Why women are increasingly opting for female-only gyms
I cut my teeth, or rather my muscles, in a women-only gym that went by the dubious name of Viji’s Slim Center, named after the lady who ran it. In retrospect, the facilities were terrible: the treadmill only ran at one speed (you run or fall) and the coconut oil left behind by long-haired customers usually ended up smoothing the benches. No one thought about greasing the machines though. The most coveted piece of equipment out there was something we called the vibrator (no, I’m not kidding), consisting of a pulsating belt that you put around your waist, hoping to emerge with your abs. six packs at the end of a 5 minute session.
But it was Chennai at the turn of the 20th century, and we had few options other than the friendly neighborhood aunt offering an aerobics or yoga class. Gyms were usually drab, poorly ventilated rooms containing Mr. Chennai’s wannabes, who lifted rusty weights in front of spotted mirrors, looking eerily like Johnny Bravo with their overdeveloped upper bodies and chicken thighs.
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So of course my ladies gym was far from ideal, but it was the only way I could have worked out. ; I would have felt too intimidated. There are other women for whom a women-only gym was the starting point of their fitness journey. Murugeswari Ravi, a Chennai-based entrepreneur who started training at a women’s gym in 2014, is one of them. She wanted to lose weight, so she enrolled in a women’s gym, she says. “It was the only gym near my house, and I was afraid to go to other gyms,” she says.
So I’m not surprised by the recent spotlight on fitness areas for women. Instagram, for example, has 13,650 posts with #womensonlygyms, while Shape.com recently reported that the same hashtag garnered 18 million views on TikTok. A quick glance at these Instagram posts reveals the reasons why women choose to go to a female-only fitness space. These include building a community of like-minded women, finding a safe space to exercise, avoiding debilitating anxiety at the gym, or other cultural reasons.
For most women, a women-only workout space is much safer than any unisex gym.
Swetha Subbiah, co-founder of Sisters in Sweat, a community of and for women that focuses exclusively on sports and wellness, says there’s a different energy when women train together. In addition, it gives women from conservative families, whose families may be apprehensive about playing in a mixed group, a chance to play sports. “I think it’s important to create these spaces,” Subbiah says, adding that women are less inhibited in an all-female space.
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Hamsa Kannan, an entrepreneur based in Bengaluru, was 39 when she discovered Sisters in Sweat; she joined their football community. “I’ve never played organized sport before,” says Kannan, who says she would have hesitated to try this in a mixed setting. “It’s a safe space,” she says. And that’s important: Whether it’s in the gyms and outside for them, feeling unsafe is something almost every woman has experienced in their lifetime. Like Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of over 80,000 daily women’s experiences with gender inequality, wrote in a 2016 article The Guardian, the need for training spaces reserved for women does not come from a privilege but from a necessity. “This is a direct result of male harassment, sexism and sexual violence that has caused a quarter of women to give up outdoor exercise altogether and countless others to give up the gym in frustration.” , she wrote.
The same article also pointed out that the Everyday Sexism Project has received hundreds of testimonials from women, who write about their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault at the gym. “Many female-only spaces exist for one reason: to avoid harassment from men,” Bates wrote.
Feeling uncomfortable in a unisex gym is why Hyderabad-based actress Aishwarya Lakshmi switched to a women-only gym. “I wasn’t comfortable doing lower body exercises,” she said, adding that the men at that gym were staring at her constantly.
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However, that’s not to say that female-only fitness areas are perfect. After all, as some reviewers have already pointed out, it is often a particular slim body type that is sold to women in fitness gear. While that is changing, thanks to the internet, with the integration of sports like CrossFit, powerlifting and the body positivity movement, the “skinny equals fit” fallacy has not completely disappeared. And this is often particularly pronounced in female-dominated fitness ecosystems. Every female-only gym I’ve been to, and worked at several, has emphasized the following: lots of cardio, light weights and few reps, 1,200 calorie diets, and ambitious thinness.
Bengaluru-based health coach Pooja Zeuch who started her fitness journey at a women’s gym admits finding the environment very claustrophobic. “There was a lot of body shame there, so I changed it later,” says Zeuch, who adds that although she felt uncomfortable in a regular gym at first, she did. is suitable. “I don’t feel like I belong now,” she adds, pointing out that a lot more women train now and people, in general, are more used to it, especially in metropolitan cities. “Everyone is there to run, cycle and go to the gym,” she says.
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Another common problem with ladies-only gyms seems to be this: in India at least, they are not very well equipped. Ravi, for example, admits that she wasn’t particularly happy with the women’s-only gym – there was less equipment than a regular gym and no proper guidance. Lakshmi has also faced similar issues, adding that the most crucial part of a fitness experience is a good trainer, something that many women’s gyms lack. “We need more female trainers, that would help,” Zeuch says.
While deciding to go to any type of gym is an individual choice, having conversations about fitness and women’s health will always be a positive thing. As a 2020 article, published in the Qualitative research in sport, exercise and health, an international journal, emphasizes. “The gender gap in physical activity is well documented, with women around the world less likely than men to meet minimum health-related physical activity recommendations.”
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This perspective is reflected in The Lancet Global Health Journal, who declared in 2018 that women are less active than men (global average of 31.7% for inactive women compared to 23.4% for inactive men). “Many women are turned off by certain physical activities because of concerns about stereotypes, because of insecurities around body image or feel limited by cultural acceptability,” he says.
For me, Viji’s Slim Center helped start something that continues today: understanding that regular exercise is less about how your body looks and more about how you feel. And for that, I am grateful. However, over the years I have evolved far beyond pretty pink dumbbells and vibrant belts. I am grateful for that too.