Women make up slightly less than half of the NFL's fanbase. They're going to college in larger numbers than men. They're the Senators grabbing the legislative branch by the collar and dragging the country away from fiscal precipice. And yet! it's still weird for us when we try to use the weight room at a new gym. When it comes to gender segregation, the gym is the final frontier.
In a piece for the Washington Post, Eric Niiler examines why yoga — a practice historically embraced by men in India — is so female-dominated stateside. Short answer? IT'S NOT MAAAAAANLY ENOUGH.
[...]many myths about yoga stand in [men's] way: Yoga isn’t a decent workout; it’s too touchy-feely; you have to be flexible to do it; men’s bodies just aren’t built for pretzellike poses.
Adrian Hummell has heard all the excuses.
“What happens is, a guy who doesn’t know about it, he associates it with things like Pilates or aerobics, and they think of it as a chick workout,” said Hummell, who has been doing yoga for the past three years and now teaches Bikram yoga, a particularly strenuous form of the practice, in Bethesda.
“It’s almost a joke when guys say, ‘I don’t think I should do yoga because I’m not flexible,’ ” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m too weak, so I can’t lift weights.’ ”
So they don't like doing yoga because they're simultaneously afraid of turning into a weak-ass woman (bad) and not being able to hack it as a weak-ass woman even though, as Niiler explains, yoga is great for men. It can help prevent sports injuries, it increases flexibility. Yoga good. Yoga make man strong so man play XBox Live harder than ever.
The unfortunate male/female exercise divide persists in gyms, too; as an avid-ish gymgoer I haven't been a member of a single health club that didn't host a creepy invisible line between the "girl" side (ellipticals! stair climbers!) and the "boy" side (MUSCLES!). And crossing the line leads to social penalties for either sex. Women side-eyeing each other as a man climbs onto the elliptical next to them. Men sighing impatiently as they wait for women to finish a set on the bench press, like they have more of a right to use the equipment even though they're both paying for the same gym membership.
Once at a gym to which I no longer belong, I was working out on an assisted pull up machine (shut up) when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a beefy male trainer and his male client standing off to my side watching me. It was very distracting. I'm not a person with a ton of upper body strength and I laugh at everything, so I can't work out with a partner, and I especially can't work out with two dudes standing there watching me for no reason. I'll get nothing done.
So I finished a set and asked them what they wanted. Are you almost done? the trainer asked. I said I'd just gotten to the equipment, so I'd be awhile and they should just bypass me. I got back up and started my second set. They just stood there, watching. The gym was basically empty because it was early morning, there was plenty of other equipment to use and they just stood there. I ended up telling them to stop because it was creeping me out.
There have been weird Lady In The Weightroom moments before and since then, but none got me thinking more about gender/gym weirdness quite like the day I told the trainer to fuck off. Men and women tend to have physical differences that make them more adept, GENERALLY SPEAKING, at certain exercises. But those differences don't fully explain the starkness of the aerobic/weight room divide.
Just as Niisen's piece suggests that men fear yoga for its "girliness" and difficult learning curve, women use persistent mythology to avoid the weight room as well. I've lost count of how many RELAX PEOPLE WEIGHTLIFTING WON'T TURN YOU INTO A SHE-HULK pieces I've read. Still other women are kept out of the weight room for the same reason I shied away from it for years — intimidation. Even if you are familiar with proper weight training form (and you absolutely should be before you start heaving heavy metal shit around) it's impossible to look cool and casual while attempting to figure out how to use an unfamiliar weight machine in a room full of people who you know are looking at you and thinking, "Boy, she doesn't know how to use that weight machine." It's like trying to use another person's shower. But that confusion is fleeting and after a few times on the Man Side of the gym, I started knowing my way around enough that I felt less conspicuous and more adept. Plus: who cares what the Gym People think? They wear baseball caps on the stairmaster. OPINIONS INVALIDATED.
Just as men who skip exercises that promote flexibility and durability leave themselves susceptible to injury, so too do women who skip the weight room because it's MANLY and they DON'T KNOW HOW deprive themselves of the benefits of weight training — increased bone density, retained muscle mass. Resistance to age-related bodily deterioration. Elevated toughness level. Ability to summon motorcycles using only your arm muscles. Women skipping the weight room because of misconceptions about weights is just as silly as men skipping yoga because they're afraid it will make them get their periods.