you gotta be strong, or gender at the gym

When I was in elementary, my school took part in the annual day of Canada Fitness Test activities. I don’t even know if that exists anymore, but at the time, it was the bane of my young existence. I hated sports; I’d always found them to be completely pointless and irritating. (You want me to run around after a ball? What am I, a golden retriever?) Besides, it took me away from the really fun stuff, which was schoolwork. Yeah, the geek thing has been consistent throughout my life – if anyone wanted to pry me away from the books, they pretty much needed a crowbar.

So this one fine, sunny day, when I was about seven or eight years old, I was sitting on the grass near the track in the schoolyard, waiting for my turn to fail miserably at the running test, which I had no interest in doing in the first place and which seemed insultingly devoid of intellectual content. A fellow elementary-school denizen came up to me and poked my calf. I don’t remember whether it was a boy or a girl, or whether we were friends or strangers, but to this day I can still hear the little voice sneering, “Oh my god, you have, like, no muscle! Feel that, it’s like jello!”

I was stung. Until that moment, I had been happily secure in the knowledge that I could out-spell, out-read, out-multiply and out-draw every kid on that playing field, and that I could care less about things as brainless as push-ups and laps. But that wasn’t quite the same thing as not being able to do those things.

That little kid set the stage, in those few innocent words, for the relationship I have had with my own physical fitness for the rest of my life: from that moment onwards, I wanted to be strong. I still couldn’t care less about hockey pucks and soccer balls, but goddammit, there was no way I was gonna be a weakling.

Not long after that, having decided to figure out how to remedy the jello-calf situation, I went apeshit for a kiddie fitness fad called Get In Shape Girl. My parents bought me a package that contained the Get In Shape Girl™ dumbbells, instruction tape, diagrams, and last but not least, a totally hot lavender terry cloth headband and pink terry cloth wristbands. It was 1987 and I was the shit. Not to mention I was gonna kick elementary-school ass without ever going near a frickin’ dodgeball. 

Well, it wasn’t a fad for me. I got in shape, girl; I started working out every day, plus I took up cycling in the summer and figure skating in the winter. When I turned 12, I joined the YMCA. I volunteered there every week behind the front desk, so my membership was free, and I signed up for a training program to learn how to use the weight room, which I proceeded to do Every. Single. Day. (Strong! Strong!)

I saw my trainer for updates every six weeks or so for the next ten years. The gym was my life, and it was a helluva lot better than gym class – where one of my (male) teachers once chastised me for being late by saying, in pure misogynistic disgust, “What, you needed the extra time to put on your lipstick?” (I wasn’t wearing any.) When I turned 17, I got a job at the gym; when I was 19 I took the two-term fitness instructor training course and became a certified weight room specialist myself.

During that time, I dealt with quite a range of reactions.

Why did a teenage girl want to pump iron? (To be strong. Oh, that’s right, I’m not supposed to be strong, I forgot!) 

Why wasn’t I in the aerobics classes like everyone else? (You mean like all the other girls? Maybe because I’m not much like all the other girls and I could care less about being skinny enough to impress you.) 

Wasn’t I worried I’d get too muscular? (What is “too muscular,” pray tell? When you stop being attracted to me? When I can do twice the weight you can on a lat pulldown? Do those things go together, and if so, why? … Perhaps, as Alisa Solomon writes – in an excellent Village Voice article about female athletes, queerness and sexuality – I wasn’t making the requisite “desperate effort to assure a male-dominated culture that just because a woman is strong doesn’t mean that her body doesn’t still belong to guys.”)

And that’s not even counting the way that every single head in the weight room would turn and look at me the moment I walked in – not because I was a head-turner, but because I was young and female and on testosterone territory. I was fair game: they could look, they could comment, and they could certainly give me unasked-for advice on training technique by virtue of their unquestionable virile expertise. (Never mind that I’d studied more about fitness than most of the guys in there combined.)

