• Michelle Buyer

#24: Lifting is Masculine

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

I think many people agree that lifting is inherently masculine. Men are encouraged, or even expected, to lift weights, while women are pushed towards yoga, Pilates, cardio and endless ab workouts. Men are supposed to be muscular and women are supposed to be skinny.

There’s a gym/social club in Seattle that has a separate exercise floor for men and women. As you can imagine, the men’s floor has all the lifting equipment you can imagine (power racks and plates, machines, etc.) and the women’s floor is mainly cardio machines, dumbbells and a few other machines. Men and women must stay on their respective floors. When I was in Spain, they had a “women’s only” fitness area, consisting of glute and ab machines. Men weren’t allowed to be in the women’s area, but women could go in the men’s area.

I understand that many women are uncomfortable working out with men around, because they’re self-conscious about being judged, and frankly, men can be creepy. I appreciate the sentiment of designing a space for women to be comfortable. However, the equipment in these types of spaces often enforces gendered fitness norms: I’m most likely to gravitate towards a women’s only fitness area if I’m afraid men will judge me for not knowing what I’m doing. The highest concentration of people who don’t know what they’re doing or self-conscious are new to the gym. If I’m new to the gym and stay in the women’s area, I’m confined to using the equipment that’s been designated for women. I’ll never learn to lift or have the chance to experiment, thereby perpetuating the stereotype that lifting is for men. If the women’s area had “equipment for men,” I would have the chance to experiment in this “safe” space.

I know there are men who would be upset that they aren’t allowed in the women’s area if women are allowed in the men’s area, and I understand their frustration. However, the majority of the gym (non-women’s area), was designed for men. Every machine in the women’s area (to the best of my knowledge) in the Spanish gym and Seattle fitness floor was also available to men.

There’s always a silver lining: When I’m in a crowded gym with limited plates, I’m grateful that my (female) version of lifting heavy doesn’t require as many plates. It’s unlikely that a hotel gym won’t have heavy enough dumbbells for me because they have to accommodate men.

I sympathize with women who hate working out in front of others (or just men) for whatever reason, although I’ve never been self-conscious or afraid, even when I was weak. I guess I never thought about being self-conscious, and I’ll take any chance I get to defy a stereotype. Even if I’m doing something wrong, I’m still showing up and making an effort (as long as I’m not hurting myself). Plus, I can guarantee that there’s a dude somewhere with worse bicep curl form than anything I can try to come up with.

In the last few years, it’s become more accepted for females to lift. I’m lucky that I’ve never gotten strange looks when I tell people I lift. (I only get strange looks when they realize how neurotic I am.) However, I hear guys criticize successful lifters (and athletes) for “looking like a man” or having “man arms.” I also hear many women talk about how they don’t want to lift because it’ll make them bulky. It seems that a woman is either being criticized or afraid to look strong. This equates being strong to manly, and implies that a woman can’t be feminine and strong at the same time, which means that by default women “should be” weak. It takes several years of consistency, dedication and meal prep for a woman to get “bulky.” No one should be afraid to lift, because that doesn’t happen on accident, nor does it happen without intention.

I suspect that a primary reason that men are rude when a woman is muscular is because they are insecure. It’s unfair and hurtful to describe a woman as manly because she puts in hard work at the gym just because she puts in more effort than you. However, I recognize that each person has a unique opinion of attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m also not likely to be attracted to a man whose smaller than me because of my own insecurities (and I need to be able to share my passion with someone). I’m often insecure about my weight and feel huge if I’m bigger than a potential partner. (Which is ironic because I claim I want to feel strong, but at the end of the day I need to feel skinny first. Thanks, society.)

The bottom line of my thoughts on this topic: 1. I HATE when gyms are segregated in any way based on gender. 2. Lifting is for everyone who is willing. 3. It’s ok not to be attracted to someone as long as you aren’t rude about it.

**I respect nonbinary and trans people. I recognize that they face more difficulty in these situations than cisgender men and women, but I didn’t include them in this discussion because this post is my opinion based on my personal experience. I would be happy to listen to someone else’s personal experience.

**After spending a week in an Army gym designed for incredibly strong people (and mostly men), I must admit that I missed some of the "girly" equipment my home gym offers including dumbbells in 1lb increments from 10lbs to 2lbs and the cable attachment for glute kickbacks that no man will be caught dead doing.

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