Sexism in the gyms: “I changed my way of dressing to be at peace”

Like many active, urban young women her age, Sabrine, 25, is a member of a gym. Going there two to three times a week often thwarts her fun, especially when she enters the “bodybuilding” section of her Fitness Park. “Before arriving in these spaces, I’m generally motivated, good in my body, good in my head. But as soon as I approach it, this confidence evaporates, I don’t feel legitimate anymore,” she confides.

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The reason ? The ubiquity of men in this part of his gym. Their selfies in front of the mirrors, the cries at the slightest barbell, the “boys’ club” atmosphere, which will push the hardest and make the most noise. “Most of them work on the upper body muscles. They sweat, scream, make noise when they drop the dumbbells, monopolize the machines… I’m not really comfortable,” explains the young woman.

“Domination by smell and sound”

“When men do bodybuilding, they are in the very strong demonstration of their masculinity and their masculinity, which goes through this vociferous representation,” emphasizes Chris Blache, urban anthropologist and co-founder of the think tank Genre et Ville, used to gymnasiums. In these places, men “exercise dominance by smell and sound.” “, according to her. So, to avoid embarrassment, some women — when they just don’t give up the idea of ​​going to the bodybuilding spaces — adopt strategies to avoid crossing the path of men.

Lou, 26, has found techniques to ward off the ‘relous’: the triptych on the head, the headphones in the ears and the concentrated air have proven themselves, she says. And like many women, when she started bodybuilding, she did not like coming to the gym alone. “There always had to be a girlfriend or my boyfriend. Now I’m thankfully past that point, but in the beginning it was something I was very careful about when choosing my gym. †

Over time, Lou has identified a number of “red flags” that indicate that she will not be comfortable in a particular room. In the suburbs of Paris, where she trains, women are relegated to the ends of the room. They move the benches behind two posts facing the wall, making space between them and helping each other, thus creating a small space of trust. “We find women in areas where men don’t, and vice versa. Finally, they occupy the bodybuilding space in the same way as the public space in general: they consider these places their priority,” Chris Blache sighs.

Especially because sports halls are very codified places for the anthropologist. Two worlds oppose it: that of fitness, that is, of women, and that of bodybuilding, reserved for men. The goal is the same for both sexes: to have a body that falls within “the canons of beauty of heteronormative society”. For women, it’s about a slim and slim silhouette. For men ; big arms. “Women are investing in group classes, stretching exercises and cardio equipment. And on the other hand, the bodybuilding field is monopolized by men. †

The problem of “wild coaching”

So when women finally dare to integrate this space, another plague awaits them: “wild coaching”. Men, often amateurs, who come to give them unsolicited advice – even stand behind them, for example to ‘secure’ them during squats – and consider the thing a legitimate flirting technique. “It happened to me a lot, especially when I started, when I was intimidated and didn’t really know how to use the machines,” said Ophélie, 28. I changed my way of dressing to be at peace. The young woman therefore exchanged her shorts-bra combination, which she finds “much more comfortable and practical”, for jogging and a long T-shirt that covers her buttocks.

“When we launched our brand, we were very careful about making the places welcoming to women and trying to avoid this kind of behavior,” explains Marie-Anne Teissier, co-founder of the Néoness group. [qui compte aussi les salles plus haut-de-gamme Episod]† It was important to us, and to our company, to make women feel good in our gyms. The walls have no mirrors, the machines are accessible to all sizes (“a woman under 5 feet need not ask for help to use them”), and the good part is done on “guided bodybuilding” machines, which make it easy to adjust the workload.

“We made sure that we could train independently without being an expert,” emphasizes Marie-Anne Teissier. We also have coaches on set, reminding those who are a little too tempted to think of themselves as coaches that they aren’t. Besides the fact that these behaviors can make women very uncomfortable, they are also dangerous: bad advice or the wrong attitude is an additional risk of injury.

Demystifying Bodybuilding For Women To Own The Space

“Recently we have also developed “boot factories”: we know that the buttocks are an area that especially women like to work on, but it can be complicated to do it in the middle of the free weight area, under male gaze”, details of the founder of Neoness. In these special areas of the room, out of sight, women can train without fear of inappropriate stares. By popular demand, Néones has also launched “cross-training” group classes, which combine cardio and strength training with small weights. “It’s a way of ‘letting go’ women from bodybuilding: they have long been led to believe that you have to do cardio to lose fat, that by doing muscle building they will gain mass and become ‘masculine’, which is incorrect. is. »

The mentality is gradually changing, thanks in particular to dedicated coaches, such as Alaïa Hennequin, who are campaigning on social networks to change the image women have of bodybuilding and offer adapted training. But it is also up to the sports halls to continue their efforts. “There’s no doubt there are things that can be done in terms of communication,” Chris Blache supports. Representations should be changed, for example in advertisements. Stop distinguishing “female” from “male” activities, get out of gender stereotypes and stop portraying perfect and caricatured bodies. And if it’s not for gender equality, the business argument might convince them: The more comfortable women feel, the more often they come back.

How dare he take his place?

In the meantime, some venues, such as Fitness Park, have decided to create same-sex spaces. “There are more women here than in the rest of the room. I feel mutual help, solidarity between us, I have the impression that I am less judged and looked at,” says Sabrine, even though she regrets that “not all machines are offered”. To remedy this deficiency, some chains, such as Lady Fitness, offer rooms that are 100% reserved for women. “The non-mix is ​​a means, not an end, nuance Chris Blache. We need to think in parallel about other alternatives. †

The expert advises women who are anxious about the room to “take a seat”, tell themselves “I have the right, so I’ll do it”. “All I can tell you is that men don’t necessarily look at women, they look at themselves. All you have to do is look at them: they work out a muscle, they admire themselves in the mirror, they bend the muscle to see if it turned out right, they start over, they talk to each other, they look at each other to see who has the biggest. It’s not when they’re interested, they’re in their performance at that point. “What works best is to prepare my session in advance, Lou also supports. Knowing where I’m going, what I’m doing makes me feel more confident, and guys feel less allowed to invade my space. Finally, in this testosterone-packed universe, Chris Blache warns against the opposite excess. “You just have to be careful not to get into toxic performance, which is often found in men.”