When I hit CEGEP, I took weight training for pretty much all my mandatory fitness credits, and trained under a prof who was a former Mr. Universe. He liked to remind us frequently that he’s close friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also had this annoying habit of gender-segregating the class – “Girls, take ten-pound weights, guys take 20. Girls stop after 10 reps, guys do 15.” I just did the guys’ stuff, much to his amusement. I also trained under a female teacher – a really obvious dyke – who insisted upon describing exercises in terms of how they would make us sexier. “This is for your deltoids, or what I like to call your dress muscles because they look good when you wear a sleeveless dress.” Argh. As if she ever bloody wore dresses. Who was she kidding, and why? 

Overall, I found my place in the weight room, but only by fighting for it in a thousand small ways and by limiting my expectations to good training rather than hoping for a welcoming social circle that shared my values. I accepted that I would be the exception to the rule, and just lived with it. 

Then, my career happened. At 21 I took my first office job, which had me commuting for four hours a day and left no room for training. Sixty to zero in the space of a couple of weeks. I tried, but it was sporadic and halfhearted… and the years rolled by.

That was eight years ago now, and I’m finally getting back to the gym this spring. It feels so good to be back. My body is remembering its long-lost, ever-precious strength, and I feel amazing.

But again, I’m facing a range of issues. And this time around they’re a little different. 

The guys still raise an eyebrow at a girl in the weight room, though not nearly as much as they did ten or fifteen years ago. Or maybe I’m just old enough and confident enough that they’re not seeing me as a little girl taking up precious space on their home turf anymore. 

But specifics aside, I’m realizing just how much the gym is a microcosm of heteronormativity and mainstream values. When you’re dealing with bodies, fitness, nakedness and gender-segregated spaces (the latter two referring to locker rooms), you’re by default going to bump up against ideas of what bodies should look like and what makes them attractive, what bodies should do, what behaviours are acceptable in what spaces, and who belongs in those spaces in the first place.

In the eight years since I last set foot in a gym, I’ve come out as queer, drastically deepened my explorations of BDSM, gotten two tattoos and a dozen piercings, cut my hair, and benefited from living in a happy little bubble where nobody blinks if you say “I like to lift weights” or “I want to be strong,” and nobody expects either of those things to have anything to do with pleasing or impressing men. The idea of “gender-appropriate” looks, behaviour and fitness is mystifying to me, even more so than it used to be, and even my idea of beauty has drastically changed. I still tend to look twice at lean athletic types, but I’ve got new politics around fat… not to mention body hair, body modification, dis/ability, the concept of beauty as a whole, and the ways in which lots of genders aren’t easy to pack into one of two locker rooms each designated by a stick figure. So going back into the familiar environment of the weight room feels, in a way, like coming home… except that it’s not the same at all.

Case in point: when I went in for my first training program, my instructor was held up, so I chatted with another instructor while I waited. She promptly began gossiping with me about a program a friend of hers gave at another gym not long ago. The conversation went something like this:

Her: “The client was supposed to be a woman, but it was really a man! With high heels and long hair and everything! And he was…”

Me: “I think if someone’s going to those lengths to present and identify themselves as female, she probably doesn’t consider herself to be a man anymore.”

Her: “Yeah, well, um, sure. So he was…”

Me: “I’m sorry, you mean she was…?”

Her: “Um, sh-she wasn’t dressed in workout clothes, so they couldn’t do the program. But he, I mean she, was using the men’s locker room.”

Me: “Really? That must be kind of uncomfortable for her, if she identifies as female.”

Her: “Yeah, well, I think the women weren’t comfortable with having him, I mean her, in the women’s room. Besides, h… she was just weird.”

Me: “Well, I guess our ideas of weird and normal must be challenged a fair bit when we work in a city like Montreal where there’s a diverse range of people. You must have to be really open-minded in your line of work to make sure you serve your clients well.”

