There’s no better place to remind you that it’s a man’s world, than the gym. The sound of iron banging on the floor and exaggerated exclamations create a soundtrack like no other. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but when I first started going to the gym, I found it to be a really daunting experience. I spent the majority of my time on the cardio machines with no intention of losing any weight. I was there to get toned, but in order for me to do that, I would have to cross the abyss. The very thought of entering the jungle that is the weights section petrified me. So I started to go at a later time, when the soundtrack of banging metal was lower and I eventually became more confident with using the equipment. I don’t want to say that this is every female’s experience, but it was mine. So when my mum told me the story about the woman at her gym who was asked to change her clothes because it was a “distraction to the men,” it reminded me of just how self-conscious women are made to feel when they are working out.
As much as I hoped that I had, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s the sad reality of our world. Women are told to change so that they won’t intimidate or inconvenience men. They are forced to cover up so that they can protect themselves from the male gaze. It creates a toxic dichotomy. Men v. women becomes synonymous with predator v. prey. There is the assumption that men lack restraint and self-control so women’s bodies need to be policed in order to facilitate that.
This incident suggests that, the solution is clear. If you don’t want people to look at you, cover up; ‘modesty’ is supposedly the best policy. But accepting that solution means that you have missed the point. Just because that’s what we often need to do to feel safe or comfortable, it doesn’t mean that we should have to. It creates the assumption that women were created solely for the purpose of the male viewing pleasure. It creates a damaging rhetoric that women always want to be looked at. I’m not disputing the fact that some women do go to the gym for attention because let’s face it, we aren’t all the same. But, it seems as if there is a general consensus that we all are.
Fashion and fitness are not mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure that we’ve all seen that man at the gym who wears a top so tight that it looks as if it will tear once he finishes his next bicep curl. Or the man who persistently lifts up his top after each rep to check out his abs. Or dare I forget the man in the leggings who will undeniably garner fewer stares than a woman in a sports bra.
It’s as if we have forgotten that there is a reason that we don’t wear jeans to the gym. Sportswear, particularly compression clothing, has a purpose, it can help with both your performance and post-workout recovery. Yet once again, the sexualisation of the female body has meant that people view what women wear to the gym solely through the perspective of the male gaze and she becomes either a distraction or an attention seeker. If you can’t wear gym leggings at the gym, where can you wear them?
Anyone who has ever made a New Year’s Resolution to keep fit knows exactly how hard it is to keep it when the Valentine’s and Easter chocolate comes out. So I find it really hard to buy the fact that women can be a ‘distraction’ in the gym. Exercise requires discipline. So instead of policing women, I think that we should start thinking of a way to encourage men to exercise their self control.
By Shaakira Monique Muhammad