Are Women-Only Gyms Sexist?

One of the stories that circulates through LadyGym was about the time they got sued for sex discrimination– and lost.

Back in 1996, a 52-year-old male attorney tried to join the newest LadyGym location. The facility cost $3 million to set up, filling 34,000 square feet of space over three floors, and included state-of-the-art equipment, a full-service spa, and expertly-trained staff. He argued that it was across the street from his apartment; why shouldn’t he want to work out there? Yes, there were other posh gyms in the area, but he wanted to belong to this one.

(Part of me has always wondered what kind of  d-bag would single out a women-only gym. It turns out he had practiced in New York before, and was known for filing complaints against bars that offered “ladies’ nights.” But, apparently, he also helped public school teachers in New York receive disability coverage when out on maternity leave back in the 1970s and 80s. So perhaps the case against women-only gyms is as simple as what he and others have stated: anti-discrimination means everybody gets the same access.)

So he started legal proceedings, which wound their way through the courts. At first glance, the reasoning seems sound: Obviously, if it was discrimination to keep women from men’s golf and racquet clubs of yore, then the same logic held true for keeping a man out of an all-women gym. Foster would not be the first or the last with this argument: prior to his lawsuit, California had ruled that gyms couldn’t have women-only rooms. Similar cases occurred outside the US as well– in Vancouver in 2004, with another women-only facility, and in 2013 in London, when a man sued a gym for having women-only hours. Even the Massachusetts chapter of National Organization of Women took the side of the plaintiff against LadyGym; the president at the time stated, “If you want equal rights, then you want them for everybody — not just when it benefits you.

In such terms, what right does LadyGym or another women-only facility have the right to stay open? The judge ruled that LadyGym presented a case for privacy against a case for discrimination— and that unless women were walking around with “intimate body parts” exposed or that men were touching their body without permission, there wasn’t really a reason to override the public accommodations statute. “While the Court recognizes the impact that the admission of men into the club may have on these women, intimidation and the assumption that all male Healthworks members will harass and leer at their exercise compatriots is still an insufficient ground on which to create a privacy exception.”

Obviously, LadyGym still exists as a gym only for ladies. What happened?

As Sarah (not her real name), the woman in charge of staff education within the company, tells it, they sent out a letter to all of the members, informing the changes that lay ahead as they added new locker rooms and modified the facility further for co-ed use.

LadyGym received bags upon bags of mail from their members, covering the table in the corporate office’s conference room. The staff separated the letters into piles: those who said they were going to continue their memberships, and those who would cancel. “The majority of members said they would continue with us through the transition, but—” her voice lilts as she reaches the climactic moment of the company mythos, “that had Healthworks been coed when they were first looking for a gym membership, they wouldn’t have signed up for their memberships to begin with.”

Thus, LadyGym and its members petitioned for an amendment to the state’s public accommodations bill. Because so many women expressed that they would not start a membership at a gym if it were co-ed, the necessity of single-sex facilities was a matter of public health. The State House passed the bill. LadyGym remained women-only and flourished.

Ultimately, I agree with this decision. It reminds me of this cartoon:


The story with the drawing goes like this: You have a classroom of students. They are told that they’ll receive extra credit if they throw a ball of paper from their desk to a trash basket at the front of the room. Students at the front of the room will have an easier time achieving this goal, though, because of their position. Yes, the students are all given the same instructions, and nobody is given, say, more balls to throw than the other kids, but it’s still not a fair situation.

In other words, anti-discrimination laws can’t assume that everybody starts from the same place. For women in fitness, that means considering women who went to school before the implementation of Title IX, and, thus, didn’t have the access to sports that their male peers did. It means considering that equipment designed for the average male, height 5’10”, will not be the proper proportions for the average female, height 5’4″. It means considering that women are five times as likely as men to be victims of violence via intimate partners (and that 99% of these incidents involved male partners).

I am whole-heartedly a fan of women-only facilities. Still, I wonder, besides keeping men out of women-only gym, is it even possible to make a generalized statement about the factors that differentiate catering to women as opposed to catering to men?

I don’t want to.

