Because We Can’t or Because We Won’t? Addressing the Lack of Females in the Weight Room

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Lucy Yen

UNIV 200


Because We Can’t or Because We Won’t?

Addressing the Lack of Females in the Weight Room

The free weight area of the Cary Street Gym posts an invisible sign saying “No Girls Allowed”. Seriously. How many times do you see a woman lifting weights? A common answer would be “not often”. When I hit the gym for my triweekly squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, I am one of a few women pumping iron, if not the only one. This is a regular observation. Men dominate the free-weight area while women have crowd the cardiovascular machines, Zumba, and yoga classes.

Contrary to popular myth, women are perfectly capable of lifting weights. Women, biologically, cannot get “bulky” like men, but they certainly can gain muscle strength, improved physical fitness, psychological health, and an ideal body size. Since I have started weight training, I have discovered extensive benefits. I have made great strides in both my athletic performance as well as my weight loss goals. For the first time since childhood, I am in the “healthy” weight range for my height due to a combination of weightlifting, running regularly, and a healthy diet. From trial and error, I found that weightlifting has been the missing puzzle piece to keep me motivated to lose the weight. Weight training makes me physically stronger, gives me confidence, keeps me interested, and motivates me to improve. My positive experience with weightlifting is not a rare thing. Jessica Salvatore, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sweet Briar College, and Jeanne Marecek, a Senior Research Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College (2010) state that the physical benefits of weightlifting include increased metabolism, slowed aging, and contribution to overall fitness. Weight lifting is especially beneficial for women post-menopause, who are more susceptible than men to loss of bone mass, because it can help prevent osteoporosis. In addition, weight training can decrease psychological conditions, such as depression, that are prevalent among women. Women can also increase their body satisfaction by weight training and develop an increased self-esteem and feelings of self-satisfaction (557). Even though there are so many benefits to weight training, not nearly enough women do it. This concern has lead me to believe that the underlying factor that turns women off from lifting must not be health related, but rather due to the societal boundaries that keep exercise gender-coded. More men than women lift weights because women feel self conscious for being in a men’s territory, strive to achieve the thin ideal, and fear a masculine physique.

Women avoid weightlifting because they feel self-conscious for being the minority in a territory that is dominated by men. These evaluation concerns are present because women have less experience than men lifting weights. Shari L. Dworkin, a female weight lifter as well as the Vice Chair and Associate Professor for the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California: San Francisco, conducted an interview and ethnographic research-based study of why women choose to perform certain fitness exercises (135). Although the participants were varied in their fitness goals and workout routines, Dworkin (2003) discovered that many of the women she interviewed described feeling “intimidated,” “uncomfortable,” and “practically the only woman there” when using the weight room (140). When I first ventured into the weight room, I felt like everyone was watching my every move. I was anxious, clumsy, and stiff because I was so concerned with how others judged me. Even though people there were probably more concerned with themselves, I felt that being a girl and being a novice at weight lifting at the time made me an outcast. Apparently, this is a recurring anxiety that women feel. Jessica Salvatore and Jeanne Marecek (2010) discuss that more women than men have evaluation concerns, which are an immense factor into why women feel like outsiders in the weight room. Evaluation concerns are people’s interest with how others view them. Salvatore and Marecek discuss the significance of evaluation concerns in humans as, “The need to belong, to be accepted, and not to be ostracized…. which is served by monitoring and managing social evaluations.” (p. 557) Salvatore and Marecek conducted a study where fifty-six female participants were asked to characterize a bench press and a Stairmaster as a men’s exercise or a women’s exercise. The majority of participants rated a bench press as more characteristic of men with a mean score of 6.20 on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “not at all characteristic” and 7 being “totally characteristic”, while the Stairmaster was described as more characteristic of women, with a mean score of 5.79 (560). Participants were also asked to rate the evaluation concerns that they would experience using a bench press versus doing aerobic exercises on a variety of scales from 1 to 7. These questions regarded the comfort level, concerns of people watching, and deterrence from using that particular exercise of the participants when given a hypothetical situation of using a bench press versus a Stairmaster in a busy gym scenario. The majority responded that they would experience a higher magnitude of evaluation concerns when using the bench press rather than the Stairmaster (561). Salvatore and Marecek (2010) suggest two reasons for these evaluation concerns: exercises are “gender-coded” and the overstepping of gender boundaries leads to feelings of self-consciousness as well as the lack of weight lifting experience from the surveyed women (561). As a result of these evaluation concerns, women choose to avoid weight rooms despite its immense physical and psychological benefits. The magnitude of evaluation concerns is so strong that it pushes women away from healthy fitness choices.

