Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Space Claiming in Fitness Centres

- Anon

I work out almost every day. I have had gym memberships in Canada, the UK, Belgium and China; no matter where on the globe I find myself photocredit- fitnesstroop.compumping iron, there are men who are letting me know that this the gym is their space. I think that it is time that we start pointing out that this common gym culture isn’t something women should get over or get used to, it is harassment.

There aren’t many public places where male bodies aren’t providing examples of space claiming. Whether it is spread legs in the doctor’s office waiting room, a wide stance in the ATM line, or the booming voice at the local pub, one can’t help but feel the intended presence of male bodies. Of all the places where I find this difficult to navigate, is the place where I get sweaty.

We have all heard it. Is that a pig or a dog in the free weights area? On their own, male gym members can often be heard barking, grunting and snarling in their efforts to lift weights that exceed their muscular capabilities. These sounds, not just a one-off, but a soundtrack to all gym visits, intended or not, mimic the sounds of physical and sexual violence, often pushing female members to the edge of a gym.

Too many workouts have been left unfinished, having been hounded out by the physical posturing and posing that occurs any fitness centre. Men often place themselves next to, in front of or behind female members who are working out. When they begin swinging their limbs and lifting weights or stretching their muscles, their forms are suddenly managing to surround and inhibit the movements of the woman. Not limited to single gym goers, physical space claiming also happens in groups. Men also gather, spotting one another, cheering each other on as they lift heavy weights or race on the treadmills. So often the ‘spotting groups’ remain together in intimidating pods, leering at female members, their eyes becoming a compound insect eye bearing down with aggressive optical group behaviour.

Not only is there the taking up of space with bodies, voices and eyes, it is hard to not notice the assumption of the actual physical space and equipment in a fitness centre as belonging to the men in the room. Without invitation or awareness of how much of an fitness expert a woman may be, or consideration as to whether or not she actually wants you speaking to her, male members will offer their advice and suggestions, mansplaining to females about how they might go about using a piece of equipment, the type of exercise regime she might want to try. Mansplaining fitness often extends so far as to assume it is appropriate to touch and manipulate a woman’s body on the equipment.

But of course, this isn’t simply a set of shared natural behaviours that come over men when they enter a fitness centre. Men are encouraged to exhibit these space stealing behaviours in movies, music videos/lyrics and magazine articles about exercise. In an IronMan Magazine article, entitled: Powerful Alpha Male Body Language, Skip La Cour encourages his reader to take control of his body with suggestions like this:

“He takes up as much space as humanly possible. His feet are shoulder width or slightly wider. Having arms spread out wide is the ultimate display of power”

Skip also informs his readers that his “words alone will never make an effective communicator or leader.” Skip isn’t the only body language expert encouraging aggressive and potentially harassing behaviour from men. Tonya Reiman from Body Language University explains the virtues of the alpha male and provides easy to follow ‘rules of engagement’

“[The Alpha Male] freely touches others in the group, without expressed or implied permission. He might intimidate by staring, or he could simply use the unnerving tactic to demand attention. He’s never uncomfortable with eye contact, and will never break it first.”

So, all the behaviours that are unequivocally considered harassment and that are practiced in gyms across the world are apparently just men jostling and practicing for their chance to become an alpha male. Oh.

The fitness industry, in their magazines and product advertisements are telling men that if they want to come and play at the gym, they need to learn how to handle themselves. This makes sense from a marketing perspective. Fitness centres are only a small part of a massive industry that makes their money from telling men that they need to convert themselves into the most muscular, strong and aggressive version of a man as possible – and this is only achievable with the help of {xy} product/gym/personal trainer. This is the same industry that extols the virtues of women who are small, thin, and free of fat. This gendered dichotomy, present in both the practice and theory of the entire fitness industry, encourages the consumption of space by men, leaving little space for women to, you know, exercise.

A month doesn’t go by when I am not prevailing upon the owner of my current gym to deal with the oversized dudes that use their eyes, bodies and voices to push me and other female members to the edges of the mirrored free weights area. My last complaint was met with the response that I could always use a Women’s Only gym. Right, the one that doesn’t exist in my neighbourhood? The one that would have pale purple walls, no free weights and offer Boot Camp classes that I would never be interested in taking? No, thanks. How about if I continue to pay you and you ensure a safe space for all of your members by putting up a couple of signs to the effect of: no aggressive noise making? Or how about when you see a group of guys shouting and egging each other on you might actually come and break it up? Or if you see a female member being moved off to the sides by a male member that is throwing his body and eyes around your gym, you go over and engage the guy in conversation about the kind of space you are trying to cultivate?