I knew it would happen. In fact, I kind of looked forward to it. I thought: When I leave training, I won’t have to worry about my workouts anymore. I wouldn’t have to stress about if I got enough cardio in, if I strength trained enough. If my workouts were the right kind: timing and sets and reps perfectly orchestrated. This was my job. I had to walk the walk.

But now, a new panic has set in.  It’s so easy to just not do anything, to continue to sit on my couch reading or clean the kitchen instead of go for a run or– ugh– go to the gym. The thought of getting on a treadmill makes my soul shrivel. I can make myself do a couple sets of squats or pushups, and my brain goes, “Okay. That’s enough. No more.”

Guys, I used to love working out.

I try to soothe myself. Something similar happened when I finished grad school: I didn’t read for three or four months after graduating– and I honestly don’t remember how long I went without writing. After reading a thousand-plus pages each week, spending hours upon hours in front of the computer screen, neither sounded appealing.  What did sound appealing?  Working out. I lifted five days a week, ran thirty miles, swam two or three hours. Moving my body let my mind rest.

But I don’t feel as though my body is in need of physical rest, per se.  Mostly, I just don’t want to have to care anymore. I want to spend a day on the couch without the voice in the back of my head nagging me for being so lazy, reminding me how my inactivity will surely snowball. It tells me how I’ll no longer fit into any of my clothes, how I’ll lose my ability to run a mile, how I’ll no longer be the person who can carry the heavy boxes during moves.

Logically, I know this period is not forever. I’ll figure out what I like to do, get in a rhythm of it.

For as long as I can remember, though, I have thought about exercise in terms of what should be done: 150 minutes per week of moderately intense cardiovascular exercise per week (or three days of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise), strength training two or more days per week, 10,000 steps per day. The more science (or pseudo-science) taught us about how to quantify health, the more I’ve tried to at least be mindful of those numbers.  And why not? It’s a simple yes/no question: did I or did I not achieve the goal? If not, what do I need to change?

Yet, I wonder, if we spend too much time quantifying fitness, as though if we hit all the right numbers, we will become entirely free of risk.  Can we live long, healthy lives, circumventing cancer, accidents, sadness? Of course not. At some point, there are diminishing returns on all the analysis.

And, besides that, how many goals can a person actually set for themselves, feasibly? Even if you have infinite time, how much willpower is there? One question I’ve asked myself recently is if I should have flipped my priorities these past few years, carving away time in my schedule for writing as much as I did for exercise, where would I be? Note that I don’t mean a better or worse place, but perhaps fitness did cause me to lose sight of writing, to deprioritize it.

As a trainer, you say, “Exercise will give you energy for your other endeavors!” Which is true, yes. But some endeavors do become all-encompassing– you have a conference or a book proposal due or it’s tech week for your play. There’s a beauty to that level of commitment– it’s that hard work that pays off. And on the one hand, I like that idea, of having something new and different take my focus, but, at the same time, I’m afraid of letting go of this commitment to exercise I’ve had for so long.

Is it either/or? Or is there some sort of compromise?

How I ended up there

I didn’t mean to work at a women-only gym.  I decided to apply for a job selling membership at the coed gym I belonged to during grad school because, after graduating, I didn’t really think there was a good place for me in the publishing industry. The literary journal where I worked didn’t have the funding for non-student employees, and the thought of working at a textbook company made me cringe.

So I had to decide what I wanted to do to pay the bills while I built up my writing career. In total honesty, I had a crush on a trainer at my gym and did, partly, hope that a job there would lead to friendship with her and, you know, eventually causing her to upend her long-term relationship to be with me, the awkward chick with the boy’s haircut.  Not the best logic for making career decisions; thankfully, I didn’t get a job there.

I liked the idea of working  at a gym, though. I cared about fitness, my workouts a grounding force throughout grad school. And a gym job would keep me on my feet during the day, more so than any office job; call it ADHD or whatever you want, but I hated sitting still and wanted to find a position that offered some level of physicality. Finally, I figured out if I spent my days walking around, talking to people, I’d be more willing to hunker down at my computer to write my Great American Chick Lit Novel during my off hours.

