Many stereotypes influence the way men and women work out.
The main floor of Ball State University’s Student Recreation and Wellness Center is pretty quiet on a Thursday afternoon. Four people—three women and one man—do cardio exercises on the machines that line the walls. They walk on the treadmill, use the elliptical, and listen to music through headphones—a pretty typical sight.
But take a trip down the stairs to the weight room, and it’s an entirely new world. First of all, it’s darker than the main floor. Maybe it’s the amount of people in the room, but the space feels smaller, more cramped. A swarm of roughly 20 men crowd the room, some lifting free weights and some using machines. It’s hard not to notice that there aren’t many women.
Madelyn Bitterling knows the feeling. As a Ball State freshman who frequents the Rec Center, Madelyn has experienced being the only girl in the weight room several times. She sometimes feels like she’s being watched. Many people feel like they can’t go to certain parts of the gym without drawing attention to their gender.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults should get a recommended 75 minutes of aerobic activity a week, as well as at least two days of strength training. A distinction between men and women is not made, yet one trip to the gym, like the one at the Rec Center, makes the separation of genders obvious. Most men are in the weight room, and most women are on the treadmills.
A study done by Jessica Salvatore and Jeanne Merecek, published in the scientific journal Sex Roles, found that women felt less comfortable than men when using strength training equipment. Another study also by the same people found that women feel uncomfortable at the gym more often than men, and felt as though they were being judged when in the weight room.
Katie Crawford is a Ball State sophomore and small group leader of CHAARG, a fitness group on campus that works to show girls new and exciting ways to work out. She says many girls within CHAARG sometimes feel like they can’t go to the weight room alone. Katie thinks many people feel some sort of intimidation when going to the gym.
Nick Davis, a freshman at Purdue University, says he’s no stranger to intimidation. Nick compares himself to other men in the weight room, and he says that the overall atmosphere in the gym can be uncomfortable. He remembers feeling awkward when waiting to use a machine or weights and having to ask someone how many sets they’ve done.
Whether by intimidation or choice, men and women work out differently. Nate Brown, an instructor of exercise science at Ball State, says some of these differences can be explained by biology. Brown says the differences in the levels of testosterone in men and women can cause men to develop larger muscles. But there are other, less prominent differences that might contradict popular beliefs.
New research suggests women burn more fat when lifting heavier weights for a shorter amount of time, and men do better with lighter weights for longer periods of time, Brown says. This means women should not only be going to the weight room, but they should be lifting just as much as men proportional to their size. Brown also acknowledges the social differences between the genders and contends that even though women should be lifting more than they do, many feel as though they can’t because of the intimidation that comes with going to a weight room full of men.
Sara Collas, an instructor of sociology at Ball State, agrees that differences in exercise routines are more social than biological. Collas says expectations for women to be thin and for men to have big muscles can have dangerous consequences, like eating disorders or steroid use.
Media and technology don’t help. Salvatore and Merecek analyzed Google searches with buzzwords like “burn fat” and “build muscle.” Over the course of four years, from 2007 to 2010, Google image searches for these phrases were evaluated according to the gender of the person pictured on the front page. Every year, men were the majority for “build muscle” and women for “burn fat.” Even now, in 2017, a search for each term yields roughly the same results.
Magazines and other media also contribute. A study by Lindsey Conlin and Kim Bissel from the University of Alabama analyzed women’s fitness magazines and found that many publications pictured very thin women on their covers. They also found that, even though these magazines are meant to promote healthy lifestyles, many talked about fitness in an appearance-based context rather than a health-benefit context. A similar study by María del Mar Rubio Hernández for the University of Seville analyzed Men’s Health magazine. The findings showed that the men’s magazine tended to equate traditional aspects of manliness with physical fitness. Hernández compares the image of the men projected in the pages of this magazine to a machine and all the strength that comes with that imagery.
The November 2017 issue of Men’s Health magazine fits perfectly with this analysis. It shows a shirtless male model on the cover, turned to the side profile so that the reader can see the size of his biceps. A red arrow points to him with the phrase “Arms Like This—Ripped in 1 Move!” The November 2017 issue of Women’s Health magazine shows similar, stereotyped ideas. “Lean and Sexy,” a headline reads, “Easy Moves That Flatten Your Abs.” Inside, all the women pictured have flat stomachs, as advertised. The most muscular woman in the issue is still relatively lean, and there are barely any photos that showcase noticeably muscular women. Inside Men’s Health, the reader is presented with photo after photo of men with roughly the same body type: solid build, big arm muscles, defined abs, and muscular legs.
It’s not that the bodies shown in magazines or on the internet are unhealthy, or even unattainable. But they’re usually the only types of bodies shown. There’s very little diversity, and in a world full of different bodies, this can be a problem.
Madelyn believes not all people are meant to look the same way, and not all girls can achieve the slim figure that many magazines present as the ideal. Katie agrees, saying when she was little, these magazines gave her the idea that she would grow up to look exactly like the women on the covers. She says everyone’s bodies are different, and it’s pointless to try to compare yours to that of anyone else’s.
With gym intimidation and unrealistic portrayals in the media, it may seem hard for people to change what has been the norm for years. However, Katie believes change can be accomplished if we start small. Through her role as a small group leader in CHAARG, Katie hopes to build a system of support for the girls she leads. She tries to encourage the girls around her to try new things and believes that building up the people in your circle is the best way to begin to challenge gym gender roles.
Brown thinks better education on the health benefits of a complete training program, one that includes both cardio and strength, is a step in the right direction.
Nick believes the media could promote more health benefits of strength training for women and focus less on the perceived need to slim down.
These ideas could lead to something, if put into practice. Though we can’t change the world in one fell swoop, individuals can start by changing their own minds. If the gym-goer knows gender stereotypes are just that—stereotypes, and if he or she has the proper information and support to succeed, maybe next time, the weight room won’t feel so small.