The gym terrifies the crap out of me. Growing up, I wasn’t the kid that beelined towards the squat racks or strode confidently to the free-weights as soon as he walked in — the type of swaggering teenager wearing a muscle tee and Nike trainers like it’s no one’s business. No — I was the scrawny one in the back fiddling endlessly with the workout and spinning machines, the type of kid you want to walk up to and ask: “Are you lost?” Yet over time, I learned how to plan my workouts, to ask for help, and to make each space my own.
My experience in the Andover gym is a whole other story. As opposed to my gym back home, I know at least 80 percent of the people in the Andover gym at any given time, and I notice each one of them as they walk in; that’s where the anxiety starts. The gym has become a microcosm— a small-scale representation of the sickening side effects of having too many talented people in one place. I’m talking about the egos the size of small elephants, the competition, the social and academic pyramids, the mental gymnastics, and the sickening justifications we all make that we’re still… better. Because of this culture, the gym has evolved from merely a space of exercise to a new stage for competition, a place to showcase your physicality and to compare yourself by means of a metric identifiable to the literal pound. The implications of this competition in terms of gender, however, cannot be understated.
In conversations with my female friends, regardless of ability, race, or sexual orientation, they all have told me the same thing: when they come into the gym, they feel watched, judged, and scrutinized. “The gym? I’m too scared to go near the place,” a friend remarked at dinner last week. They’ve told me stories about fears of objectification, being confined to particular machines, and stories about feeling like an intruder in an undeniably male-dominated space.
Though as of today, I have begun to feel some levels of comfort in the Andover gym, my conversations with my female-identifying friends have allowed me to recognize the toxic aspects of competition I had glossed over. For the first time, I was able to observe people grabbing 60-pound weights in each arm and striding confidently to the other side of the gym only to use them for sit-ups. I began to be able to feel the floor shake as yet another guy slammed his weights onto the ground after his last heaving rep. I became able to hear the sounds of caveman-esque grunts loud enough for the whole room to hear in a primal display of strength — and all of a sudden, it made sense. If a space seems intent on keeping you out, why on earth would you fight to be a part of it?
It’s as simple as looking at the presence of clubs such as Girls Who Lift for evidence of this problematic culture. Female-identifying or presenting people should not need to separate and find specific times for developing their workout skills. Rather, every day should be a day for Girls Who Lift. I believe a gym should be a place of transformation, a place to build yourself up day by day, to realize your goals and to build your external strength alongside your internal strength. It should be a place free of anxiety, sexism, and toxic masculinity. We all have an equal right to use the facilities generously provided for us by the school, and no group or gender, for that matter, should be able to dominate any space.
Through looking from the perspectives of my female friends, I have realized my own privilege in this environment. The huge guys make room for me when I go up to the bar or squat rack, and always give me the space I need without a second glance. They say “Hi” to me from across the room and never question my ability. Some of my female friends have attempted the same only to be asked if they needed help.
In remedying this solution, I would encourage the creation of new programs in the Athletic Center that could expand instruction to people starting to learn how to lift. It can also be educational and help make others feel comfortable in the gym; this can be implemented in existing courses, such as lowerclassmen Physical Education FIT. Even though it is important that people continue to try creating spaces for themselves, that kind of persistence is simply not realistic — making it important that people learn to understand the privilege that comes with feeling comfortable in the gym. Additionally, they must learn to make spaces for those who feel uncomfortable.
By acknowledging the imbalances in the spaces one inhabits they can address the problems needed to makes these spaces more inclusive. For instance, take time to diversify your workout so you can leave space for others, or invite people to come with you next time. And for those of you who are still convinced that the gym isn’t a place for you, there’s always a spot next to me on the spin machine.
Hugo Solomon is a two-year Senior from Seattle, Wash. and an Associate Video Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.