OPINION | Divide in Reily weight room reinforces gendered body image ideals

Phoebe Hurwitz, Views Editor

fitness 1
Gabe Darley

The stairs outside of Tulane University’s Reily Student Recreation Center suggest a shared experience inside the gym. The Reily stairs, spanning a large portion of the front of the building, symbolize a unified entry and a unified experience.

Yet, once inside, the shared goal of health and wellness seems to be forgotten at the doorstep and replaced by social and cultural expectations of body image that divide men from women in the gym. 

The gender divide in Reily asserts itself visibly to any Reily newcomer. Cardio machines such as treadmills and ellipticals are almost exclusively occupied by women, while men seem to occupy the weight room. 

It would be ignorant to ignore the social and cultural influences that define the ideal body types for men and women, respectively. A lifetime filled with social media, advertisements, television and gendered language indoctrinates people to believe that strength, muscle definition and weight lifting are reserved for men. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be lean, small and dainty — all characteristics that are supposedly attainable with the help of excessive cardio, or so we have been told

The truth of the matter is that weight lifting alone or using exclusively cardio machines will not automatically facilitate a particular body type. Put simply, lifting weights will not make a woman look “manly,” nor will cardio make a man look “womanly.” 

Of course, our conception of feminine versus masculine appearances is itself not inclusive, but we have even gone so far as to link arbitrary gendered appearances to the physical activities that help us maintain general health and wellness. 

Indeed, society conditions women to believe that they should not lift weights, but this may not be the only reason there are so few women in the weight room. Rather, Reily patrons may just be intimidated by what they are unable to do. 

Even the spatial construction and layout of Reily is conducive to enforcing the separation of genders. Reily’s weight room is sectioned off from other sections of the gym, secluding those in the weight room and intimidating those looking to enter. To even explore the equipment in the weight room, one has to enter the closed-off area and weave between huffing weight-lifters. 

The disjointed and exclusive spatial layout of Reily’s weight room not only intimidates women, who are evidently the minority in the weight room, but it is intimidating for new weight-lifters of any gender. 

Perhaps, the greater issue is that Reily’s weight room excludes any person who lacks experience with the equipment. Whether intentionally or not, this reinforces sexist stereotypes as people continue to refer to the inaccurate, though historically pervasive, cultural expectation of gender and appearance. 

Tulane’s Campus Recreation website offers a very sparse and non-informative description of the weight room. As a result of a lack of information about weight training, Tulane inadvertently reinforces sexist stereotypes as students simply follow social cues that misrepresent gender. Reily could level the playing field by providing instructions for the machines in the weight room and giving guidelines on using the weight room safely.

Tulane could reconfigure Reily in a way that provides fitness education instead of having people rely on sexist preconceptions. It is possible that Reily could include different weight rooms for different experience levels, with the entry-level including some form of education or instruction. That way, beginners can start amongst other beginners and learn the proper techniques to advance with confidence. 

Perhaps Reily would benefit from a remodel that removes the physical wall separating the weight room from the open-concept cardio area. Who knows, maybe removing physical boundaries between genders will help break down conceptual ones as well.

There is not one obvious factor that creates a gender divide in Reily’s weight room, making it difficult to pinpoint one solution. Ultimately, though, there is still a cultural expectation to follow gendered roles in gyms. Maybe the women in Reily’s facilities are too deeply conditioned by gendered expectations to feel confident in the weight room. 

Nevertheless, small adjustments to the procedures and layout surrounding the weight room would perhaps help all Reily members feel more comfortable using its facilities. Taking small steps to encourage more women to use the Reily weight room will not dismantle all sexist cultural stereotypes, but it will no longer condone, facilitate and reinforce these gendered expectations at Tulane.