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Sexism in fitness - how to spot it and how to handle it.

Today I'm going to have a little chat about an issue that has been bothering me for a while. I've had it on ice, because it's an inflammatory subject and that takes careful thinking and even more careful writing, and I like to be measured on these things; but I've reached my capacity for holding back...

Is fitness a man's world?

I'm not sure that's much of a question to be honest! Walk into almost any general fitness facility (disregarding women only gyms or group exercise classes) and it's clearly a male dominated space. That's changing, which is great, but it still lags far behind much of the rest of our culture, such as say, office space. Even when women are accepted and welcomed, it is very much that we are finding a way to fit into that world, rather than carving out our own portion of it.

And when women are in that space, it is often assumed that they are there to lose weight or look better. You know, for men. There's an issue there, and I'm going to let Erin Brown sum it up, because she is awesome.

I'm happy to tell you lovely female readers (as well as the male ones), to just get in there. March into the freeweight area with your headphones on your your resting bitch face set to 11 and throw some barbells around like a total badass. You do that! But I am also aware that for some people, that's not a comfortable possibility. So the fitness world needs to be inclusive, we need to be met in the middle.

It's nice having women's fitness classes, and women's exercise DVDs - the more choice the better - but what about those of us who don't want to do "toning" with pink dumbells? Women are allowed to be strong, or fast. We can do tough mudders and CrossFit, MMA and powerlifting, and we deserve to be taken seriously.

What are women doing wrong in the gym?

It's actually social media and online fitness resources that inspired me to write this. It's easy to spot the dude who hogs the squat rack and won't let a woman in; or the trainer that starts offering weight loss advice without asking for your goals. The sneaky stuff that disguises itself as helpful, useful advice is in my mind worse, because we allow it into our world and our thinking, assuming it is there to help us. Here's a few things that I have noticed lately:

Endless sponsored Facebook recommendations for articles about "what women are doing wrong in the gym". Why Facebook? Why do you assume that I am doing something wrong? I'm groovy thanks. But then I submit to the click bait and take a look. I'll see an article, written by a male trainer, making fun of how women aren't lifting heavy, or using the right equipment, or spending too much time taking selfies (because no man has ever taken a shirtless muscle photograph for Instagram). I'm not going to criticise anyone who tries to help people do gym better, that would be ridiculous, but framing it as "you are all silly girls who are prancing around in fashionable activewear and we are watching and judging you" is horrendously counterproductive - it makes people frightened to work out for fear of judgement and ridicule.

Why are they "doing it wrong"? Is is because no one has actually shown them? If the author is a trainer in the gym, who's doing the orientations? Who is making sure that members of all genders have someone to go to if they need something demonstrating, or a programme to follow? Who is making sure they feel comfortable and welcome to do so?

Everyone who is new to a gym environment will have things they don't understand. All of us turn up there with an idea of what to expect and why we are there. If they are a woman, then they undoubtedly have been told by the world at large it is to "lose weight and tone up". To avoid heavy weights in case they get "bulky". It's our job as fitness professionals to show them how to get the most out of their membership - not by being condescending or making fun of them, but by believing in their potential and welcoming them into our world.

Speaking of condescending:

The womens' coaches who talk down to women

I briefly followed, on social media, a male trainer who specialised in womens' strength and bodybuilding. He had an impressive gallery of successful figure competitors as his clients. I clicked through to read an article about lifting gloves.

Seems a reasonable topic - sportswear companies are always trying to sell us stuff, how does the average person in the gym work out what's necessary and what's not. I once went to a kettlebell class where everyone was wearing gloves and assumed it was the thing to do (short answer, it's not optimal).  It was a decent article. Until a paragraph in the middle where he went off on a tangent about how women love to get matching accessories but we just need to get on with it because you can't compromise performance just because the gloves match your shoes and look cute. That was actually what he wrote... Can you imagine seeing that in a strength training article aimed at men?

I called him out on it, I sent a message telling him I enjoyed the article, but that one paragraph was really offputting to his target client audience. He didn't respond. I then read several other articles of his where I saw a pattern of snark and condescension creeping in consistently. I stopped following him, because stress management is important.