A reason why women may feel evaluation concerns in the male-dominated weight room is lack of experience. Dworkin (2003) argues that females are more likely to begin weight training later in life than men, and therefore must “catch-up” by learning how to use the equipment as well as stated/unstated rules (140). These rules are not taught, but rather learned through experience and observation. This gap in knowledge could also be attributed to women having less encouragement than men to be physical as children, with unequal opportunities for organized sport (140). The activities that are offered to children are extremely gender coded. Rigorous sports, such as football, are not offered to girls, and some sports, such as softball, are softened versions of boy’s sports. Sports begin to be separated by gender during this time, creating a mindset for children that males and females are not supposed to cohabitate the same exercises. Girls being discouraged from rigorous activity leads to women lacking experience in fitness criteria where males may thrive, such as the training of muscle strength.

There is an agreement between the authors that inexperience is a factor into why women feel like outsiders when stepping onto the weight floor. Salvatore and Marecek (2010) discovered how lack of weight lifting experience in females strongly relates to their avoidance of weight rooms as well as evaluation concerns (565). However, the assignment of gender to certain exercises is a major factor in women’s evaluation concerns, as seen with the greater feelings of self-consciousness when the women were asked how they felt about performing what they defined as “men’s exercises” (561). It can be concluded from these two authors that women’s avoidance of weight rooms can be cyclic since women who avoid weight rooms due to evaluation concerns regarding their experience and gender allow men to remain the weight lifting majority.

Women do not lift weights in their workout routine because they desire a thin physique rather than a fit one. An ideal thin physique for women would be having little muscle mass or body fat. When casually conversing with my female friends on the subject of our ideal bodies, many of my peers use words such as “skinny” and “thin” to describe their fitness goals instead of “strong”, “athletic”, or “healthy”. Smaller pants sizes are coveted, and those who are “naturally skinny” are envied. This desire to be thin is not just among my group of friends. American culture has come to celebrate a slim female ideal. According to Caroline Davis, a professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at York University, and Michael Cowles (1991), Western culture has come to appreciate a more slim female body since the era of Marilyn Monroe curves. It is evident that diet and weight loss have become an increasingly large concern among young women due to the cultural standard for female attractiveness becoming thinner and thinner (34). If given a choice, many women will choose a thinner body, as seen in Dworkin’s (2003) research where participants were asked to choose between very thin, non-muscular body on one side of an imaginary scale, and muscular bodybuilders on another. When the women were asked what they want they wanted their bodies to look like, most stayed close on the scale to the thinner body, rarely venturing even close to a semi-muscular middle-ground. Some participants mentioned female supermodels as the ideal body type, others accepted a slightly more athletic build that maintains femininity, such as one of an aerobic instructor (139). Dworkin’s (2003) interviews strongly support Davis and Cowles’ (1991) argument that a slim build with very little muscles has become a cultural standard that many women aim to obtain.

For many women, gym attendance is not for health reasons, but for aesthetic ones. Since our culture has come to celebrate the attractive female body type is having little body fat or muscle mass, many women feel the pressure to get thin. This pressure is continuous and gives women a narrow box they should aspire to fit into, despite other factors, such as genetics, that could make standard a struggle and possibly unattainable. Susan S. Levy, a Professor at the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, and Vicki Ebbeck (2005), an Associate Professor at the School of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, reported that women have lower self-esteem than men, and that women who exercised for aesthetic purposes had a much higher body dissatisfaction (574). Levy and Ebbeck also discussed that the relationship between physical acceptance and self-esteem is extremely important (581). Women strive to “fit in” to what society presents how the female body should look, and feel a higher self-worth once they achieve body satisfaction.