So I sent my resume to a half dozen gyms in the area, including LadyGym.  Friends of mine from grad school raved about it: about the eucalyptus steam room and hot tub, about the comforting all-woman environment. A friend with chronic pain in her neck and jaw found relief from meeting with a LadyGym trainer to strengthen her upper back. Another friend, with cerebral palsy, told me how working with a pilates instructor at LadyGym had helped soothe the spasms in her hips and legs. And so on.  I liked the idea of working at a place that made fitness about more than just getting thinner or looking a certain way; I liked that they made fitness accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily fit in at other gyms. At that point in my life, I had gotten used to not fitting into places– but we can talk about that later.

I was gung-ho about working at LadyGym, stoked when they called me about an interview. The moment the MBTA B-Line dropped me off in front of the building, though, I had second thoughts.  I realized I’d actually stepped into the gym once before, while distributing flyers for the vitamin store where I worked; I’d been dripping with sweat from the July day, my white shirt sticking to my back, essentially see-through.  I’d walked inside, expecting a cafe (they had a chalkboard sign with specials outside because a registered-dietician-approved restaurant was one of many luxuries offered by LadyGym), and instead found a soothingly-lit reception area with a marble-esque desk, cushy, overstuffed chairs, top-of-the line computers, and orchids. Orchids, guys.

(If there is one way I can definitively describe myself in grad school and the time directly following, it can be as “not an orchid type of gal.” Basil, perhaps? Actually, that’s not even true. For instance, in grad school, I lived with my friends Liz and Mike. Liz has always loved the idea of growing things, be it flowers, herbs, or fruits. At the time, Liz was still… at the bottom of her learning curve? She had a lovely green thing, possibly basil, sitting on our kitchen window. Mike went on vacation for two weeks, and pulled me aside right before leaving: “I’ve been watering Liz’s plant for her. She thinks she’s keeping it alive herself. I need you to keep taking care of them while I’m gone.” He came home to find the plant knocked over, dry dirt on the floor. “You had one job,” he told me, shaking his head. Since then, Liz has greatly improved in her gardening abilities. I have not.)

So I came for my interview, and I found myself standing in front of this monstrosity of a building, wondering if they would realize what an imposter I was. Even though I’d taken the supposedly air-conditioned train to my interview, my shirt still clung to my back with sweat, my hair frizzed in a halo, and make-up dripped down my face. The appropriate term, I think, is “hot mess.”

The club was exactly as I remembered it. As the sales manager guided me through, I ticked off in my mind all the reasons I couldn’t work here. Most obviously, it was too girly, with its purple upholstery on all the benches and machines, the gem-toned swiss balls and elastic bands, the charming films about girl power playing in the “cardio theater.” More importantly, there wasn’t a squat rack, which, for me, a powerlifter, was the center of every one of my workouts; instead, they had a Smith machine, which is like a dumbed-down squat rack, where the bar is on tracks so you’re less likely to hurt yourself, but you also have to stand at a bizarre angle to produce anything vaguely resembling a squat. The dumbbells stopped at 50 pounds, even though I could press far more with one arm. The lone bench press (a bizarre choice for the single piece of “real” equipment, in my opinion) came up midway on my shin, instead of my knee, like most benches. There was a steam room and a sauna and a hot tub, which just seemed like a waste of money and space, because weren’t we here to work out? There was only one male employee, gay, singing show tunes at the top of his lungs (because that was the type of man women could feel safe around? I wondered). And there was an entire studio dedicated to Pilates, the seemingly most pointless exercise routine I’d ever heard of, designed for the woman afraid of the bulking created by regular strength training.

Twenty-five-year-old Kat was appalled by what she saw. Everything seemed so catered to this specific idea of femininity– this idea of femininity I had never, could never achieve. We finished my interview, and I assumed the woman I interviewed with realized what a terrible fit I was for their gym. I’d have to figure something else out– maybe get a job at Starbucks, or give into the wonderful world of textbook publishing.

But, it turned out, they liked me enough to call me in again.  The second interview, with the General Manager, went better– perhaps it was getting introduced to the first member, a woman in her eighties with giant glasses and a red-and-white striped shirt. Or maybe it was just that I could tell this woman really cared about getting women into fitness, creating an environment that felt friendly and familiar to them.

When they offered me the job, I took it. I figured if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to be there for long.  I figured maybe I could help them change for the better.  I never considered that I’d stay there for nearly eight years, or that it would help me change.