It’s been over a year since I last went to the gym. That visit, for a quick workout, was enough to scare me for life.
Much has been said about muscular men lurking at women from behind weight machines, making us feel uncomfortable. But they weren’t my problem – it was the women.
As I plodded along on a treadmill, there were two on my left doing a squat. They were all made up — including false eyelashes — with their smartphones balanced on the floor to capture it on video.
The movements they made, in close-fitting body stockings, were – apologies in advance – gynecologically explicit.
Another attractive young woman was endlessly rearranging her cleavage in the mirror.
I wasn’t sure where to look, although I suspected it was all in favor of the female social media followers who pick up on the undoubtedly airbrushed videos and photos they post.
Dressed in tatty leggings and a T-shirt that I often wear to bed, I suddenly felt self-conscious.
I was the only woman out there who wasn’t cast in a barely there sheer ensemble that was seemingly designed to lift breasts and bum and flash the midriff.
Eve Simmons says some women’s clothes and behavior at the gym are enough to scare her for life (stock image)
My jog lasted the entire 15 minutes before I hurriedly left – pretty much vowed never to set foot there again.
I’m not the only one with my gym phobia. A study published last week shows that half of British women have not exercised properly in the past year. This compares to just over a third of men, according to the survey of 8,000 adults by the Nuffield Health charity.
The reasons? Some have suggested that this is because we bear the brunt of other time-consuming responsibilities, such as childcare. But I wonder if anyone else has been put off by the kind of carry-on luggage I was subjected to?
Most people have heard of toxic masculinity – the term used to describe the aggressive and domineering behavior that some men adopt. Well, the female version is arguably more harmful as it is less recognizable.
But just as toxic masculinity makes men see each other as adversaries, toxic femininity requires us to compete endlessly.
Who wins? The girl with the best figure or the most perfect skin and hair? Or the one who gets the man?
And, as I found out, it all happens in the gym.
What’s wrong with young women who want to get fit and look good, some may wonder. Well, I have no problem with that. But that’s not what I see.
Google the words “women’s gym clothes,” as I did yesterday, and what turns up are photos of girls in exposed outfits. But it’s not the clothes themselves that bother me, it’s how the models present them.
Some squat, back to the camera, pouting suggestively over their shoulders, buttocks splayed. Others pushed their chests, legs apart. I found myself wondering what exercise they should do. This bothers me not because I’m some prude – it’s great when women feel confident and attractive – but because it’s ambiguous. It pretends to sell health and fitness, but actually it’s saying, ‘Look at my body.’
Young men looking at this are thinking about sex, to be blunt. And studies have shown that the more they look at such images, the more they see women as objects. So really, anyone claiming all this is empowering women in some way – it just isn’t.
Young girls strive to fit in and often go to great lengths to achieve a body type. Most women over the age of about 13 can only get a flat, toned stomach by exercising a lot and eating very little.
And research shows that women who view lots of images of supposedly perfect female bodies are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, compared to those who don’t.
But most importantly, when it’s at the gym, the pouty lycra-clad show is just plain off-putting.
Numerous public health initiatives have failed to get women physically active. The same barrier comes up again and again: We worry about how we look when exercising. A recent survey shows that about one in five women do not exercise because they are afraid of being ‘red and sweaty’ in front of others.
I have countless friends who struggle with their weight and who have paid an eye-watering cost for exercise bikes so they don’t have to set foot in a gym. And if there’s one thing that makes you feel bad about the way you look, it’s the washboard abs of a gorgeous fitness model that barely sweats. I know this will be portrayed by some as a grossly unfeminist attack. But I don’t blame those women at the gym. They are victims of our sex-obsessed culture who do what they think is necessary to fit in.
“It used to be all about Playboy bunnies, but now it’s seen as inevitable for men to ogle at them,” says feminist writer Naomi Wolf. “Maybe the fitness world is a new guilt-free way for men to deal with semi-pornographic images. These women are athletic, so that’s okay.”
“Most of all, when it’s in the gym, the pouty lycra-clad show is just off-putting,” Eve Simmons writes.
At least Playboy bunnies were candid about what they were selling. This new version is completely unfair. But, of course, that’s the problem with toxic femininity: the last thing you want to do is be honest about how far you’re going.
It’s a bit like Hollywood stars undergoing cosmetic surgery and then claiming that they’ve barely aged a day in 40 years is due to yoga, a positive attitude, and drinking plenty of water. These lies are meant to outdo other women: “Oh look, my beauty defied the laws of nature and biology.” And it’s totally poisonous.
Wolf also does not want to point the finger at the women in question.
She says: ‘Some people feel insecure and helpless when they see images of aesthetic perfection, but others don’t feel it at all.’
I’m not sure I totally agree. These days, it seems that this pornized look is pretty ubiquitous in the fitness world. No wonder the main reason most women exercise is to change their body shape.
But for many, this is not an effective motivator: having fun is. Research shows that by far the most powerful tool to help us sustain an activity is the amount of pleasure we get from it.
“I want more women to enjoy exercise,” says Renee McGregor, a sports dietitian and author of the athletic performance manual More Fuel You.
‘I like to walk in the countryside with a group of friends because I get a social life out of it and release pent-up energy. All too often people see the gym as a check-off exercise, like punishment. Lifting weights while people around me look at themselves in the mirror feels as far away from exercise as you can get.”
So ladies, here’s my plea: go for a walk with a friend. Jogging with a dog (or someone else’s). Join a friendly tennis team (which I did). Swim in the glorious sun – go dancing!
And maybe stop taking pictures of yourself at the gym.