For many women, attaining the thin ideal is thought to lead to physical acceptance. Many women try, through exercise, to reduce their body size in order to fit into the thin ideal that our culture values. On the contrary, the male ideal body is seen as having large visible musculature. Although our culture puts an emphasis on both genders to have minimal body fat, there is more pressure for women to get thin. An example of cultural influence on body type is the fashion industry. Male and female fashion models that are displayed in billboards, magazines, and television commercials are vastly different in their body types. Male models are shown to be lean, but with defined muscle and rarely any bones showing through. Female fashion models, by comparison, have been notorious for being very underweight, oftentimes with ribs showing and small breasts and hips. According to Nancy Theberge, a Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, “The power of the media lies in their ability not only to provide information but to formulate imagery and shape ideas.” (p.37) When thin has become the standard for female beauty, everyday women feel pressured to fit in. As a result, more and more women are concerned with their body image. A study conducted by Jessica Salvatore and Jeanne Marecek (2010) where images of fitness goals were searched for and analyzed for gender representations. In the years 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, two Google Image searches with the search terms “burn fat” and “build muscle”. A researcher noted how many men and how many women were depicted in each image for the first 100 images in 2007, and then the first 200 images in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The results showed that each fitness goal was linked to particular gender, with men dominating the “build muscle” search and women the “burn fat” search. However, the ratio of men to women in the “build muscle” search term has had a steady increase, while the ratio of women to men in the “burn fat” search term has had a steady decrease (558). While men continue to be associated with building muscle, burning fat is becoming a concern relevant to both genders. It is apparent, however, that women are slightly more associated with burning fat than their male counterparts.

Women also rely heavily on cardiovascular exercises for body size reduction. More caloric burn creates more of a calorie deficit in the body, which in theory, will make the body use fat stores for fuel. Ideally, this simple formula should be the answer to body size reduction. In Shari Dworkin’s 2001 article “Holding Back”: Negotiating A Glass Ceiling on Women’s Muscular Strength, women who were non-weightlifters and moderate weightlifters were interviewed in several local gyms on the West Side of Los Angeles regarding their experiences and choices while working out (336). Non-lifters avoided the weight room and instead relied heavily on cardiovascular exercises to “decrease size” and to maintain a feminine appearance of being slim with some curves. Both non-lifters and moderate lifters described necessity of cardiovascular exercises as more “bang for your buck” in that it can burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time, a benefit most commonly associated with body fat reduction (340). However, heavy cardiovascular exercise is not always the answer for fat loss. Research conducted by Kathleen Cullinen, a public health nutritionist with the Rhode Island Department of Health, and Marjorie Caldwell (1998) shows that weight training can be significantly helpful in increasing fat-free mass in the body. Thirty undergraduate women who had no previous weight training experience were given a 12-week weight-training program with a coach. The program asked participants not to perform aerobic exercises during this time, and to not change their eating habits. The program consisted of 2 supervised sessions per week with 6 types of lifting exercises per session. Results showed that although body weight did not change significantly for the subjects, the average body fat percentage decreased 9.0 +/- 0.9%. Thus, the bodies of the participants became healthier, with an increase in fat-free mass and a lower body fat percentage (416). This study shows that without altering the energy intake of the participants significantly, they were able to achieve a favorable body composition, disproving the theory that fat loss is just a calorie deficit. With that said, women still are choosing cardiovascular exercise over weightlifting. One of the reasons for this is that there is a misconception that a favorable body composition is a direct result of a low bodyweight. Muscle weighs more than fat, and a person who lifts weights regularly may weigh the same as someone who does not, but could have a much more favorable body composition where fat has been replaced by lean muscle. Muscle, although helpful in achieving fat burn, is often misunderstood as being a mechanism for looking masculine.

