important part is empowering more women to be on the gym floor. Obayuvana concludes: “How about women continue to occupy the gym space in any manner that makes them feel comfortable and confident? I want them to wear what they want and do what they want – as long as they’re there taking up space and supporting each other.”
Images: Getty / Pexels
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).