Many people see space claiming as something to be accepted, something that is just a part of the gym culture. But it isn’t just benign, nor is it happening a vacuum. I have been to great gyms that control this behaviour, and also dodgier gyms that can’t be bothered to even engage with clients who are impacted by this. Space claiming is a part of a continuum of harassment that women, no matter what their economic, social, ethnic and education status, are victims of if they want to make a trip to a co-ed fitness centre.

4 comments on “Space Claiming in Fitness Centres

  1. youssra
    January 29, 2013

    The problem is always the same. Nobody will give freedom to women, not even other women! Each and every women has to take her own freedom and fight for it!
    It is my analyse from being a girl- it is a constant fight to refuse the media telling you what to do, to not break eye contact in public transport and to speak up for myself! I get several apologies from “in street harrassing men” and I am so proud of this little victory. you say that men are teached to act like that maybe it is time to teach our girl to take place as well.

  2. herbsandhags
    January 28, 2013

    LOL at the assertion by the male contributor that it’s the responsibility of the person being objectified, to speak up against it. Of course it’s not the responsibility of the person doing it, not to do it. How about making gyms a place where the onus is on men not to hog all the space, rather than the onus being on women to mark herself out as a trouble-maker and pariah by trying to get a tiny little foothold? We could transfer that ethic to the workplace, politics, public transport, society as a whole…

  3. artistapart
    January 27, 2013

    I enjoy this WP, generally. Its one of my favorite reads. I’ve even replied to it in the past, linking with counter articles of my own. I’ve enjoyed most of the messages posted, and shared it with friends at every opportunity.

    This post, however, is ridiculous. The writing talent is there, obviously an educated person, but perceived as someone so weak in their own self imagine, uncomfortable in their gender, and one that wishes to display such a mass of intellectual superiority while languishing in allowing themselves to be completely dominated, in this case, a gym environment.

    The fact that you feel weak, or out of place is a condition of your own devising. If you, as a man, a woman or a duck, feel that you’re being ogled, or treated in a subhuman manor, it is your responsibility to say something, courteously, as a responsible adult. If the offender doesn’t adjust their behavior, take it to the management, if that doesn’t work, I suggest you switch gyms-the all-mighty dollar will speak louder than your words. Your form of expression would have been of greater weight had the outline been to the effect of “Look at these knuckle-heads at the gym, they thought I was a weak piece of meat, and I wasn’t”, rather than “I was intruded upon, now I’m going to be a b****”.

    I am male, I go to the gym between five and seven days a week, depending on my schedule. Those individuals (and trust me, we’ve a few women that act the exact same way at my gym) are annoying; but to make them an allegory for all that is wrong in a male dominant, female repressive society is clinging to a mentality that is simply not healthy, and not true. I truly feel sorry if that is the environment that surrounds the author, because I’ve never seen or heard of it. The fact that the writer is so greatly affected by such meaningless exercises of bravado does nothing but drive these “alpha males” to continue their current course of action- look how well its working, they’re allowed to dominate life so completely, so much so the author went home and wrote about them! Quite the celebrity!

    A feminist, fighting for equality of men, is a unicorn fighting to be treated like a horse.

    I hope this reply is not received as an attack, or a move towards claiming space or male domination- rather, an open discussion on what may make them act like that in the first place.

    • Adam @Zeeblebum
      February 2, 2013

      > “I hope this reply is not received as an attack”

      Maybe you should have tried to make it sound less like an attack, then?

      Quite apart from the general tone of your comment, you referred to the post as ‘ridiculous’, and referred to the writer as a ‘bitch’ who wished to display ‘a mass of intellectual superiority’.

      herbsandhags’ comment is spot on. It’s the responsibility of the harasser or intimidator to change their behaviour.

      Your comment has ridden roughshod over a woman’s explanation of how she has at times felt while she has been at fitness centres. You’ve dismissed that experience, mocked both the writer and her experience, and blamed the writer for what she has experienced. Well done. You’re colluding with the harassers.

      Maybe next time you’re at the gym, use your male privilege to challenge other men on their behaviour. Oh…and when a woman tells you about her experience of being a woman in a male-dominated environment, try to actually listen to and understand what is being said, rather than commenting with an ‘as-a-man-I-know-best’ response.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2013 by in Features.
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