Despite pervasive norms, womxn find empowerment through weightlifting.

Photo by Carly Menker

*Editor’s Note: The writer chose to use the spelling womxn
to be more inclusive of all identities.

Upon entering the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion (SPAC), the first thing a gym-goer sees is racks of iron and row upon row of massive machinery behind giant glass doors. The weight room contains no cardio machines, no yoga mats, no exercise balls, and few womxn use it.

Here, the gym tends to be mostly occupied by male athletes pushing themselves to their limits, according to Weinberg first-year Ciara Rampolla. The competitive energy, she says, is intimidating.

“I feel like people are judging you if you’re using smaller weights,” Rampolla says. “I prefer going to the top floor. It’s just less stressful.”

In the world of strength training, gender divides are especially evident. At SPAC, Northwestern’s main athletic center, the weight room remains a predominantly male space that relatively few womxn venture into, say first-year Benjamin Bade and second- year Rhiannon O’Berry, who lift there regularly.

According to a 2018 study from the International Journal of Exercise Science, only 20 percent of women surveyed from a large public university participated in strength training two or more times per week. While there are no specific statistics on the demographics in SPAC’s weight room, both O’Berry and Bade estimate that, on an average day, about one-third of the people lifting in SPAC are womxn.

Because weight rooms tend to be so male-dominated, womxn who choose to go may be more susceptible to misogyny and mistreatment. O’Berry says she has received “weird looks” from men. Especially when she converses with men about lifting, she says, “there’s a lot of mansplaining that occurs.”

Amie Simmons, the assistant director of fitness and wellness at SPAC, says young females in high school gym classes and on sports teams are not encouraged to strength train in the same way young male athletes are. This difference in teaching tends to stay with people when they go on to college.

Feminine beauty standards can also play a role in womxn’s avoidance of the weight room. O’Berry, who started weightlifting in high school, says that upon coming to Northwestern, she had a difficult time convincing friends to try lifting with her. She heard the same reasoning over and over again.

“One of the main stereotypes in weightlifting is — for women — it’s going to make them super buff and manly,” O’Berry says.

For many womxn she spoke with about lifting, a large deterrent from participating is what men would think of them. They wonder whether men can handle the fact that they like to be strong too. An ex- boyfriend once told O’Berry she was getting “too muscular to be attractive.” She still pushes through the stigma and continues to do what she loves, but understands that many feel discouraged by these misogynistic attitudes.

“I feel like women’s athleticism is all too wrapped up in the male gaze,” she says.

Making the most of SPAC

The weight room’s sense of physical isolation in SPAC is intentional. Simmons, who was responsible for the strength room’s layout, explains that the building’s unique structure allowed for each space to have its own theme. The weight and bulkiness of the strength equipment restrict it to the first floor because of the difficulty in moving it. Plus, it helps to have weight and cardio machines grouped together to accomodate people who want to do different types of workouts on different days.

Despite this design, womxn in the gym forge their own communities to feel welcome in these spaces. For example, Simmons says the group workout classes at SPAC tend to attract more womxn than men. Rampolla finds motivation and enjoyment in these classes, such as WERQ , a cardio dance class, and BODYPUMP, a barbell workout class.

“Everyone’s just having fun and laughing, so it doesn’t really feel like a workout,” Rampolla says. “Doing anything with friends usually makes it better.”

It is this group environment that provides Rampolla with the motivation she needs to get to the gym. O’Berry recognizes the power of group motivation, so she started a weightlifting group of 15 womxn who train together regularly in SPAC’s weight room. Almost all of them were entirely new to the sport.

“I could see they were all really nervous coming into the gym about it, but I think being in a group made them more confident,” O’Berry says.

Over time, the womxn in the class became strong, capable weightlifters, some even going on to teach others what they’d learned about lifting.

Changing the narrative

Simmons says the SPAC faculty is conscious of the gender divides that exist within the strength room and workout classes, and wants to take action to reduce them. In terms of strength training, the gym offers free weight room orientation to help those new to lifting get comfortable. Simmons is optimistic that strength training will continue to rise in popularity among womxn.

“Sometimes things can be really intimidating,” Simmons says. “But I really just want everybody to know that they’re welcome in this space.”

While mixed marketing and weight room orientations are a positive effort, O’Berry sees alternative actions as being the most effective ways to make womxn comfortable and welcome in the world of strength training. In her opinion, there needs to be more representation of female lifters in the media landscape. She is frustrated by the lack of positive stories about strength training in gendered publications like Women’s Health compared to Men’s Health.

“Equality isn’t just about those types of publications and people not outwardly talking crap about female lifters anymore,” O’Berry says. “It’s about celebrating them just as much.”

If SPAC could more actively encourage womxn to strength train, she says, perhaps female students would be able to realize the benefits they are missing out on and the joy and confidence lifting could bring them.

“I think the sport will become more popular as women put more stock in what they want and less in what men want,” O’Berry says. “There’s something empowering investing in your own strength.”