Gender at the Gym
Even if you slept through the ball drop in Times Square and missed other signs, there are several major clues that we're at the beginning of a new year. Many of the indicators are related to weight loss. (There’s a slimmed down Jennifer Hudson in yet another Weight Watchers commercial!) I suppose the hyper focus on losing weight is a result of our overindulgence in high calorie food and drink during the holidays, and also because so many New Year’s resolutions center on weight loss. So as you shop in big and small stores, you'll see weight loss products featured: weights, exercise mats, purported diet aids, and gym clothing. On TV you'll see ads for all of these items, and for gyms.
If you have a gym membership—one that you use—then be prepared for the crowd! Arrive early for your favorite step/cycle or other class because the gym will be packed. All of these “extra” people provide an opportunity to people watch, however. And as a sociologist, people watching is one of my favorite sports. (It’s also one of the reasons that I don’t plug my ears up with music at the gym; I need to hear what’s going on to be fully engaged in my observations! But I digress…)
At my gym, most of the cardio machines are on the second floor of a two story building. The second floor overlooks the first and while I sweat and am supposed to be catching up on my newspaper reading, I have a great view of the goings-on downstairs. From my perch above the main floor at my gym, I can witness all kinds of things; in particular, how we “do” gender.
In the many years that I’ve been going to gyms, I can’t recall seeing a single man of a certain age with a trainer. Do you know what age I’m referring to? I guess it would be the age at which men think of themselves as in their physical prime, because they appear not to have any interest in being told by anyone how to work out until about age 40 or later, despite the fact that they might be quite clueless about how to properly use the equipment. (Most gyms don’t have regular members under age 18.) I’ve seen young men grunting and sweating “pumping iron” with great confidence, even when their technique was wrong. After about age 40, men seem more willing to get some direction, even from a female trainer…but more on that later.
Women, on the other hand, seem to be the bread and butter of trainers. They are much less likely to strike out on their own with weights or machines than similarly ignorant men. Of course, this is not true across the board, but overall my observation is that women are comfortable in group classes (yoga, Zumba, Pilates, step, kick-boxing and other classes are usually almost exclusively the domain of women, with a few brave males appearing occasionally). Usually, women are also found on various cardio machines such as stationery bikes, stair masters, and treadmills. But even the most ardent female runners seem reluctant to step into the unknown world of weights and machines.
Yes, lots of women train with free weights and weight machines, many of them without trainers. What I’ve observed though, is that women who don’t know how to use something seem to bide their time and then get a trainer to show them the ropes. For example, Ella (this is the name I’ve given her) is a cardio regular. At least six days a week, she runs or uses some other cardio machine, in addition to attending a spin class! Yet despite her apparent mastery of cardio, a few weeks ago Ella began using weight machines under the direction of a trainer. A man of Ella’s age—I would guess she’s around 30—and fitness level would be far less likely to hire a trainer based on my observations.
Another way that I observe gender differences at the gym is by noting the ratio of male to female trainers; males in this profession out number females greatly! (As with other such gendered divisions, I have observed a change in the direction of equality: There are now far more women trainers than just a few years ago and in some areas of the country, the ratio may be about equal.) I’ve also noticed that women are more likely to be clients of the few female trainers.
Why do you think that is? Are men—when they do seek direction in this arena—less willing to take instructions from a woman, in what might still be seen as a masculine endeavor? Would your gender and that of a trainer influence your decision about what trainer to employ? How else do people “do gender” in public spaces?