In another case I signed up for a sample nutrition programme from a company that specialises in online coaching for women - again, run by male trainers. I wasn't enamoured with the content, it was mostly factual information about basic nutrition, then a plan that involved cutting out several major food groups. But it wasn't the content that bothered me so much as the vibe of "we are experts, you don't know all this SCIENCE*, you can't be trusted to feed yourself, now just eat what we tell you until your body is acceptable".

[* Dan John calls this "eyewash". When a trainer blinds their client with factual information to prove their credentials - it's not actually very helpful in getting a client towards their goals though.]

This is the facts as I see it (and hey, I'm being all opinion today so let's roll with it). In my experience, people seeking personal training or nutrition coaching are not incompetent idiots. In general they tend to be successful, well educated people. Trainers who assume they are better than their clients are usually very wrong and always poor coaches. A good coach uses unconditional positive regard - the first step to really helping someone is genuinely believing they are an awesome person.

[Of course it's not just male trainers who are capable of this sort of thing. Internalised misogyny is a thing and women who have integrated into gym culture risk being swept away by sexist attitudes they see there. It's something we need to be aware of. "You aren't like other women, you are one of the guys" isn't a compliment, it's putting down the other women.]

Testosterone and man cards

Today I read an article that was the proverbial straw that made me sit down and write this.

On a popular fitness site, a well known trainer, with several high profile female clients, wrote an answer to a question about barbell pads. He was clearly not a fan. He could have explained the technical reasons for his objections and given some form tips in a sensible and professional manner, but hey, this is a testosterone fuelled place.

So instead he likened the accessory to sanitary protection and ordered the questioner to turn in his "man card".

Wow. That's like an own-goal hat trick right there (check me using sportsball references like I know what I'm talking about).

He's managed to ridicule womens' bodily functions, imply that lifting is a "manly" thing - therefore not a "woman" thing - and also shame the questioner for having a problem and daring to seek a solution from an expert.

This next bit here, it's for the people who get upset about posts about women's rights and want to know "what about the men". Let me tell you about the men...

Men have a disproportionately high suicide rate, because they aren't supposed to share their feelings and emotional problems. Men are less likely to seek help for medical issues because they are supposed to "man up" and bear it.

Men are allowed be be big and beefy, or lean and lithe, or anywhere inbetween if that's how they roll. Men are allowed to make a choice to keep their bodies safe from injuries in the gym and avoid bruises and grazes if they so wish. Your gender identity does not hinge upon how you train or how you choose to care for your body. This myth is damaging to men.

But why am I worrying about this corner of the internet where men brag about their bicep curls? There's some lovely corners too, like Girls Gone Strong, where awesome women are doing great stuff to help all kinds of women find fun ways to keep their bodies healthy and enjoy being in their skin. How does this affect me?

Well, when this kind of attitude festers unchallenged and is accepted by a large community of fitness fans, it bleeds out. When the guys who read these articles go to the gym, they are the ones hogging the squat rack and not letting the women in because man work outs are more important. They are the ones making women uncomfortable in a space they have paid just as much to be part of. A culture of respect and inclusivity has to come from the top down.

So what can we do about it?

My first suggestion is that we are aware. Thousands of women are readers and clients of providers who don't treat them with respect, and it's easy to accept that, especially if you *are* struggling with your fitness. Please remember, you are not lacking as a person, you just haven't learned to apply the skills yet, your trainer shouldn't consider you lesser for that. Take a step back and decide if that's acceptable to you.

If not, think about doing something. It might be challenging the issue, like leaving a polite message saying "are you aware how this comes across. It might be quietly taking your time, energy or business elsewhere. Your mindset will not be benefited by perpetual, low-level disrespect.

The next thing I would suggest is finding people who do lift you up, and seeing what they can offer you. Again, the Girls Gone Strong advisory board has an amazing selection of highly knowledgeable committed fitness professionals who are all putting out great content, much of it for free. I listen to The Fitcast regularly and I am constantly discovering new fitness professionals I want to learn from.

Teaching exercises and programming training are not skills highly exclusive to a handful of high profile trainers. There are literally thousands of supportive trainers, both male and female who do great work with female clients. Let's raise them up, turn our attention towards them, train with people who believe in us; and stop paying mind to those who talk down to us and underestimate us.

If you enjoy my articles, you might enjoy my training, check out Fire Lotus Fitness for all the details on my in-person and online personal training.


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