This time last year, I remember considering cutting a workout short because a man at the gym wouldn’t stop staring at me – or, more specifically, stop staring at my breasts.
It was not the first time I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in a fitness space, and I doubt it will be the last. But it’s a stark contrast to my first visit to the gym since it reopened for the first time since lockdown was imposed back in March. This time, I loved every minute of it, maybe going so far as to say it was the best workout I’ve ever had.
Let me tell you why.
As someone who has struggled with a fluctuating weight for most of her life, and has been on the receiving end of countless fat jibes, I have a complicated relationship with my body. I have learned to love myself the way I am, but for a long time the gym was a place where I felt I didn’t belong. I never took part in classes because I feared looks from others, my mind obsessing over the rolls of my stomach when I bent over or the fact I couldn’t hold a yoga position as long as the rest of the class.
There is a misguided belief that gyms are for people who are already in shape, or who appear to be in shape (for the record, you can look overweight and still be incredibly strong: I can leg press 100kg and am a size 16). If you’re not toned, dressed in the latest Lululemon and showing off how many reps you can do, are you even working out?
“Post-lockdown, my gym is pure bliss – and not just thanks to the endorphins.”
Being forced to compete with so-called ‘gym people’ can be intimidating for those who are already scared to take the leap onto their fitness journey. Like the time a man told me to give up the dumbbells because he ‘needed’ this particular set, and I could use something else. Or when another man was visibly tapping his foot because he felt I was taking too long on the seated arm curl machine – naturally, I stayed longer just to annoy him, but I could feel his eyes burrowing into my neck the entire time. And don’t even get me started on the man who approached me in the gym at 3am while I was doing sit-ups, because he fancied a late-night chat.
But post-lockdown, my gym is pure bliss – and not just thanks to the endorphins. With social distancing now a government-imposed requirement, there are clear markers preventing people from entering your personal space without consent, and there is also a limit on how long you can use a machine or stay in the gym.
This means there are no longer any men huffing or puffing to encourage women to leave the notoriously testosterone-filled weights area, often purely for the reason that some men believe it somehow belongs to those who have a penis. Neither is anyone trying to flirt, because it’s near-on impossible. My session was also the first time I’ve seen a split ratio of men and women on the weights mats, of different ages and sizes – and it filled me with pure joy.
As for the threat of coronavirus, I felt very safe. My local gym is cleaner than it has ever been, with everyone required to use hand sanitiser on arrival, clean off the machines before and after use, and change their clothes and shower at home.
Every other machine is marked with an X, so that people keep the appropriate distance, and many pieces of equipment are now available in limited numbers. As an example, there is now only one mat and kettlebell up for grabs, to ensure that these are cleaned after each use.
You must also book and pay for your session in advance – unless you are a member – and are told to bring your own towel and water bottle.
Overall, it’s not the space that made the biggest impression on me, but the atmosphere. People are grateful to be able to step back into the gym again, and no one was breaking rules.
“My session was also the first time I’ve seen a split ratio of men and women on the weights mats, of different ages and sizes – and it filled me with pure joy.”
Of course, it shouldn’t take a pandemic for women to finally get to exercise in peace and be granted the same access to equipment as men. My reluctance about the gym is undoubtedly connected to personal body image issues (I’m working on it, okay?) but most gyms have never been this female-friendly or body-positive – and I say this as a hardcore feminist who will happily chew someone’s ear off if I feel I am treated as anything less than an equal. Fighting back in a space where you already feel on the back foot is no easy task.
Coronavirus has presented us with a chance to build a better society in the future. These dark times will eventually end, but my hope is that we take the very few positives from this otherwise tragic situation and learn from them.
Don’t let it take another pandemic for women like me to feel at home in gyms.
Almara Abgarian is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @almaraabgarian
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