Manifested patriarchy: weight room lacks female representation

April 11, 2018

It is doubtful that if Barbie were life-size that she could do a push-up (let alone support her own neck). The doll is thin and smooth from top to bottom, without a suggestion of muscle mass of any kind. Contrast Barbie’s build with her counterpart, Ken. Ken is proportionally and idealistically shaped, featuring full biceps, cut calves, and a chiseled abdomen. Although the dolls are outdated and probably a distant memory for most high schoolers, the physical differences between these childhood characters represent a current and relevant problem for teenagers: the way that society expects the male versus female body to look. Aside from setting unrealistic body standards for both female and male-identifying students, the dolls’ bodies demonstrate that women are supposed to be lithe and thin, while men should bulk up. The notion that men should be strong while women are dainty permeates many aspects of society but is most clearly manifested in the gym. Unfortunately, the weight room at St. Paul Academy and Summit School supports this trend. There is a significant imbalance between male and female weight users at SPA, with the training room primarily dominated by males at a given time.

The disparity in gym use is indicative of a larger issue regarding traditional and patriarchically-framed gender roles

Unless they are training with their team for volleyball or soccer, for example, one would be hard-pressed to find a solo girl pumping iron after school, even though that is a common occurrence for many guys. The disparity in gym use is indicative of a larger issue regarding traditional and patriarchically-framed gender roles in society and must be changed in order to begin dismantling more subtle forms of sexism that permeate daily life, and the SPA community.  This troubling truth can also be found in the trainer’s room, which again, is often overpowered by men who are either taking a break between their work out, waiting for their practice to start, or just simply passing the time. The likelihood that all of the people in the trainer’s room who genuinely need assistance, an ankle taped or a heating pad for their back, are male, is far too slim.

The unequal representation of guys and girls in the weight room at SPA extends beyond usage; it can also be found in the male-dominated memorophilia hanging and painted on the walls. From the overly buff male Spartan that stares at anyone using the windowed side of the weight room to the sports-related quotes (only one of which is from a female), not only does the weight room feel unused by girls, it seems discouraged. While there are specific boy and girl awards, the “Overall-Strength Award” lists 18 names, all of which are boys. Although there are specific requirements for the award, like squatting and bench pressing many rounds, it seems unfair that there is no female recognition within the award itself. In addition to the lack of female acknowledgment in strength, there is also no encouragement or strong female role models to look up at between sets of bicep curls. The lack of a SPA female icon stems from the social limitations of women and seemingly exclusive “masculine” strength.


The quotes in the weight room feature four male athletes and one female athlete

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The disparity in weight room use is rooted in the societal expectations for women and men when it comes to fitness training. The room is open for everyone to use, and there would presumably be no negative outcomes if a girl were to workout alongside her male counterparts. However, such an occurrence is doubtful, due partially to the masculine culture that resides in the gym. But more than that, it can likely be attributed to girls’ feelings of insecurity or inexperience when it comes to weights. Society celebrates and expects strength from boys and men, so gym culture is normalized in their lives. However, few girls learn how to properly lift weights because they have different expectations placed on them. A study done in the UK found that 75% of the women surveyed wanted to exercise more, but feared judgment. The intimidation factor plays a serious and real role in limiting girls’ use of the weight room.

Although the weight room emits a subversive message of being more readily available for men, other women can also play a role in hindering female use as well. When a girl does choose to use the weight room, she is often met with judgment from men and women alike. This judgment comes from an internalized need to compete with one another. Feminist psychology studies have found that women’s innate drive for competition stems from the social pressures of a male-centered society. The expectation for women to appeal to men as sexual creatures has been internalized, so women feel their worth comes from male interest or acceptance, resulting in female competition for an illusory award of feminine merit. This female competitiveness can manifest in the weight room. Judging a girl for working out in such a male-dominated space is rooted in the belief that the girl must be catering her looks, physical attractiveness, and sexuality to the men working out, and not because she seeks personal health and fitness. The fear of social repercussion forces women out of the weight room, or any space seen as unfit for feminine presence, and results in dependency on others for self-worth, self-motivation, and self-affirmation. Competitiveness prevents women from seeing that this behavior is rooted in the patriarchy.

Weight-training is associated with improved overall health and mobility, along with increased self-esteem and moods. Gym use yields physical and emotional benefits for everyone who engages, regardless of gender, so it is necessary to make those benefits accessible to all students. If women are not socially allowed to work out in reserved male places like the weight room, this seriously robs them of an opportunity to improve mental health. The ingrained competition limits happiness and increases stress in young girls especially. Research supports a historically prevalent belief that women are mentally more fragile than men. In addition, women are also believed to be more vulnerable to slight social messages. This sensitivity, coupled with social awareness, forces women into a stereotypical trope of being insecure and incapable of handling social aggression and indirect social messages.  

By creating specific times for girls to use the weights at SPA, it is likely that female presence in the weight room will increase

Altering a cultural attitude that associates strength and weight-training with males and lean, aerobic exercise with females requires a societal shift that can start in the weight room at SPA. Although the SPA weight room is open to all, it certainly doesn’t feel that way for many girls, who are reluctant to do a solo workout. In order to change this intimidation factor, SPA should implement designated girls-only weight room hours and offer a beginners class to familiarize females with the basics of strength conditioning. A study conducted by student researchers at Boston University found that women who were members of all-female gym clubs were more likely to workout, try different exercises, and feel more fulfilled overall. By creating specific times for girls to use the weights at SPA, it is likely that female presence in the weight room will increase, and they will come away stronger and more confident. In addition to a boost in empowerment, an all-girls time would alleviate ingrained social pressures to appease to men and decrease competition among other girls

SPA prides itself on promoting equality and offering safe spaces for everyone to feel accepted, yet it seems that such aspirations are limited to an academic setting. SPA classrooms, from English to History, interrogate and seek to dismantle the historical and societal roots of sexism. Yet these conversations become limited around the Harkness table, as it intellectualizes their meaning and makes it feel as though SPA is immune to patriarchal sentiments. Social spaces, like the weight room, where stereotypes flourish, remain. In order to change the ingrained ways that the patriarchy has shaped the school, the weight room needs to be made more accessible and welcoming for female users, so we can collectively celebrate female strength and empowerment.

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