Why It Sucks to Be a Lady at the Gym — and How to Fix It

Why It Sucks to Be a Lady at the Gym — and How to Fix It

By Sanjena Sathian



Because it’s time to fix the way we teach women to work out.

By Sanjena Sathian

Gyms sometimes look like grade-school playgrounds in the cootie era. Girls on one side, boys on the other. The “cardio queens” and the beefheads. The ladies who cross the invisible line can feel a bit like a “pink elephant the room,” as Houston-based physical therapist John Rusin says. 

Women often stick to running, maybe yoga, or a few little weights to help them “tone,” “firm” and get that “bikini bod,” perhaps because they’ve absorbed the myth that women should be pretty, not strong. That ethos invades gyms themselves. But being strong first makes you pretty — and powerful. This is the case for my high school classmate Ashley Newman, a pro powerlifter and personal trainer in Los Angeles. A few months ago, around the time I became totally fed up with men’s reactions to me in the gym (“Need some help with that plate, honey?”), I noticed Ashley’s posts on Facebook. Four months after she first tried powerlifting, she deadlifts 415 pounds, squats 385 and benches 220. She holds three state records in California.

Naturally, I called her up to discuss this badassery. A former high school and college cross-country runner, Ashley told me she struggled with anorexia and bulimia as a teenager. At one point, she weighed 85 pounds. “The level of confidence I have now in my body versus when I was starving myself and running all the time — it’s so different,” she says. “I’m eating 4,000 calories a day and I still have abs.” And the thing is, she tells people, you can only look and feel like that by eating a lot and lifting a lot. Burning calories while running at some point cuts into your muscle mass, she explains. And doing cardio only doesn’t help trade fat for muscle or prepare you for long-term injury prevention, says Rusin. 

So what is to be done to get more Ashleys and fewer self-starvers? Start a ladies-only workout area? Institute times when only women can exercise on the gym floor? Some have tried this, from Curves to the U.K. gym that got itself sued by a Daily Mail men’s rights activist over such a scheme. I checked out a gym here in Mumbai where the manager offered me a discount to join because he wanted more girls to work out. Yuck, I told him, I’m not here for a skeezy club ladies’ night.

I propose something simpler: Gyms should hire women to be 50 percent of their training staff — and we need a Feminist Deadlift Council to bless gyms that have made real efforts to make women feel not just at home but ready to get tough. (Ashley, wanna preside?) The more women swarming the floor, doing what the guys do, correcting the guys, outdoing the guys and offering advice, the more women I think would show up.

Getting Swoll: Our favorites — share your resources and workout gurus’ tips in the comments!

  • Pavel Tsatsouline, the trainer who calls you “comrade” and is responsible for bringing the kettlebell to the U.S. His mantra: Be strong first — after strength comes beauty, health and even skill at other sports like running. 
  • Bodybuilding.com is full of free resources including 12-week training programs and great stuff for women.
  • Kelly Starrett, owner of CrossFit SF, wants you to be able to hang out at the bottom of your squat for 10 minutes straight. See him interviewed in OZY.
  • Girlsgonestrong.com is another great home for healthy — muscle-building — approaches to exercise, founded in reply to the scourge of horrid body image messages.
  • The CrossFit games: Binge-watch them like House of Cards. From the pro level to daily classes, CrossFit has earned a reputation for having a great egalitarian gender breakdown and team spirit.

Rusin likes the idea but says we’ve got some educatin’ to do. Many women fear lifting weights because they think they’ll bulk up — he explains that females have so little testosterone in our bodies that it’s very hard to look like Johnny Bravo in a ponytail. 

The day I was getting ready to file this story, I went to my local gym as usual. Normally, the weight area is full of dudes who have a habit of mansplaining to any girl who crosses their path. But today, three other women were standing behind me as I squatted, one deadlifting in pink tights, another cycling through a frightening number of CrossFit pull-ups. Rihanna was bumping. I was the worst one there — and it was way better than being the only one.