Women's-only gyms: Are they solving harassment, objectification? – USA TODAY

As a fitness influencer, Lauren Lozier’s life revolves around the gym. She looks forward to empowering her 61K TikTok followers with daily workout routines and tips for heavy lifting. However, the unwanted stares and attention from men at the gym often caused her discomfort. 
“People just stare, and not just a quick glance,” Lozier explains. “Most times I’ll catch someone sitting behind me, not working out, and just staring directly at my butt.”
Her experience is not uncommon. A recent survey of 900 women found 71% of them changed their workout routine due to a negative encounter such as being watched, being followed around or due to unwanted physical contact.
As this issue gained attention and went viral over the past year, Lozier, like many others, tried out a women’s only gym. She felt safe, supported and welcomed.
“It was nice to have your own space where you don’t have to worry about men thinking weird things,” she says, calling the experience “peaceful.”
But despite their growing popularity, these establishments are only addressing one part of a bigger issue, experts say. 
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Diane Quinn, a social psychologist at the University of Connecticut, says feeling comfortable and safe while exercising is crucial, not only for your fitness journey but for your mental health. According to a 2018 study, regular exercise can decrease stress, anxiety and depression.
However, “when women experience objectification, like getting comments on their body, leering, ogling or harassment, they tend to feel shame about their body and worry about how it appears to others,” Quinn says. This can trigger eating disorders, lower self esteem and discourage women from exercising regularly. 
Women’s-only gyms have attempted to address these concerns by fostering a safe, supportive environment for those who don’t want to worry about being harassed. 
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Some, like Jane’s Gym in Mississippi, provide options like prenatal workout courses or childcare services.  
“Safety and comfort is our first priority here,” says Paige Anderson, a co-owner of Jane’s Gym. “Our mission here is to serve this niche market and largely address women’s specific needs, including safety, comfort and a sense of community.”
But women’s-only gyms also have drawbacks. States like Connecticut have ruled against single sex gyms, which violate state laws banning discrimination based on gender, and some gym goers have raised concerns about the limited choice of equipment at certain facilities.
Lozier felt there weren’t enough heavy weights, and returned to the co-ed gym.
“I was shocked,” she recalls. “Co-ed gyms that I typically go to have a lot of different weights and a lot of different options. But the women’s-only gym I visited had dumbbells that only went up to 50 pounds and it only had two squat racks with few plate options.”
Critics have also pointed out that these gyms, despite their many benefits, are only a short-term solution to the harassment and objectification of women. The real problem that needs to be addressed is men’s behavior. 
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“Harassment is an issue that’s more pervasive than just the gym setting. It happens every day in the workplace, on social media, and I don’t think women’s-only gyms alone will necessarily change bad behavior,” says Summer Hungate, a co-owner of Jane’s Gym. 
However, she notes they do provide a “much-needed” safe space to work out.
What needs to change
Experts say gym harassment is a prominent yet normalized issue, and the burden shouldn’t be on women to avoid it. 
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of gyms to set zero tolerance policies to “prevent men from engaging in these behaviors, and enforce consequences if they do,” Quinn says. This can include removing dress codes at gyms, which Lozier says seems to “apply more heavily to women than men.”
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“There’s still a lot of victim blaming, and people will comment, ‘you shouldn’t have worn that to the gym’ or ‘you shouldn’t have bent over like that,’” Lozier says. “Having a dress code is the worst thing we can do when it comes to preventing harassment, because people just use that as ammunition to justify these behaviors.”
Quinn also suggests that fostering a gym culture that focuses less on our bodies and more on our holistic fitness journeys would allow people to feel more comfortable while working out. 
“Many gyms are set up to put people on display. There’s windows in front of people doing cardio, and mirrors all over the place,” Quinn says. “So maybe toning that down so it’s not so appearance-based, where everywhere you look you’re seeing every dimension of someone’s body.”
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