Bench Pressed: Gym Culture and the Feminine Form

By Annyston Pennington

Weight lifting has been something of a journey to enlightenment, not about the universe at large but about my own microcosm of muscle and emotion. Since the tumult of puberty, a rigid tether has linked my body image and mental wellbeing so that when one facet of myself is aggravated, the other feels the sting too. Not until recently has the tie between mind and body been relaxed, each component nurtured through exercise and reflection.

After a bit of soul-searching—and a gentle push through the gym doors—I came to terms with the fact that this one body is all the material I have to work with. I knew that going to the gym regularly could be my ticket to achieving peace in the ongoing conflict between body and mind. Considering my limited, disappointing history with the gym, my hopes weren’t high for improvement.

Early in my second semester at the University of Texas, my friend Grace convinced me to join her at the campus gym to try weightlifting for the first time. After suffering through my counterproductive complaints about my body and my fear of the gym, she offered to guide me into uncharted territory. Grace had taken a weight training class through the university and so, at least to my eyes, she was a professional capable of turning my flabby flesh-sack of a body into a hardened, ass-kicking machine.

We began with bench presses and squats, Grace demonstrating and guiding me through the reps with the support and patience of a mother bird nudging a chick out of the nest and into flight. Granted, I was nervous and sweaty and afraid of dropping a 20lb bar on my neck, so my first try at weightlifting wasn’t exactly poetic.

I’d look around me at the college boys in tiny tank tops deadlifting 10,000+ pounds and become self-conscious not only about the puny amount of weight I could lift but also about the cut of my shorts, the fit of my t-shirt, the style of my hair. I found myself looking into the surrounding mirrors not to watch for weaknesses in my squatting form but for the most flattering angle of my arms and legs. The gym was just another place to fret over my appearance, my insecurity amplified by ill-fitting clothing and sweat.

As I stood off to the side during Grace’s reps, I noticed the looks passed her way, young men eyeing her as she bench pressed what must have been half her body weight. Before I ever joined her at the gym, she told me about dealing with boys leering while she lifted, about the difficulty of ignoring them and her own insecurity to focus on empowerment. Though she had pressed past the uncomfortable atmosphere to perform well, I couldn’t. I watched them size my friend up like a show horse: for fitness and appeal. Having my body on display for appraisal unnerved me.

Months—and three times the weight I began with—later, I was more comfortable with the routine Grace set for us; my fear of judgment in the weight room began to fade. Most university gym-goers were so absorbed in their own workouts and body images that I became just another tired, red-faced figure, not a girl to be checked out. I grew physically stronger, and in time, my mind followed suit, gaining confidence with every rep.

After returning to my hometown for the summer—a “Rick Perry” of cities to Austin’s “Wendy Davis”—I could not rely on the same level of invisibility that I had enjoyed at the university. The gym patrons at home were older, fewer, and more suspicious. When I ventured into the free weight area to go about my bench presses and squats, I could feel the gazes of those large men biting into my shoulders like mosquitos. When I tried to smile or nod or ask if someone was using a piece of equipment, I was met with blank stares or dismissal, my fellow weight lifters inching away from me as if I carried the disease of feminine weakness on me like leprosy. Not the warmest welcome.

While overcoming the mental obstacle of getting up to work out can be a struggle, the gym environment doesn’t facilitate the lifestyle change. Gym environments and gym culture can deter anyone trying to take on a new field of activity or to begin working out altogether. The equipment is intimidating and overwhelming in quantity; the prowess of people who frequent the gym can be a slap to the self-esteem of a newcomer, and sometimes areas of the gym appear segregated based upon gender. Though much of the daunting elements of the gym stem from personal insecurity, gym culture rarely nurtures an atmosphere of camaraderie and support.

For women, there is the added, unspoken expectation of not only physical skill but of attractiveness that is not conducive to spilling water down the front of one’s shirt while trying to take a drink on a stair-stepper.

Looking around the gym, there is a distinct difference between the way men and women* carry themselves. On the back mirror of the local gym, a sign read: “Please Control Your Grunting,” addressing demonstrations of men working out, showing off like birds flashing their plumage. Meanwhile, few women vocalize their struggles as they lift; women lift lighter weights despite the fact that female bodies are capable of comparable athleticism. While men exaggerate their masculinity, women adhere to feminine delicacy even in the gym.

Though this observation can be applied to frequent gym-goers versus rookies, I can’t ignore the implications of the disparities in gym behaviors between men and women in particular when they are so in tune to patriarchal expectations for the gender binary.

While “the fairer sex” is not, in our culture, expected to be strong and powerful and aggressive, the fear of sexual assault is ever present. Alarming statistics do little to alleviate the concern that, should it be necessary, my body could not defend itself. This anxiety manifested in dreams where I’d have to run or climb or push, have to escape some faceless nightmare force only to find myself too weak to reach safety. Waking up from helplessness lingers in the back of the mind longer than any ghoul or gore the subconscious can conjure. Since beginning weight lifting, those dreams have ended.

When weight lifting, I revel in the sensation of my muscles straining against an outside force, struggling then overcoming. There’s something beautiful in the ability to lift the weight of a person.

Despite the many issues in gym environments and in fitness culture in general, I know I have a responsibility to my body to push beyond the limitations of my mind, a mind so overwrought with deep-seeded doubts that I often lose sight of my goals. Weightlifting itself is all about overcoming expectations and insecurities. For young women, the gym can be a place to reconcile the psychological war between society’s vision of femininity and our intrinsic beauty and strength. If I have gained anything from weight lifting—besides my immaculate biceps—it is this knowledge: by empowering the body, one also empowers the soul.

*1 | I do not adhere to a strict gender binary, but for the sake of conciseness and alignment with my personal experience as a cisgendered woman, I am speaking here and in this essay about other cisgendered women. My observations could apply to members of other minority groups, but I will leave those words to members of said groups rather than speaking for people whose experiences may differ too much from my own.
*2 | Image illustrated by Cody Bubenik
Annyston Pennington

The author

From a town in the middle of nowhere comes a girl with a love of unicorns, curry, and comic books. She believes pink to be the superior color. Student at the University of Texas, class of...eventually. Feature writer and art editor for Feminine Inquiry by day, sentient potato by night.

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