Her: “Umm, yeah!” (realizing this conversation was not going the way she’d intended it to and looking some combination of uncomfortable and confused and apologetic) “It’s… important to be open-minded.”

So there we have our first instance of transphobia. I can’t wait to see what misogyny and homophobia look like. Whee! This will be fun. It amazes me, when I think of it, that some folks (i.e. straight guys) can show up at the gym and rightfully expect to experience nothing more than bland conversation and bicep curls.

Now speaking of locker rooms – transphobia aside, I’ve got other issues. When I worked at a gym, I changed in the bathroom stalls – it just felt too strange to sell a membership to a client at the desk and then flash them my boobs in the locker room that same afternoon. Boundaries, boundaries. But now, I have no professional stake in the locker room question, so I change in the same room as everyone else. Except… well, now I’m a dyke in a room full of naked women, where I used to be in both the bathroom stall and the closet.

What does this mean? No, it does not mean I spend my locker-room time ogling women’s boobs. It really, truly doesn’t. (It helps, I’m sure, that I’m more of a shoulder-and-back ogler than a boob ogler in the first place, and that doesn’t require the oglee to be naked.) It does mean I spend my locker-room time wondering if the women around me think I’m ogling their boobs.

Last time I checked, I looked reasonably dykey. Not in a completely unmistakeable way, but enough so that if you know what you’re looking for, it’s pretty clear. So what happens when I’m in the room with a bunch of girls? Do they notice my queerness? … Not that I expect them to do a lot of noticing and deep thinking, but I mean, in the flash when they make eye contact with a stranger, or in the short moment when their body is visible and they know they’re in my line of vision, do they wonder if I’m checking them out? If so, is that weird or uncomfortable for them? Or do I still fall sufficiently within the standards of heterosexual appearance that they don’t notice or wonder at all?

What about when I show up in a shirt and tie? Though it hasn’t happened often, I have been mistaken for a guy in the past. And I have enough butch friends to know that women do not take kindly to the jolt of seeing a “man” in women’s space – even once they realize they misread. I certainly don’t plan to alter my sartorial choices to accommodate potential homophobia now any more than at any other time in my life, but how will I feel on the day that a woman has a minor freak-out because I show up in the wrong gender in her line of sight?

What if I were to run into another dyke there? Would we still do that “dyke nod” of acknowledgment, or would that be weird? What if I ran into a dyke I knew? Would we try to avoid being naked near one another, or try to arrange for that to happen, or neither? What if I were dating a girl and we went to the gym together? Would we make people uncomfortable if we were casually affectionate, and if so, would it be up to us to curtail that or is that none of their bloody (homophobic) business?

And what about BDSM? In the locker room, I’ve only seen one or two other women with tattoos – mine are pretty big and noticeable. Very few people there have piercings to the extent that I do, too, not to mention the one (soon to be more than one) that’s only visible when I’m nekkid. These things already set me apart as different. What if I were to show up one day with bruises on my ass or back or thighs from a happy whupping, or symmetrical lines of needle marks on my breasts, or a fresh cutting somewhere on my skin? I don’t bottom all that terribly often, but it’s definitely not unheard-of, and I’m a fairly brutal masochist when I get the opportunity. Would people misread that and see me as an abused girlfriend, or think I’d injured myself, or think I’m an injection drug user, or understand that it was BDSM and be upset about it?

I dunno, maybe this is all par for the course for some people; after all, there are thousands of dyke sportswomen and athletic kinksters out there who surely deal with these things all the time. But it’s new for me, and I can’t help asking the questions. And it’s not so much that I’m actively worried about any of these things… just intellectually curious. The politics of space, of queerness, of bodies and genders, come together in a really particular way in the setting of a gym, and it’s one I feel must be ripe for analysis, especially from the inside out. 

I guess some things never change… I still have no interest in chasing a ball, but chasing questions and ideas still gets my heart rate up. 


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