Last night there was an interesting discussion thread on a comment made on the Facebook page of one of my Spartan teammates. Essentially, as a young woman, she is sick and tired of getting a hard time and dirty looks from men when she wants to use the power weight section in her local gym. You may be familiar with this scenario: in your standard leisure centre, there are rows of machines, such as treadmills or steppers, used by all the members, with one corner for barbells and free weights, typically commandeered by men. Much posing goes on here, and while there are no signs saying ‘men only’, it is clear that this is a demarcated zone.
Her comment sparked a load of empathetic replies – yes, it happens and to most women who visit these gyms. It is even more infuriating when you are used to lifting in our gym: women and men are expected to do the same lifts, the only difference being in their weight. We are used to picking up barbells and not used to being patronised for our gender. I don’t go to a standard gym anymore, but I remember the testosterone corner; the last time I went, the only women in the area were hangers on, flirting with the muscle men while they rippled and preened. We bask in the secret knowledge that we could probably deadlift most of these idiots, while finding it hard to challenge. If we do, we are ball breaking bitches.
Urgh. Women lifting weights, or participating in the same sports as men is not a new thing. Yet, it is one of the many areas of life where sexism is rife and women are still not taken seriously. Remember the recent story of Eugenie Bouchard, the Canadian tennis player (ranked no 7 in the world) who was asked to ‘give us a twirl’ at the Australian Open? Sadly, she complied, rather than show him the finger and ask him to twirl on that. The fact that she did shows how deeply ingrained the expectation is that female sports stars need to be pretty, as well as good at their game. Never mind the proclamation that Murray was the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Err, aren’t we forgetting someone?
There are countless examples of this in the world of professional sports. Women have been playing football almost as long as men, and the England team has had greater international success of late than the men’s, with little recognition or television profile. Has anything changed in the minds of men since Gregory’s Girl? We could have much more national pride in our sporting achievements if we took women’s sport as seriously as men. And while funding may be a challenge for all young sports people, the struggle to live, raise families and compete is even harder for women, simply because their sports are not valued equally and therefore attract less sponsorship.
In the real world, women face similar daily challenges in their quest for health and fitness. And every time an enlightened local authority schedules ‘women only’ time in their facilities, it is met with a barrage of complaints from men. They don’t seem to understand that their own behaviour makes this a necessity. For some women, cultural norms mean that they cannot swim in a mixed pool. Like it or not, agree or not, these women are part of British society. Are we to deny them the opportunity to participate in healthy activity? Even for women with no such barriers, the thought of wearing a swimsuit and being leered at or judged by men, makes it virtually impossible for them to get in the pool.
We live in a world where women’s bodies are constantly evaluated by others. If celebrity women are constantly mocked in the media for bulges in their size eight bodies, how must a size 16 woman feel going to the gym? I know, because I’ve been there. The answer is, they feel like shit.
This recent campaign by Sport England to get women to overcome their fears and get into sport is so powerful because it acknowledges this body shame and turns it on its head.
It recognises that when you do exercise, you sweat, you jiggle and most of the time you don’t look like a lovely girl. But you feel brilliant and you feel healthy. There are no mirrors in my gym, thank fuck. I’ve seen my face in the car mirror afterwards and it ain’t pretty. Think purple, think sweaty, think exhausted and you’ll get the idea. In a conventional sense, I look terrible. But my eyes are glowing and I feel great. Most of all, I feel powerful and strong.
And that is what the arsehole men who diss women at the weight rack fear most. This is not all men, I know that. But it’s the same men who pour vitriol online at all the women who speak out, and talk about the everyday sexism we face. Yesterday, I was angry when I heard about these experiences, after a week at work where I had to put up with more bullshit from The Man. There are many who are so unaware of the messages that they put out, they even think they are sympathetic and understanding of equal rights. Frankly, it makes my blood boil.
In hindsight, I feel sorry for them. They don’t understand that they have nothing to fear from women being strong and equal partners; now they look foolish and are getting left behind. One day they will be all alone with their tiny vests. Because women aren’t prepared to put up with this shit anymore, even if challenging it still exhausts us, or hurts us as individuals. In the past, it was okay for us to do ‘manly’ things as long as we didn’t threaten the boys. Those days are gone.
Yes, this is a Western perspective; I am well aware that women across the world face far more serious problems than wankers at the gym who think women can’t lift weights because they are young and pretty (this is not me I’m talking about). Being patronised on a daily basis is at the easy end of the scale for women; systematic human rights abuses, rape and murder are at the other end. But they are on a scale, and I make no apologies for asking men across it to get their act together and think about it. I live in hope that together, we can.
Until next time,