The existing claim that gender is a social construction creates various stereotypes about men and women that individuals must portray or conform to in public spaces. Since it is the society and culture that create gender roles, men and women have to conform to their respective roles because they are deemed appropriate or ideal. The majority of public spaces are gendered, which implies that society has different expectations for men and women in such places. This leads to the construction of a gender identity around every public space.
This paper will consider a gym or a fitness center as a public space where gender is socially constructed. The objective is to investigate how gender is socially constructed at a fitness center and how construction contributes to gender disparity and inequality. Fitness centers provide opportunities for health-enhancing behaviors and physical activity but reinforce the social construction of gender that contribute to gender differences and disparities.
Field Site Description
The selected fitness center was one of the biggest fitness centers in Los Angeles which has over 690 clubs. The site visit was on the 9th, 13th, and 16th of February 2019, with up to 6 hours. At the entrance is a reception desk with one receptionist who checks in clients. The words “Energy, Perfection, Motivation, Excel, Challenge” are engraved on walls of conspicuous places. The facility offers coaching and training services for the community around it.
The influx and efflux rate is two people every five minutes on the when I first arrived and gets more flux when I about to leave at 6 pm. At the ground, there are not many activities besides people moving in and out via the receptionist. On the first floor, there approximately 50 to 60 people. This floor houses a swimming pool, weight room, kid’s room, selectorized equipment area, basketball court, and a personal training area. The swimming pool which was the first to catch my attention had a low visitor flow, but the majority were elderly men with a few women and teenagers. There was no kid in the kid’s room at the time of my visit.
The weights room had nearly 20 people whereby two-thirds were men. While men were working on their shoulders and arms, women were engaged in the abs training. Men were the majority in the selectorized equipment area, there was gender balance in the basketball, and the personal training area was empty. Finally, cardio training was situated on the second floor. This section had equipment such as treadmills, stationary bikes, stair climbing machines, and cross trainers. Three-quarters of the 30 people on the second floor were women.
Observations and Analysis
The key observation made during the site visit was the unequal number of men and women at the fitness center. Sex distribution was uneven with fewer women were present and gets even after 6 pm from my 3 observations. Meanwhile, women were many in fitness activities that were perceived lightweight while men engaged in more strenuous activities. The imbalanced sex distribution in the fitness center revealed a worrisome perspective on gender in the gym that is both divisive and isolating.
Besides making observations, I interviewed some of the clients who affirmed the observations I had made and shed more light on the association of gym activities with masculinity. The female interviewees revealed that being in the gym was perceived as non-conformance to stereotyped gender activities. Also, male interviewees revealed that there were some activities they avoided because they were perceived as feminine.
This was an indication that men and women self-police themselves to live within the confines of what is perceived as appropriate or normal as per their gender. A similar sentiment is shared by West and Zimmerman concerning how individuals organize themselves to express or reflect behaviors and practices that are perceived gender appropriate (West and Zimmerman 1987).
Although both male and female clients acknowledge the health benefits of being physically active, stereotype barriers such as lack of support and time inhibit women from actively taking on physical fitness. For example, it was observed that the number of women decreased significantly after 1800 hours.
Worse off, the intimidation from the male counterparts who exude dominance and power make women shy off from engaging in physical activities especially in the weight room and selectorized equipment area. The traditional perception of being male is associated with being athletic, strong, and independent. On the other hand, women are perceived as weaker gender. These perceptions are alive in the fitness center and violation of the gender norms leads to labeling.
Calasanti and Slevin highlight that the intersections of social inequalities are used as tools to perpetuate gender stereotypes (Calasanti and Slevin, 2001). Further, they show how social inequalities reinforce an individual’s physical appearance and body image vis- à-vis their gender. Also, the intersections of social inequalities play a significant role in social construction and power relationships that shape people’s perception of gender (Calasanti and Slevin 2001).
Power relations privileges the masculine gender over the feminine gender, which leaves females feeling vulnerable in the gym set up (Williams 2010). This discourages women from pushing themselves into great physical fitness not to challenge their male counterparts. For example, some women pointed out that working out among sweaty guys who were puffing and grunting made them feel uncomfortable. The intersection of class, race, and ethnicity with gender disadvantages women (Calasanti and Slevin 2001).
These intersections widen the power relations between men and women. As such, gender is socially constructed along the imbalanced power relations between males and females, which brings about inequality on other realms of life such as participation in the gym. Women avoid the weights room and selectorized equipment area because they are perceived to be male-dominated environments. Equally, men avoided using gym equipment in the cardio training room because they were perceived feminine.
The stereotypes in the gym have led to the emergence of gender patterns that dictate how men and women use gym equipment and consume space (Williams 2010). Women’s assertiveness with the use of gym equipment is perceived negatively, which shapes how women engage with the equipment. In this case, gender inequality arises from the stereotypes that fail to accord men and women an equal platform to exercise and use gym equipment.
In conclusion, the popular perception of the gym as a masculine institution continues to thrive despite both women and men working out in contemporary fitness centers. Adherence to gender norms surrounding stereotypic perceptions brings about gender differences and inequalities. The existing gender norms demoralized women’s esteem and self-efficacy to exploit the gym environment.
It was evident that gender is socially constructed around social perceptions of men and women. The biological differences between men and women were the basis on which the stereotypes were generated in the fitness center. Therefore, the observations and analysis affirm that fitness centers reinforce the social construction of gender that contribute to gender differences, disparities, and inequalities.
- Calasanti, Toni M., and Kathleen F. Slevin. Gender, social inequalities, and aging. Rowman Altamira, 2001.
- West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. ‘Doing gender.’ Gender & Society 1.2 (1987): 125-151.
- Williams, Juliet A. ‘Learning differences: Sex-role stereotyping in single-sex public education.’
- Harv. JL & Gender 33 (2010): 555-579.