I moved to Tucson about three months ago. It was supposed to be a temporary stop before my husband and I shuffled off to Portugal to kiss the US goodbye. But, now we’re living in an apartment while we shop for houses.
Before moving to Tucson we lived in a cozy two-bedroom apartment in Portland, OR, that came equipped with a small gym on the first floor as one of the amenities (something I was not accustomed to, since the last time I lived in an apartment was in Seattle in the 1990s when I was at an income level where I was lucky if my old building came with a coin-operated laundry facility in the basement and a regular cockroach extermination). At the time I chose my Portland apartment, one of my top priorities, aside from the rent needing to fit into my budget, was that it had a gym. I was going through some emotional challenges, and working out was how I kept sane.
In the mid-90s I briefly worked at a Gold’s Gym on Capitol Hill. It was a big box, gym-rat space that had Smash Mouth on repeat as die-hard members waited at the gait at 5:55 AM to be let in for their pre-work workouts and the dudes I worked with consumed dry cans of tuna for lunch to impress with veiny, heavily-tanned biceps exposed by neon muscle Ts. At that point in my life, I was more interested in seeing Maktub and drinking lemon drops than being fit. The gym was just a job for me. And, the (mostly) men who worked out at the gym were in a category I would have referred to as lunkheads—not to be judgy (but, yes, I was very judgy). While I had taken the more refined modern dance, aerobics, and tai chi classes in college, the gym was just not my scene for fitness.
It wasn’t until I was married and in my 30s that I started longing for a way to move my body again. I started by doing prenatal yoga and water aerobics when I was pregnant with my son. Then, walking regularly with my son in his stroller. Then, running by myself when my son started high school. Then, I finally headed back to the gym for strength training after I started acquiring some running injuries. But, the gym was just seen as a boring last resort. That is, until I found my lady-gym.
My lady-gym was known to others as Northwest Women’s Fitness. It was an all women’s gym which I loved because it felt like a safe space for working out. It didn’t have the meat market vibe that other gyms had, I didn’t have to feel intimidated by big dude egos as I learned the equipment, I could wear my sports bra and shorts and not feel exposed, I could do lower impact workouts and not feel looked down on, there was a very diverse range of member ages, it had classes like Zumba with a kick-ass teacher who taught it more like hip-hop, and it didn’t smell like sweaty gym socks. Plus, it had a heated eucalyptus room with a SAD light which I dubbed the happy-room.
But, as many of you know, the weather in Portland, especially in winter, can be a deterrent for venturing outside. And, I’m really built to be a desert dweller. So, after I moved into my Portland apartment, instead of bundling up and loading myself into the car on those cold and rainy days, I would just pop downstairs and get a workout (similar to one I would do at my lady-gym) done in the comfort of my apartment building. The only downside to the apartment gym was that I had to share it, once again, with men. Luckily, most of the regular men who worked out there were older and/or friendly types who kept to themselves for the most part. And, one of the posted rules on the wall was that you couldn’t drop the weights, which may seem silly, but it worked to prevent meatheads from attending because they couldn’t hulk out. It wasn’t my “lady gym” but it was the next best thing.
I liked the convenience of my Portland apartment gym so much that I made having a gym a priority when we were looking for apartments in Tucson. We ended up renting our Tucson apartment based on the price, location, view, AND because it has two spectacular floors worth of gym. This includes much more equipment than I had access to in my Portland apartment building—so much gym for me to love! And, it means that no matter the weather situation, I can rely on this luxury amenity to keep me fit and emotionally balanced. But, the catch is that I, again, have to share it with men. And this time there was no sign warning gym goers not to drop the weights.
In spite of only being in the Tucson apartment building for about two months, I’ve been a regular at the gym. I’ve worked out there almost every day since I got the lay of the land. And, I use almost every piece of equipment, alternating between cardio and strength training days. From years of working out in a variety of gyms in the US and beyond, I’m just as comfortable flogging the ground with the battle rope as I am doing weighted squats or running three miles on the treadmill. As a regular at the apartment gym, I’m also very familiar with the other regulars—one male regular in particular.
The regular I’m referring to (let’s call him Juan) has a gym practice that is quite grand in expression. Like me, he has a routine. But his routine looks very different.
Juan enters the apartment gym on the lower level and that’s where he sets up shop. First, he claims one of the lockers to hold his deflated ball (um, your guess is as good as mine…), some clothes, a small bag, and his water bottle. Then he moves diagonally in a straight shot across the room to obtain the aerobic step which he hefts over to the power rack, where he drops a sweat rag and takes over both arms. He places the aerobic step on the ground in between the arms and does a variety of upper body pulley exercises. The sound of the weights dropping fills the room. After that exertion he strolls across the room to the window at the far end and looks out the window. From there, he works the triangle choreography back to his locker to grab a sip of water from his water bottle. Then, it’s back around a slight corner past the water cooler and towel shelf to the power rack for another set followed by some weighted calf lifts with the aerobic step. And, because the leg curl machine is just three feet in front of the power rack, sometimes Juan will extend his active domain to include the use of the leg curl machine.
Working the gym this way, Juan is able to claim almost half of the workout area downstairs in such a manner as a dog would pee in all the corners to claim their territory. He is also exerting his control over the area by requiring all other gym goers to not only ask if he is done with one piece of equipment but four. And, sometimes he will also lay out a yoga mat in between his window perch and locker to add a fifth element (which, in the past, I’ve just pushed aside with my foot instead of asking if he was done).
