Before, when students arrived at Taylor Gym, there was a common tendency for women to remain on the upper level–the mezzanine–while men usually veered down the stairs to the space below. Women generally used the weights and mats available upstairs, and men generally used the weights and mats downstairs. The separation was evident, yet student-determined.
Now, due to recent changes made in response to students’ concerns about the need for more cardiovascular machines and women’s weight training, Campus Athletics has moved the weights and mats that were originally in the mezzanine to a separate room, called “Fitness On Demand,” on the fifth floor of Taylor Gym.
First of all, why is “women’s weight training” a separate entity from weight training in general? Taylor Gym certainly has space limitations, but why does the division of the weight equipment reflect gender lines instead of training level or other factors?
Most importantly, why did the predominant gender divide exist in the first place?
Lehigh is a small school, and Taylor is a small gym. Because of this, going to the gym can feel like a social activity–yet another place on campus where your appearance and actions are highly visible to others.
Whether it’s the pressure to look attractive (while doing activities that completely undermine any pretense of glamorous composure), the fear of seeming out of shape, or the confusion over how to do an exercise properly and not wanting to look like an idiot by doing it incorrectly, the insecurities seem to be fueled by the impression that exercising at the gym means being the subject of public scrutiny.
As a campus, we tend to be very hard on each other and ourselves. We hold ourselves to extreme standards across the board, not just academically, but also socially and physically. We constantly try to impress each other, and that can be hard when we feel like we’re not quite up to par in a certain area. Of all the factors to judge, exercise is probably the easiest, since skill levels manifest themselves visually.
Taylor Gym is a very open setting, so essentially wherever you are, others can see you. Students might already feel self-conscious about working to improve their bodies, and for some, those self-doubts are exacerbated by the presence of members of the opposite gender possibly judging them.
Does that scrutiny actually exist, though?
It seems unlikely that the student who managed to fit a 30-minute run into his busy day and is trying to make every minute count cares at all about the person next to him that’s struggling on the elliptical. Or that the student who is proud of her abdomen workout even registers that there is a student stretching less than ten feet away. Do other students really notice that you can ‘only’ do 10-lb. reps, and if they do, is that neutral observation filtered by a tint of judgment?
Even if we are all silently judging each other, is continuing to basically separate based on gender a good solution to that problem? Let’s face it: We’re a bunch of hormonal, age 17-24 students who don’t want to drip sweat and look awkward in front of people we’re trying to impress. But maybe feeling uncomfortable and then getting over it is necessary. Working through your doubts can dissolve them.
At its best, the gym has a democratizing effect—everyone is wearing gym clothes and covered in sweat. Seeing our peers in this condition, while we are all equally disheveled, could ease some of the pressure to fulfill the more superficial aspects of college life.
At its worst, the gym, and our social interactions within it, sets gender relations back to 1950s status. Lehigh has been proudly coed since 1970. If female students sit next to their male peers during class, why should they not lift weights next to them?
More women should venture into uncharted territory—the daunting ground floor—and join the men to do weight training. If that space becomes too crowded, then both men and women can use the Fitness On Demand room, instead of following the divisions from the past.
Getting to the gym should be half the battle, and the actual exercise should be the other half. Leave it at that.