by Bee Williams
I’ve never been a fan of honking; the kind where you are walking down the street and some man behind the wheel thinks that its appropriate to beep his horn at you, or catcall, or generally pass comment on how you look- but no time makes me more mad than when this happens and I’m in gym gear. If I’m in gym gear, I am mentally prepared to be a mess, and whilst I wish I looked like a sweaty betty ambassador, in actual fact; leggings are clinging to parts of me that I wouldn’t show my best friends, and I’m likely in some form of incredibly uncomfortable sports bar that is suppressing any chance of a bosom that I had to start with.
Whilst I think all beeping is repugnant and should be reportable harassment, I feel far less self-conscious as soon as I walk through the door at a gym. I’m a member at Pure Gym (I realise that as a lifter this can cause some alarm) and I’m also a member at Physical Culture in Putney. These two places could not be more different in terms of environment and vibe. Like most twenty-something women, I’ve been a member at a “commercial” gym for most of my adult life, and have regularly found myself counting calories on the cross trainer, joining hours of sweaty spin classes in the dark, or generally waiting my turn to use the mats and do some light weight stuff. So when I told my fiancé that I wanted to lose weight for our upcoming nuptials he suggested that I join his gym with him. I’ve always thought he secretly wanted me to join so he could be closer to me, but actually, I think now that he really knew what he was talking about.
So last September, under I visited Physical Culture in Putney for the first time. To paint a picture, Physical Culture (PC) is hidden on a residential street and sits under two railway arches, this was a far cry from the slick lines and raging infographics of a virgin active. When I walked into the conservatory (try and imagine leather couches and lots of pictures of strong men), my normally confident demeanour had already abandoned me and I was clinging onto my partner for dear life. Whilst I was pretty sure I could run a 5k faster of any of the people in there, I soon realised that fact had close to ZERO value for any of these people. There were racks everywhere, one person had chains hanging from their waist and there was the soon to become distinctive sounds of metal on metal, with a background noise of dance music and grunting. I was legitimately scared and my future husband could tell. He made one really excellent choice on my behalf, and that was hiring me someone to help me get started.
A few sessions in, I was feeling like I understood the basics of the three essential lifts, and I was just about coming around to the idea that it was going to help me lose weight (although I was still prioritising cardio at this point). Whilst I might have been fundamentally understanding what to do, there were still two key blockers-
- training in the evenings when the gym was busy, and
- Using the central platform where you can be seen.
I felt like (And probably was) the weakest person in the gym at any given time, but more than this I was always in the minority when it came to gender. Steve had become a bit of a lifeline for me, and I needed to come out from under his wing in order to do better, so I started gradually building up to training on my own at busy times.
What happened next was a bit of a surprise to me. Like I said, I was pretty sure I understood gym etiquette, I had been using gyms for a long time, but I’d never experienced anything like the social culture that was available at PC. Initially, I built the courage to chat to a few people, but after a month or so I was regularly chatting to at least three other members and we were sharing our goals and successes. It was amazing to me that regardless of what I was lifting, they would cheer or support me just the same as if I was lifting twice as much.
There’s something about lifting that makes people share, and I think that’s one of the best things about it. However, there was one barrier that still existed- I was still regularly the only woman in the gym, and I hated it. Whether you see it or don’t see it, passive sexism is alive and well in the fitness industry- the standards for a woman to achieve well exceed that for a man, and you are far more likely to be called out for your natural weakness as a female. I had less of a problem with this, and more of a problem with the active sexism that I encountered when I walked into the weights area at a more mainstream gym. It was almost assumed that because I was a woman I would not be interested in a squat rack, or indeed a bench, but I would like to gambit that my bench form well outperforms that of the joe blogs at puregym who is benching 80kg in the smith machine with his feet off the floor and moving the bar about 10cm- you see in a commercial gym, form is by and far the least important part of their routine. I was being looked at as if I didn’t’ belong and I HATED that.
At PC, it’s more about what your goals are than what you look like, I’ve made some incredible friends there both male and female, but the unifying factor is respect for each other. We might have a laugh and mess around on the chin up bar, but when it comes to the rack, we are always there to cheer for each other and you can be damn sure we aren’t criticising each other on our diets either. If you need a PT to build that confidence, then do it; if you need to learn what each machine does or you need to understand everything about each lift first, then do that; but whatever you do, do not let intimidation keep you walking through those doors- everyone is human and we are all a bit like spiders- more afraid of you than you are of it.
The first thing I’m likely to assess when I walk under the archways at PC is if there is another woman in the room, there’s something about it that is comforting, but as I continue to build strength, I’m learning that its less about who else is there, and more about focussing on my own training. What does this mean? Well, if you’re a woman I can only tell you what I’ve learned, which is that you don’t need to give a shit about what anyone is doing but yourself, and if you want to stay in the squat rack for 10 minutes or 10 hours, that is totally your prerogative.
If you’re a man, don’t make it difficult for us to ask you to move out the way, and don’t look at us like our training doesn’t matter, and if you are going to check out our Butts, please, at least make it subtle.
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