Juan’s use of the gym is akin to “manspreading.” It’s a display of male privilege and arrogance. Jamie Utt talks about this in his EverydayFeminism article titled, “From Manspreading to Mansplaining: Six Ways Men Dominate the Space Around Them.” In it Utt states, “Manspreading in public isn’t inherently sexist. But when it’s taken in the context of power and oppression and all of the other ways that we consciously and subconsciously assert our entitlement into public space, it’s suddenly something entirely sexist.” When he’s talking about oppression in relation to sexism, Utt is referring to the fact that women are an oppressed class of people.
One day a few weeks ago, Juan took this manspreading performance a step further.
Around 4:30 PM I stepped into the apartment gym on the lower level and started my routine. When I first came in, I noticed there were a couple of other regulars there (the doctor lady on the treadmill and Mr. Lookyloo on the elliptical). Then I noticed that Juan was there too, exactly where I expected him, “peeing” in the corner with the power rack.
I started my workout with some leg swings and weighted squats. Then, I decided to bravely head over to the leg curl machine even though the space felt like it had already been claimed by Juan. I pretended not to notice him and started to adjust the seat forward to fit my five foot five frame. I did this pushing with my foot because it isn’t easy to pull forward with just my hands–it catches. Before I knew it, Juan stepped over to me and explained how I should be adjusting the seat. “Hold it by the post and pull it,” he said, miming how this should be done.
I was startled when he stepped into the small space he had left me to take it upon himself to mansplain to me. But, that’s what he did. And, I was irked. So, I looked at him briefly. Then I looked away while I said, “This is what works for me, I’ve got it. Thanks.” The regulars on the cardio equipment turned briefly to see what the hubbub was about. After this strained interaction Juan backed away.
But, I was left wondering first of all, what made him think he needed to tell me how to do anything in the gym. If I was another man would he have popped over to tell me how to use a piece of equipment? Didn’t he know that if I needed his help I would ask? Why didn’t he just mind his own business?
Then, I was actually frustrated with myself for saying “thank you.” Yes, indeed, thank you for intruding on my workout and not only assuming that I don’t know what I’m doing, but taking it upon yourself to correct me. This made me think more about how in our patriarchal society women have been trained to be polite good girls even when being talked down to, objectified, or otherwise emotionally abused by men. This also made me think about how I recently finished reading the book, Wordslut: a Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell. In it Montell talks about how before the word “mansplaining” was coined in a comment on LiveJournal, women didn’t have a word to accurately describe the action of a man taking it upon himself to explain something to a woman with the assumption that they are ignorant about the subject. (Montell pg. 284, 285)
I appreciate the brilliance of the word, mansplaining. I’m glad to finally have a succinct way of describing this experience because, like most women, I can now apply it to so many situations in my life to help me make sense of my reality. And, I’m glad that the seemingly male contributors and voters on Urban Dictionary that Montell referenced in her book, didn’t sway MerriamWebster with their misinformation about what the definition really is (e.g., “feminist [sic] talking down to men just because they can”). This is the definition of mansplaining according to Merriam-Webster: “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”
In analyzing the mansplaining gym situation I encountered, I’ve come up with some ideas for both men and women to consider when using these public spaces:
- It shouldn’t be assumed that women aren’t knowledgeable about how to do something in the gym just because they are doing it differently than you would. There can be an assumption being used based on the male default. In regard to participation in the gym, this is when women are expected to do things (like learn, talk, move, use equipment, etc.) the same way as men. This is a system of gender bias that treats women as the “other” and by nature can make us feel “less than.”
- Empathy is a powerful practice to use in any situation. Applying the use of empathy when entering a space with disempowered people helps to create an environment of equity. Consider the following:
According to the article “Women’s Workout Equipment Doesn’t Exist” in Medium by the Blue Moon Blogger, women don’t feel confident and feel “they don’t belong in the gym. In a study conducted by Sport England, 75% of women think they will be judged on their appearance and ability in the gym.”
Additionally, in the book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez writes that, “There is plenty of data showing that women have, on average, smaller hands than men, and yet we continue to design equipment around the average male hand as if one-size-fits-men is the same as one-size-fits-all.” (Criado Perez pg. 157) That is truly the case for gym equipment. If women are using equipment differently or less than men, one of the reasons can simply be that it was not designed for our physique.
- If you see someone in the gym who truly looks like they are struggling and might need help, you could ask them before making assumptions and stepping in with advice. But, first, consider if you would offer help if they were a man.
- In a world where women continue to be objectified by men, we become dehumanized and thought of as the “weaker sex” (as the saying goes). Knowing this, I would not have said, “thank you.” There is no reason why I should have had to be appreciative of unsolicited and unwanted advice when I was minding my own business and crushing it in my own way. And, you shouldn’t have to either.
- It’s 100% okay to enter the gym space knowing that it has been made available for everyone, you included. You are paying for the use, one way or the other, and you deserve to be made to feel welcome. You also deserve to have your share of the space.
- The equipment in the gym is for everyone to use AND at whatever their level of ability. If you have questions about some of the equipment, you could ask another gym user if they seem available. Or, you could also probably just figure it out on your own. You’re just that rockin’. But, if a man comes over to you to tell you how to do something without your request, you don’t have to be polite. You don’t even have to smile.
In the second season of my podcast I Am My Passion Project with the theme, “Women Redesigning the World as a Better and Safer Place for Women,” I focus on the use of creative problem solving to address feminist issues. I’m also working on a workshop where women will have the opportunity to develop creative projects aimed at educating others about feminist issues and providing solutions to injustices that are pain points for them. So, in the spirit of creative thinking, I’ve come up with one creative solution to address the situation of gym mansplaining: a silkscreen printed muscle T-shirt that women can wear to the gym (or anywhere they find necessary) that reads, “If I need help, I’ll ask.” Can you think of others? If so, let me know on this article post on the Womanhouse IG account.
Criado Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Abrams Press, 2019.
Montell, Amanda. Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.