Of Weight Rooms and Feminism

You’re familiar with the weight room, aren’t you?

If you belong to a gym, it’s probably tucked into a corner some where. No matter where you are in the gym, you can hear the plates clanking and a distinctive, almost sexual chorus of grunts. The weight room, in my experience, is a space that traditionally is populated by men.

My gym serves a very small town. I have never seen a woman in the weight room there. When I lived in Las Vegas, my gym had a room that was just for women with some treadmills and elliptical machines, and a set of free weights. In all the time I went there, I only ever saw a woman use the free weights once and I never saw a woman in the regular weight room. I know there are women who use free weights, but I think even they would conceded that the weight room is generally a male space.

The weight room is something of a mystery to me. I don’t know how to use free weights. I know enough to know there is a technique that needs to be employed to keep from doing damage to yourself, but I don’t know the techniques.

I am also not a man.

I consider myself a feminist, but I also believe that pretty much every group should have a safe space. Things like men’s lodges don’t bother me, for instance. (Do they even have those anymore? Mentioning them makes me think of Fred Flintstone)  Poker night with the boys doesn’t bother me, either. Neither do women’s workout rooms.

But, I don’t like being excluded from public spaces by virtue of being a woman. And, I especially dislike the feeling of excluding myself from them.

I hadn’t actually thought this through before. Like the rest of the women who belong to my gym, I don’t go into the weight room. I think I’ve posted here before that I didn’t want to expose myself to the grunting, sweating men. I laughed off the idea of using the weight room. That’s exactly what the woman who owns the gym said to me when she gave me a tour. She didn’t even take me into the weight room, just pointed it out and said, “that’s where the grunting, sweating men work out.” And I just smiled and nodded, and didn’t think much of it.

This week our friend Albert offered to work out with me so that he could teach me how to lift weights. And I realized I really wanted to learn. And not on the machines, either–which, incidentally, may be more girlie, but are often used by the same grunting, sweating men.

So, here’s what I came smack up against this week when Albert and I went into the weight room the first time:

I needed him there with me. And not just because he knows what he’s doing and I need someone to help me figure it out.

I would not have been able to go into the weight room, lay on my back on the bench and lift that bar, without him. There was no feeling of threat, physically or emotionally, from the other men in the room. No one laughed at me or made me feel like I shouldn’t be there. But I still would not have walked into that room alone.

Also, I felt a weird kind of deference to the men who were already in the room. I fought it, but it was there. This feeling like I needed to show that I was still a girl and not trying to be a man by being in their space. And apparently, smiling shyly and keeping my head down was the way to do that.

It was disconcerting.

It doesn’t happen to me often that I feel like I need a man. It’s uncomfortable. It makes me want to go and prove myself wrong.

It never, ever happens that I feel the need to turn into my mother, who once waited in her car on the highway for five hours for a man to finally stop and change her flat tire for her.

I have had that slightly sick-to-my-stomach feeling that I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be before. You know, the one that says that at any minute the cool kids are going to realize you’re there and turn on you? It sometimes pops up out of the blue. It’s a feeling I dislike enough that I have avoided situations where I think it might come up. For instance, I would love to go to Burning Man. I know someone who is involved with a group that goes every year and it probably wouldn’t be very difficult to get myself invited. But I haven’t tried because, deep down, I know I’ll have that uncomfortable feeling that I don’t belong.

That’s how the idea of being alone in the weight room makes me feel. Being there with Albert makes me seem a girl that a man is indulging. Being there alone makes me a woman who thinks she belongs there.

Where the hell is that even coming from?

Learning to lift weights is pushing boundaries of my feminism that I wasn’t even aware of. I didn’t quite expect that. I’m not even sure how to handle it, because it’s one thing to recognize what’s going on and another to stop it. I mean, I can keep myself from the deference thing, but I can’t turn off the fact that the urge is there in the first place.

I can refuse to give in to the instinct to stay off of the boy’s playground. And I can face the weird shit as it comes up, forcing myself to keep my head up and behave as though I belong in the weight room the same as they do. In fact, this is what I’m going to have to do, because the alternative is to retreat. The idea of not lifting weights if I want to gets my defiant athlete up. And that’s good.

I can do all that, and refuse to retreat, but the truth is that I would be really uncomfortable going into that weight room without Albert today. And I’m not sure what to do with that.

I’m curious if this has ever happened to you before. Have you ever found yourself in this situation? What did it feel like? How did you handle it?

* * *

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