Another reason why women do not lift weights is that they fear achieving a masculine physique. A masculine appearance and having muscles are oftentimes misunderstood as being the same. A common myth that exists is that, despite biological differences between men and women, you will get “bulky” when you lift weights. This “bulk” is large amounts of muscle mass on the body, something that women cannot achieve unless they took performance enhancing drugs and/or worked out for long periods of time every day. In Dworkin’s (2001) ethnographic research of active women, both non-lifters and moderate lifters expressed a fear of increase in muscle mass. An upper limit that prevents women from pushing past the cultural association of weight training and masculinity is described as a “glass ceiling” where non-lifters do not come close and moderate lifters bump against, then hold back to maintain femininity. This glass ceiling has been constantly changing and being challenged as social norms and definitions of femininity are shifting (336). Moderate lifters discussed their choice to hold back from pushing their muscular limits by taking breaks from lifting and even decreasing the time spent in the gym. Dworkin (2001) interviews a woman who combines light weight training and cardiovascular exercise. This participant discusses her reasoning behind this exercise choice as, “ ‘…because I don’t want to be like some women who are losing their femininity, you know, their curves. I don’t want to be like a female bodybuilder.” (341) This fear of becoming too masculine is very present in this quote and it is evident that many women lack a belief in a middle ground between extreme muscle building and regular exercise for a healthy body.
A study performed by Robert W. Duff (1999), a Professor of Psychology at the University of Portland, Lawrence K. Hong, a Professor of Sociology at California State University, and W. Stephen Royce, an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Portland, showed that collegiate female athletes were motivated to commit to their weight training requirements out of sheer enjoyment. A sample of a private university’s male and female athletes were asked to take complete a mixture of questionnaires and interviews regarding their feelings towards their required weight training. The results showed that 27% of males, and 49.3% of females expressed their enjoyment of being physically strong as “It’s a great pleasure”(80). This result shows that many women like weight lifting, maybe more so than their male counterparts. If more women were introduced to weight training, they might find it much more fun than long periods of time running on a treadmill. My personal view is that exercise should be fulfilling and pleasurable. Moving your body should feel good, not like a chore. Weight lifting is challenging, certainly, but becoming physically strong is one of the best, most empowering feelings. If weightlifting became the norm for both men and women, physical strength would no longer be associated with just men. With more women lifting weights, we can change gender stereotyping and make more women feel empowered, independent, and capable. Although weightlifting is certainly a step towards better health, it is also a step towards a society where gender-associations are broken, and where both men and women can be equals.

Works Cited

Cullinen, K., & Caldwell, M., (1998). Weight training increases fat-free mass and strength in untrained young women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 98, 414-418. doi: 10.1016/S0002-8223(98)00094-7
Davis, C., & Cowles, M. (1991). Body image and exercise: a study of relationships and comparisons between physically active men and women. Sex Roles, 25, 33-44. doi: 10.1007
Duff, R. –RW. (1999). Gender comparisons in weight training for collegiate sports. Gender Issues, 17, 74-85.
Dworkin, S. L. (2003). A woman’s place is in the…cardiovascular room?? Gender relations, the body, and the gym. In Athletic Intruders: Ethnographic Research on Women, Culture, and Exercise (pp. 131-158). Retrieved from /
Dworkin, S.L. (2001). “Holding back”: negotiating a glass ceiling on women’s muscular strength. Sociological Perspectives, 44(3), 333-350
Levy, S. –S., Ebbeck, V. (2005). The exercise and self-esteem model in adult women: the inclusion of physical acceptance. Psychology of Sport & Exercise
Salvatore, J., Marecek, J. (2010). Gender in the Gym: Evaluation Concerns as Barriers to Women’s Weight Lifting. Sex Roles, 63,556-557
Theberge, N. (1991). A content analysis of print media coverage of gender, women and physical activity. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 3, 36-48.

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