Cindy Honeycutt says she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment at the gym, but she believes that’s because she works out in a women-only room at Gold’s Gym.
“I know I’m just going to go in, work out and go home,” says Honeycutt, a freelance writer living in Asheville. “I don’t like to think I’m working out under prying eyes, and I feel safer with just women.”
For some women, a gym seems like a good place to meet new friends or even start a new romance, but most women just want to work out and get fit, says Lucy Thrasher, owner of LT’s Primal Fitness, a coed gym in Asheville.
Commercial workout spaces have become ubiquitous in recent decades as a result of more people working in sedentary jobs. According to a report by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the United States had some 36,540 facilities as of April 2016, with 57.3 million members — nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population older than 6. But parts of many gyms have maintained a male-dominated aura, and Thrasher says some women tell her they experience a definite lack of respect at coed gyms.
Gender in the gym
In her doctoral dissertation in 2013 at the University of Iowa, Kristine E. Newhall studied gender in gyms — from the male-dominated weight room to the woman-dominated aerobics classes.
“(A) woman who lifts weights in a weight room is viewed differently than a woman who lifts weights during the course of an aerobics class,” Newhall writes.”The former is more likely to be seen as transgressing gender norms because she is using a space that has historically been marked as masculine and could be building large, unfeminine muscles in the process. The woman who strength trains in the aerobics room may be doing similar body work, but in a space that was created for women.”
These gender norms can to lead to behaviors that shame or exploit women, says local gym owner Kim Hreha, whose Ladies Workout Asheville is for women only.
In January, as reported by WLOS and the Asheville Citizen Times, the owner of Blue Ridge CrossFit took photos of women’s backsides as they were working out and posted them with suggestive comments to the gym’s Instagram account. Reaction was swift and negative as women schooled him on the impropriety of his posts, which were subsequently taken down.
Amanda Turlington, a member of the gym for more than a year who was serving as membership manager when the posts went up, quit when she saw them. She says she was pictured in the posts without her knowledge and never received an apology from the owner.
“It didn’t sour me on coed gyms,” she says. “I’m still a member of a coed gym, and I enjoy working out alongside men, as long as they’re respectful.”
Turlington said other CrossFit gyms in Asheville got together and raised money for Our VOICE, a local rape crisis center, after the incident.
But, Turlington says, she understands why some women want to work out without men in the room.
“I don’t want to be open to that,” Honeycutt says. “I just want to work out where there’s fewer prying eyes.”
Thrasher says most women she talks to feel the same way: Their main reason for being at the gym is to increase health and fitness. It’s not enough to be thin, she continues, as people are looking to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, increase muscle mass, and improve heart health and mental acuity.
Honeycutt has mild cerebral palsy, and although it isn’t noticeable to others, she says she’s more limber and comfortable when fit and doesn’t want to be judged as weak or sexy — or anything else — while working out.
Setting the tone
Although LT’s Primal Fitness does have some men as members, says Thrasher, most are women. Jolene Puffer, a yoga trainer at the center, says she has a number of men in her classes and some couples who come to do yoga together.
“I think it’s all in the tone you set,” Puffer says. “There’s a level of respect here from the top down.”
The YWCA of Asheville also has both men and women as members — 65 percent women and 35 percent men, according to Jan Calder, director of health and wellness. But the mission of the YWCA, emblazoned on the wall of the fitness center and sprinkled on its T-shirts and coffee mugs, is “empowering women and eliminating racism.”
“I think our mission helps us attract a certain type of member,” says Calder. “I think a lot of men prefer to work out with less of a macho atmosphere.”
The YW has child care and programs to empower young women, such as MotherLove, which helps young mothers finish their education, learn parenting skills and avoid subsequent unplanned pregnancies. All of this helps foster an attitude of respect among members, Calder says.
“Respect is interwoven throughout everything we do, which is a lot more than fitness,” Calder says. “We say, ‘We’re not new to this, we’re true to this.’”
Matter of comfort
Hreha says she tends to feel less comfortable at a coed gym, especially in the weight room.
When she visits coed gyms, she notes, she often sees people who appear to be there to “meet up” — women wearing makeup and fashionable workout clothes and men checking them out.
“I’m just more comfortable working out with just women,” she says. “I have women coming in all the time who are just tired of working out with men. … We want women to feel strong and beautiful, not like objects.”
“When I travel, I will go into coed facilities, and I get stared at when I reach for the 25-pound weights, as though I shouldn’t be using them,” she says.
Newhall’s study said women typically eschew the weight room in favor of aerobics or other classes, but Hreha says women at her gym are just as likely to visit the weight room.
“That’s because a woman reaching for the 25-pound weights here gets encouraged, not stared at,” she says.
In her 2013 master’s thesis at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, Mary James R. Fisher wrote that as a personal trainer, she noticed women often came to the gym to lose weight or increase fitness levels, but they only used circuit machines and cardio equipment. They were informed of aerobics classes but received no training in the weight room, she says, and those who couldn’t afford a personal trainer often never entered the weight room, perpetuating the myth that women don’t lift weights.
Using unstructured interviews, Fisher studied women’s ideas about fitness and how to better integrate women and men in gyms. She noted that schools usually separate boys and girls for physical fitness, so they often don’t come together until they’re adults, which may account for some of the stresses of working out together.
Contrary to Fisher’s findings, Thrasher says women are as eager to lift weights as men at her gym.
Newhall’s study notes that weight rooms tend to be the realm of men, but today’s CrossFit training uses weights in addition to core training, or strengthening the body’s core.
Thrasher is CrossFit-certified, and her classes follow CrossFit methods, but she discourages competition among participants. “We all do the same thing, but we each do it to our own level,” she says.
Hreha says women shouldn’t feel as though they’re competing with men in fitness rooms, since women’s bodies and physical abilities are different.
“You’ll see women trying to keep up with men to be competitive,” she says. “In a woman-only gym, each person trains to her own level.”
Thrasher maintains that gyms can be places where people respect each other only when disrespect is never tolerated.
“We’re not here to tell you how you should look or how much you need to be able to lift,” she says. “We just want you to be comfortable in your own skin.”