Written by Ananya Kodali
The first year I went to a commercial gym, I only ever stepped foot on the treadmills. I wasn’t the only one sticking to a single machine; almost every girl I saw in the gym was consistently hustling up the Stairmaster, riding on an exercise bike, or pounding out miles on the treadmill. It was rare for me to see a single woman in the weights section. If you were to walk into a local gym right now, you would probably notice the same thing I did; women favor cardio and men dominate everything else.
Though studies have continuously shown that strength training can offer immense emotional and physical benefits to women, women still tend to shy away from it. There are two key reasons for this: first, there is the social expectation that a woman’s body should be petite and small that leads any woman engaged in exercise to fear being more than ‘toned.’ Any woman who thwarts this ideal risks facing backlash: take Serena Williams, for example, a world-class athlete whose fame and acclaim isn’t enough to protect her from body-shaming trolls. The second roadblock women face is the very organization of the commercial gym, the primary location for strength-training endeavors. Women walking into the male-dominated weights section are more likely to be man-splained, leered at, or mocked. Though women and men theoretically have equal access to the equipment and facilities of most commercial gyms, gyms remain gendered spaces. Because of this, many of them end up giving up the gym altogether.
What if there was a solution? A safe haven where women could get all the benefits of strength training with none of the discomfort? Meet the women’s-only gym: a fitness space exclusive to women, with no men to hog the squat rack or offer unsolicited advice. These potential safe havens have been sprouting up across the country in various forms. A prominent example is Curves, a premiere female fitness franchise with approximately 367 locations across the country. At the same time, in many cities, smaller women’s-only fitness programs have also found success.
Jen Shaw is the co-owner and founder of such a program: Lift 4 Women in Austin, Texas. Shaw, like many women, grew up in a world where she wasn’t encouraged to lift heavy. When the girls visited the weight rooms in grade-school athletics, she was “told to lift light” for fear of becoming “bulky,” while the boys got to do “all the fun stuff.” Later, after she had obtained her B.S. in exercise physiology and spent years as a Crossfit trainer, Shaw created her women-exclusive program as a way for women to gain strength together.
Within this community of weightlifting women, Shaw was able to offer her clients benefits beyond simple physical strength. The strength her clients gained from weightlifting, Shaw says, helped them with “everything in their female world,” from day-to-day anxiety to the feat of childbirth. Additionally, Shaw saw a unique sense of community in her program that she had never seen in co-ed gyms. Unlike men, “women make their gym,” Shaw says. These women bring in more women, and within that collective of women exists a sense of unwavering support. The women in Shaw’s class did more than train with each other; they laughed and communicated with each other, helping one another through troubles with children, marriage, and life.
This sense of community isn’t unique to Shaw’s program. Ishika Puri, president of GAIN, a women’s fitness club at UT Austin, expressed a similar sentiment. Within Puri’s organization, she saw that members could bond over their past uncomfortable experiences in the gym. “A community arises through this shared fact of this niche experience of being a woman in fitness,” Puri said. “That’s something you definitely wouldn’t see in a co-ed group.”
While the sense of community that women-only fitness spaces can bring is undoubtedly important, there has been some backlash from women who feel that these communities don’t have a place for them. Plus-size and non-white women can often be underrepresented in these fitness spaces, and this lack of representation can be self-reinforcing. Furthermore, for people who identify as trans or non-binary, these spaces can sometimes cause even more confusion and discomfort than co-ed ones. Take the story of Penelope Mansell, a transgender woman who was asked to disclose uncomfortable personal information about her transition before being ultimately turned away from a New Zealand women’s only gym.
Shaw tries to combat this in Lift 4 Women by taking on diverse clientele and representing them in her promotional materials for the class. In her advertising materials, she also takes care to convey that they are not a “competitive gym,” in that they are not striving toward any ideal body type or endorsing unhealthy behaviors like calorie counting. Over the years, Shaw has also had transgender and gender-nonconforming clients. Her priority with all of her clients, she says, is meeting them “where they are comfortable,” communicating expectations for inclusivity with all gym members, and having a zero-tolerance policy for harmful comments in the class.
Another common critique of women’s-only gyms lies in the fact that some can actually perpetuate harmful myths about women’s fitness. For example, Curves combines its strength training programs with cardio in a way that would likely not be found in a similar men’s program. Of course, this “uniquely female approach” isn’t true of every women’s fitness space: in Shaw’s program, for example, the women in her class followed the exact same workouts as the co-ed class her co-owner taught on alternate days. “There is absolutely no difference,” Shaw emphasized. This approach is reflective of the science surrounding women’s strength training: the exercises that strengthen the body are the same for men and women.
The benefits of having a strong body hold equally true for both men and women. Though society may keep telling women to “shrink themselves,” hopefully, we’re on the way to a future where women can reject that messaging and nourish and strengthen their bodies instead. It will be a while before the underlying forces that keep women away from weights (body image concerns, sexual harassment, and discrimination in gyms) are vanquished completely and co-ed gyms are no longer gendered. Until then, despite all their flaws, women-only fitness spaces offer women the one-of-a-kind opportunity to escape from the patriarchy of gym culture and focus on strengthening themselves holistically.