An open letter to men at the gym: let me work out, not be sexualized

Joy Webb

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The gym has been a sanctuary for me my entire life, a place where I can release a lot of my emotions and feel good both mentally and physically. This changed when I came to college. Women should not have to go to the gym with the fear of being sexualized and objectified the moment they walk in. 

     It may come as a shock to you, but I do not go to the gym to be sexualized by men, uncomfortably approached, stared at or forced to leave out of discomfort; I come to the gym to work out, be healthy and better myself, and so do most other women.  

     In high school, I was in an advanced weightlifting class with my other friends and athletes, and we were all females. We advocated to have this female-only weight class, because we understood the discomfort that came with trying to lift around men. Squatting was no longer a way of strengthening our legs for soccer, but a chance for men to stare at our asses while we were not paying attention. I fell in love with weightlifting, with being strong, and enjoyed getting to be around other girls who were pushing me and doing the same.  

     My experience at the UCCS Campus Recreation Center was the exact opposite. I was excited to be able to utilize this facility, because my rural high school was so poor that it did not have nearly as nice weightlifting equipment and machines. The first time I ever went to the gym here in freshman year, I was approached by three men who would not leave me alone and I ended up leaving before I even finished my workout. 

     Fraternity brothers, male athletes and other men wander the gym like it is their own personal hunting grounds, but this has unfortunately become the norm for gym culture. The gym is not your in-person Tinder where you can scout out the next girl you are going to try to talk to and bother; we are here to work out, just like you.  

     I have been approached countless times, as have my friends and sisters who attend UCCS, and been told how to properly squat or properly lift weights, as if I do not know because I am a girl. Even if this is their way of striking up a conversation, it is demeaning and unwanted. I did not come to the gym to talk to a man that makes groaning noises as if he is giving birth or is extremely constipated while he only benches 120 pounds.  

     This has made me second-guess and change my clothing multiple times before going to the gym. If I wear leggings, I have to pair it with a long, baggy t-shirt and if I am brave enough to wear shorts, I also wear a long, baggy t-shirt to cover my butt. The long, baggy t-shirt is not just a fun fashion trend — it is women trying to cover themselves from your peering eyes. 

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     Toxic masculinity runs rampant in the gym, especially at universities, because a lot of men with low self-esteem go there just to try to get attention or for someone to see them lifting weights. It is not about working out to them as much as it is about the show they put on.  

     In a study done by Fit Rated, nearly 71 percent of women polled admitted to experiencing an interaction at the gym that made them uncomfortable. For people who expect to go to the gym solely for working out, unwanted social advances can be extremely off-putting. Over 90 percent of women said they don’t appreciate being stared at while exercising, and nearly as many don’t enjoy being flirted with. 

     Regardless of your intentions, the general rule of thumb at the gym might be that silence is best. The poll also found that nearly 80 percent of women don’t enjoy being talked to while working out. 90 percent of women said they do not enjoy being stared at while working out, even if it’s in admiration, and 89 percent of women said they do not enjoy being flirted with while working out. What I hate most about gym culture is that men seem to feel entitled to our bodies and act as if they own the gym and we are just here for them. This is entirely wrong, because I am here for me.  

     Though this discomfort has not kept me from going to the gym, it prevents a lot of other women from going. Obesity is a growing epidemic in adolescent girls, and this largely correlates to women not feeling comfortable going to gyms. Of all adolescent girls, 32 percent are obese or overweight, according to a study by the National Library of Medicine. This statistic is not just because of eating badly; exercising is an important part of being healthy and many young girls are not going to the gym because it is a hotbed for hostility and overt toxic masculinity.  

     We do not want your attention, we do not need your help and, contrary to what you may think, we are fully capable of lifting weights without you. Shocking, I know. So, stop putting on a show thinking that we care, because we don’t. We will put headphones in so we cannot hear you talk about women in demeaning ways while we are actually working out (which is what gyms are for).  

     Stop making animalistic, barbaric noises and making everyone uncomfortable or second-hand embarrassed for you. Show us a little bit of respect by leaving us alone, not looking at us, not approaching or advising us. If we want to talk to you, we will come to you.  

     I’m tired of places I love being ruined because the patriarchy allows men to think that their actions are okay. Perhaps UCCS could have a workout time reserved only for women, since we already have to make reservations due to COVID-19, so that women who would rather not deal with being degraded can work out together in peace.  

     Go to a therapist, deal with your issues and heal from the expectations that society places on you as a male. Start respecting and treating women like you would your other gym bros and dudes. And ladies, ignore them and do your thing. Do not let this keep you from enjoying your work out, and do it for yourself, not to look good for others or to burn some extra calories. This is a place for you to grow and feel strong.