I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Way back when I first interviewed for the sales position that started my career at the all-women gym where I train, I realized about five minutes into the tour of the facility it was not a gym I, personally, would have joined. For one, there was no squat rack. The lone bench press reached about mid-calf. I didn’t mind that all the benches and machines were upholstered in purple vinyl, but the lack of dumbbells over 50lbs worried me that it would limit my own advancement in strength. There was no pool, but two large class studios and one smaller studio filled Pilates reformer machines (which just looked like a set for an S&M porn. Really.) For some reason, there were bowls of cucumber slices on ice in the spa area. I mean, Jesus– there was a spa area.
Far too fru-fru for my tastes, honestly.
Part of me even considered it a bit sexist to assume so much about women—that we all wanted candy-colored equipment and dainty weights and long, lean bodies.
It may not make sense that I ended up working there, or to have stuck around for so long. But also when I was touring the facility, the Sales Manager at the time brought me by a line of treadmills used for yet another type of classes the club offered. An elderly lady, probably in her eighties, with glasses the size of tea saucers and clothes far too large for her diminutive stature, walked slowly on one of the machines, her hands gripping the rails.
“This is Nancy,” the Sales Manager told me. “We like to think of her as sort of a mascot for the club.” Nancy was the first member of this location—she’d wandered into the facility twenty years before, when it was still under construction, and was greeted by the company’s owner. He promptly brought her into his office and sold her a membership. She often spent hours at a time at the club, packing a lunch to eat in the lounge, attending Pilates classes, and walking on one of the treadmills. Later, the Sales Manager would explain to me that they liked to consider the club a “third place”—you have your home, you have work, and then there’s usually one other place that you gravitate to regularly that is equally important. The goal of the company was to make their gyms that third place for their members.
That I could get behind. The gym had always been where I went to unwind—I first started running in college because I wanted time to just daydream about crossing a space-time rift and becoming an X-Man or winning the Pulitzer or what-have-you, and I felt too damn guilty ignoring my schoolwork with no good excuse. I wanted to help other women see that it could be a place they could find comfort in as well—that they could see their bodies for what they could do rather than just what they look like, could see exercise as a means of taking care of oneself beyond simply losing weight or following doctor’s orders.
So I took the job and have since become a huge proponent of women-only facilities, because they offer this sense belonging that coed gyms often don’t afford women.
In the late ‘90s, over a decade before I started working for the company, our club was sued for gender discrimination—and, many don’t realize, lost. The guy who sued was known for fighting gender inequality on both ends: in New York, he wrote letters of protest against ladies’ nights at bars, but he also fought for the women in the New York public school system to be able to receive disability when they went on maternity leave. The National Organization of Women backed his cause, stating that to offer women their own gyms was akin to allowing male-only racquetball clubs, which had long been outlawed. After we lost the lawsuit, the club officials told all our members that we would be converting to co-ed facilities; we’d hope they would stay members, but we would understand if they did not.
The response was overwhelming: the corporate office received mail bags full of letters from members, stating that they would stay with the club, but had the gym been co-ed before, they wouldn’t have joined in the first place. Long story short, the club used that information as leverage to pass an amendment to the bill stating that it was a matter of public health for women to have a gym where they felt comfortable exercising.
Now I ask you: What does it mean for us to cater to women’s health and fitness specifically? How does it differ from serving men? The answer has many pieces, but one in particular sticks out to me, perhaps drew me to the club the most initially when some of the finer details, like the orchids in the locker room or the wide variety of dance classes, did not.
Months after that initial interview, I signed up another elderly lady. After she took me through a thirty-minute explanation of her list of medications (“Then I take my Cumidin. I usually take it with about six ounces of orange juice, before I eat anything else,” “My cardiologist told me it’s okay for me to have three to four ounces of wine, but I’m going to tell you the truth, sometimes I pour myself five,” etc.), she leaned over and said, “So, do you know how old Nancy is? I told her I’m eighty-seven, but she won’t say a damn word about her age.” It was a heart-warming experience for me because it made me realize I could remain a gossip far into old age.
The moment also illustrates one essential aspect of creating a facility catering specifically to women—that is, there is an underlying sense of community at the gym. You get to know the other people who show up to Monday night Body Jam or use the treadmill next to yours on Wednesday mornings. At the coed facilities where I’ve worked out, I may occasionally get a thumbs up from a male gym-goer who saw me manage an impressive squat or deadlift, but at the women-only gyms there seems to be much more conversation: Good job on those lunges. That looks really interesting, could you explain to me why you’re doing it? Are you training for something? Etc. This holds true even when I’ve gone to other clubs in our system, where the members and staff don’t know I work for the company and therefore probably don’t view my presence as an open invitation for conversation (which is usually the case when someone knows you work there).
Thus, when Nancy’s husband got sick and she spent more time at his bedside and less time at the club, I regularly fielded questions from members about her whereabouts. This focus on community shows up in many of the club features: Each facility offers over a hundred group classes per week, the vast majority of which are packed until nearly overflowing. We show movies on large screens overlooking the cardio equipment—because even though many of the machines have individual screens, members like watching movies alongside other club goers. During periods when people find it harder to get in the club, like the summer months, we run complimentary, club-wide competitions where members can track their visits with stamps on jumbo posters we tape up along the entryway to the locker room.
Yes, there are a variety of reasons that women choose women-only gyms: because there are no men ogling them, because the equipment is more appropriately sized for them, because they can treat themselves with a few moments in the steam room post-workout. Perhaps it is sexist to pigeon-hole women’s tastes and needs.
But I suppose what I discovered working at the gym is that in order to feel as though you can work out somewhere, you really need to feel like you fit in there. During company meetings, our staff is regularly reminded that how long a member stays with the club often depends on how many different pieces of club programming she has become involved with—someone who only comes in to use the elliptical and read People is less likely to stick to her routine than someone who ellipticizes some, takes a couple of classes, does a personal training session here and there, and yes, even uses the sauna or steam room.
And now there’s research showing that our women-only gym may be on to something. A recent article in The Huffington Post discusses a program at a church in Orange County where the 30,000 congregation members worked together to develop healthier life habits. Those who worked together the most in their small groups and with other friends and loved one saw the most reduction in disease risk factors, medication use, and weight. They also had increased energy, better sleep, and better mood regulation.
Only about 15% of the population belongs to a gym, and, as you probably know, many of those people don’t use their memberships very much. The vast majority of Americans, though, are not “gym” people, and I suppose that’s what brought me to my current position: we are not all gym people, but we can all benefit from the sense of community and support that a gym can provide. We just need to find a health community that works for us. And no, not all gyms do offer such a sense of community—there are many dime-a-dozen exercise mills where people come in, do their time, and leave with little acknowledgement from any other human being. But if fitness and health professionals are looking to get Americans out of our epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases, then we need to start considering how to bring folks together into cohesive support systems, gendered and otherwise.