Ask any woman who has ever gone to a gym — ever, anywhere — and it’s likely she’ll tell you about at least one encounter that made her feel uneasy, self-conscious, or nervous. A January 2020 survey by GolfSupport found that 78% of women fear being harassed at the gym, while survey data collected by FitRated in June 2019 discovered that 7 in 10 women had been made uncomfortable during their workouts. Although the numbers themselves are staggering, the actual stories put the issue into even sharper relief.
“A guy I had never met starts critiquing my form and says I’ll never get strong if I don’t put more weight on the bar [...] He made it seem like my presence there was offensive if I couldn’t squat more,” recounts Kristen, 25. For Isadora, 19, it was a 30-something man who kept flirting with her, repeatedly asked for her number, and tried to walk her home despite her showing visible signs of discomfort. Rhyana, 31, was at the gym trying to shed postpartum weight when a man approached her and said: “Surprised you are here, don't see many black women working out, don't you care about your hair getting messy?”. Jenna, 33, is still “haunted” by the sounds men used to make whenever she did hip thrusts or deadlifts.
Salacious comments, unsolicited advice, unrelenting stares; those are the themes that come up time and time again. The stories differ but echo each other; the details vary but the impact remains the same. When your workouts are being constantly interrupted and disrupted, whether by mansplaining or straight-up harassment, the damage to your self-esteem and mental health can be considerable and lasting. As a result of those encounters, some women have decided to skip certain sections of the gym or even ceased going altogether. “I’ve been insecure using weight machines ever since and avoid that area of the gym now,” says Kristen about her interaction with the man who believed himself to be the squat police. Ruth, 23, who used to be president of the weightlifting club at her university, was so put off by the pervasive toxic masculinity of the sport that she stopped attending her own club sessions. Jenna has abandoned mixed gyms for good, and even set up her own private fitness studio exclusively for women. Women-only gyms — where women are protected from the belittling, patronising, or predatory behaviour of certain men — might indeed be the way forward.
Such spaces have flourished in recent years, but they remain a marginal product in the fitness market. Alternatives such as women-only floors or women-only slots in a mixed gym are more common. Ellen, 26, started going to her local gym during women-only slots after she and her housemates faced relentless harassment by a group of men. She qualifies those sessions as “a breath of fresh air,” although they were sometimes difficult to fit around her schedule. Not only that, but the men were still hovering, waiting for the hour to finish so they could watch them leave.
Although they were created with the noble intention of providing women with a safe and supportive fitness environment, women-only floors and slots come with undeniable drawbacks: a limited choice of equipment, restricted hours, and the presence of men — even just peripherally. Women-only gyms, by creating a completely new space instead of trying to carve one out of existing structures, do away with those practical limitations.
On a conceptual level, inclusivity, safety and wellbeing are keywords. By aiming to be judgment-free zones, women-only gyms can indeed be attractive to those who feel unwelcome in traditional fitness environments. “By some standards, we may be seen as limiting the reach of our gym to 50% of the population, but we are actually including a group of people who may be excluded from mixed fitness spaces, such as Muslim women, those who are overweight or obese, those needing confidence or mental wellbeing support, those who have been abused, and a whole host of others,” argues Sarah Hicks, deputy CEO of The Bridge, a women-only gym and charity based in Southwark that aims to tackle food poverty and support members’ mental and physical health.
With regards to safety, women feel more at ease working out in spaces where they are shielded from the male gaze and free from the fear of being intimidated or preyed upon. “We have women come in to train just because they know there will be no hassle,” says Tig Hodson, co-founder of StrongHer, a women-only gym based in Tower Hamlets. And when customers feel confident, they try more things — the weights section, boxing classes, gym floor group challenges — which can lead to “better progress towards their goals,” according to one fitness instructor at The Bridge.
Women-only gyms can also offer an approach to fitness that goes beyond aesthetics to encourage a focus on mind and body wellness. That is what Jenna wants to do with Glam-Fit Studios, the Lancashire-based gym she created after speaking with other women about their anxieties over weight gain. “For many the desperation of wanting to lose weight led to the use of faddy, quick fix diets,” she recalls. Now, she wants to help them create and sustain a healthy lifestyle that is never measured by the number on the scale. By addressing two important shortcomings of the fitness industry — an unwelcoming, at times unsafe atmosphere and a harmful obsession with aesthetics at the expense of wellbeing — women-only gyms therefore fill long-ignored voids.
It’s important to recognise, however, that women-only gyms are not a panacea. They are a band-aid solution to a structural problem, which requires a structural resolution. “Whether it’s a zero tolerance policy, an awareness campaign or the restructuring of gyms themselves, there are many ways that gyms and sport centres can do more to ensure a safe space to exercise,” asserts Maya Tutton, co-founder of Our Streets Now, a movement to end public sexual harassment. The fitness and wellness spheres where harassment has been allowed to run rampant should indeed be the ones responsible for enacting the sweeping, meaningful changes that will guarantee women’s safety and wellbeing, not only within but also beyond the spaces dedicated to them.
Written by Chloe Meley