One of the more fascinating sections of Dr Tanya Bunsell's Strong and Hard Women (see FMS passim) deals with the idea of the gym as a place where different areas are deemed 'male' or 'female'. Often these spaces are demarcated by interior design. The specific gym mentioned in the book, for example, has the male changing rooms exactly opposite the free weights area, while the ladies' changing rooms (adjacent to the hairdresser and beautician) are at the opposite end, and as the female gym users exit them, there is a stairway directly outside that leads to the aerobics hall, spinning room, stretching area etc. Consequently, the women are able to visit the gym and never set foot anywhere near any heavy weights.
This kind of designed segregation reflects, according to Dr Bunsell, the perception of the different activities possible within a gym as being either 'male' or 'female' ones. You probably won't be surprised to learn that toning (via cardio, resistance machines, or stretching, or spinning) is seen as appropriate for women. Conversely, muscle building in the free weights area is for boys.
The perception of a male/female divide in activity, and by extension space, can be perpetuated by the women themselves. Some fear that weight training will make them look muscular (like it's a bad thing!), at best bulky, at worst masculine, and as a result, they think, unattractive to the opposite sex. However, the divide is also perpetuated by the gyms themselves. Dr Bunsell relates the induction experience of 'Samantha', who requested the male gym instructor to set her a programme to build strength and muscle. After being told that 'muscle doesn't look right on a female', she was given a high repetition, light resistance weight programme, concentrating on women's 'problem' areas of 'legs, bums and tums'.
Nevertheless, the free weights area is not 'forbidden' to women, but even so, entering the 'male' domain is not as simple for them as walking in the other direction when they leave the changing room. Any woman crossing the threshold has to deal with the men themselves, whether they are simply wannabe 'clowns' or actual hardcore bodybuilders.
It can be intimidating enough if you're a man - I have certainly felt more than a little intimidated in the past by the way some men at the gym have conducted themselves, and I'm not a small bloke. Put yourself in the shoes of a 5'2" woman entering the free weights area while the testosterone flies all around. There is the attention-seeking grunting, groaning, yelling and screaming. There are the assertions of heterosexuality and virility in encouragement to training partners ('You're the man! Come on, big boy! Don't pussy out!' etc.). Men hog the weights. They are inadvertently patronising, for example, taking weight plates off without being asked to when a woman comes to use equipment in a misguided attempt at chivalry. There are comments ('Lesbian!'), stares (whether in admiration or distaste), and, in one shocking incident recounted in Dr Bunsell's book, even the threat of sexual violence.
Of course, there are gyms where there is no male/female divide in physical space and activity as described by Dr Bunsell. And in addition, there are men who use weights who are considerate towards women without being patronising, who can pay a woman a compliment on their muscular development without seeming lecherous (take note!), and who are generally good adverts for the brotherhood.
Furthermore, women don't have to do all this alone. I've read countless times how women have been introduced to lifting by male gymgoers who would then, presumably, introduce them to the heavyweights and the heavy weights. Or indeed, they might enter the male domain with a female training partner for support. And it was no surprise to learn that a lot of the women, or the female bodybuilders interviewed in the book anyway, worked out at times when the gym was at its emptiest (which incidentally caused me to have a eureka moment - oh, that's why I never see any!).
But, despite that, it's hard to disagree that whether they are early birds or night owls, women who lift serious weight are not only challenging social ideas related to how women 'should' look, but are also empowering themselves through their 'invasion' of the most masculine area of the gym.
And remember, the study took place in Britian, a country that, for all its faults, is reasonably enlightened about gender equality and sexual discrimination. Imagine being a budding female bodybuilder in a country where sexual harassment is an everyday experience for all women, let alone those who challenge society's most ingrained ideas about what their bodies should look like and what physical activities are 'appropriate' for them.
So the next time you see a woman curling, pressing, squatting or pulling, or doing chin-ups or pull-ups or deadlifts or dips, bear in mind that simply by being in the area of the gym where those things take place, she is doing so much more than building muscle.
In respect and admiration for all women who lift,