Women are feeling intimidated in the gym
In a world where everyone seems to be running a marathon or triathlon, the gym has secured its place at the centre of many people's lives. Large companies offer workout rooms in their buildings, big cities have one on every corner, and ‘at the gym’ is now even a WhatsApp status.
But half of British society still don’t feel particularly welcome at the gym. Clue: it’s not men.
Almost half of women are put off the weights area because of the 'type' of people there, according to a Cosmopolitan survey. While 14 per cent are intimidated by the thought of men judging them.
It’s so widespread that there’s even a name for it: 'gymtimidation.'
Celebrities get it too. Singer Ellie Goulding recently spoke about how she hates men staring at her in the gym and judging her for exercising.
“I’ll run up and down [at my local gym] and not a lot of women would do that,” she told Women’s Health. “And least of all me because I don’t want to draw attention to myself at the best of times.
“But the men stop what they’re doing and look at you with a smug smile and that bums me out so much. But I won’t stop. I won’t stop running up and down that thing just because they’re staring at me as if what I’m doing is out of the ordinary or unladylike. F*** that.”
Goulding doesn’t let it get her down - but that’s probably because she’s a famous pop star.
Not every woman has the confidence to do the same.
Ellie Goulding at the iTunes festival
Friends tell me the thought of men staring at them has put them off trying anything but the treadmill in the gym. Some avoid the place altogether because they feel embarrassed by men seeing them in tight lycra.
“I go to the gym because I don’t have a good figure,” one tells me.
“That’s the whole point of going. But I don’t want people to judge the way I look when I don’t even like how my body looks yet. It makes me not want to go.”
It’s clear this really affects some women. But how much of it is deliberate intimidation, and how much is paranoia?
“I think it goes on without a doubt,” says Louis Durkin, manager of the men-only bodybuilding gym Muscleworks.
“There’s a problem. It does exist. My partner finds the guys try and intimidate her when she’s at the gym. They shout and scream. They won’t let the women join in.”
@WorldWithoutEnd I was too intimidated to say anything. Stupid eh?— Van D'Eliza Doodle (@IwasGobby) May 6, 2015
Tim Walker, founder of Evolution of Man fitness, tells me his girlfriend had a similar experience at a mixed gym in London: “She was trying to squat and a guy said, 'what are you doing here?' He was nasty about it and intimidated her. I’m quite angry about it.”
No wonder. These incidents are examples of the worst type of bullying at gyms, and would make anyone feel uncomfortable.
But they're relatively rare. Why?
Because most men don’t shout at women in the gym – they sexually objectify them instead.
“I find all the men flirt with the women and it distracts from their training,” says Durkin. “If a man thinks a women’s attractive, he’ll flirt. If the woman isn’t as good-looking and he wants to use the equipment, he’ll look at her unfavourably. It’s a caveman mentality.”
@TeleWonderWomen Yes. But depends what you mean by 'judge'. Obviously you notice hotties, but you also respect anybody who's working hard.— Lance Concannon (@concannon) May 6, 2015
It’s not just ‘caveman mentality’; it’s sexism. But the men tell me that’s 'just the way it is', and women are going to have to get used to it.
“Obviously men look,” says Walker. “Guys around girls wearing less clothing will always look a little bit. I don’t know how that can ever stop.”
The only consolation according to Walker and Durkin?
That if you're a woman struggling to exercise, the men won’t laugh at you – they’ll just pity you.
“If she does well, you’re going to be impressed, or if it’s bad you’ll go ‘aw’,” explains Walker. “If it’s a man who does badly, you’ll be like ‘haha’ and laugh at them.”
Women can feel intimidated in the gym (Andres Rodriguez/Alamy)
Lucky us. It seems that, in the gym, women are either seen as attractive, pitiable or plain annoying.
“Women historically are on their phone, or looking at their phone while they exercise,” says Durkin. “A man might want to go on a machine but that women’s texting. It aggravates men because sometimes it holds their progress up.”
The image of a woman in her pink velour tracksuit texting on the treadmill is an outdated stereotype, but it’s clearly one that still exists in gyms.
It is not a ringing endorsement for women who want to work out.
Currently two million fewer women than men participate in sport and exercise regularly. Last year, Sport England - who launched the This Girl Can campaign - found that of the 9.4 million women aged 14 to 40 in the UK, 75 per cent (7.1 million) would like to be more active.
The body also found that women don't exercise for fear of being judged - something that's clearly a problem in many of Britain's gyms.
Durkin blames the men entirely.
“A lot of men go into the gym environment are up their own a****. It’s not the women’s fault. They just don’t know how to behave.”
He explains that it can bruise the male ego: “Sometimes men can’t accept that women are better than them.”
So is there a solution?
Walker thinks we need fewer single-sex gyms:
“I think it’s just education,” he says. “Mixed is good. The more unmixed gyms there are, the more unusual it is and the more likely you are to be gawped at.
"Lots of men are just exposed to male environments so when women creep in they find it confusing.”
It seems we could be waiting a while before women can venture into the weights area without hearing male jaws hit the floor.
In the meantime, Walker advises that the only thing to do is realise how inconsequential these judgemental men are and stop caring:
“The only thing is not to be self-conscious. The most you’ll get is a glance. You’ve just got to give it a go and see what happens.”
Or as Goulding says: “F*** that. I won't stop running."