How can the gym community be more inclusive for women?

By Shriya Dharmapurikar

When I signed up for my school’s 7:00 am strength and conditioning class, I had no idea what it entailed. However, after waking up, dragging myself to the gym, and lifting a barbell for the first time, my mind was blown. The effects of weightlifting were long term. I found myself having more energy throughout the day, more confidence, and increased performance when playing tennis. But all I could think about throughout the classes was, why aren’t there more girls here? 

As the gender gap and gender inequality within sports has become more apparent to us, we’ve started to examine where these inequalities lay. One of the most recent examples being the side-by-side comparison  of the NCAA men’s and women’s gyms. Where the men’s basketball team was given a full gym with amenities, all the women’s gym had was a yoga mat and some dumbbells. For years, women have been underrepresented, underestimated, and often unwelcome in the gym. To explore how and why these inequalities occur, I spoke to high school senior and longtime weightlifter, Kennedy Turner. Kennedy has been weightlifting since eighth grade and is also a competitive shot putter and discus thrower. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Shriya: What are some problems women face in the weightlifting community?

I think just feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable in there. However, I’ve had a great experience. I went to the gym when I was in eighth grade and I was working out with this man, Eric Hernandez. He is an athletic trainer for UNC (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill). So, I got to use UNC facilities, which was wonderful for me, but I was using them in a room full of girls.

So, I didn’t really feel, you know, singled out or anything. I just felt welcomed in that space. So, at first going into the gym, I felt like I was in a safe community, but going into our school, it was kind of an odd situation. I was in a class with a couple of girls and maybe two guys, so there’s still a lot more girls than the guys, so I still felt like no one was really looking.

But I think gym culture as a whole definitely is hard for women. I think it can feel a little daunting to go in there and be like, “Oh my God, every single guy in here is looking at me. I’m not good enough” and stuff like that. But I haven’t experienced that directly because I think there’s a good community in there [points to school gym].

Shriya: What are some misconceptions that people have about women weightlifting? 

Kennedy: I think they feel like girls can’t lift, or what we’re doing is often incorrect or wrong. Even in the form that they have. I think most guys are like, “Oh, she’s not that strong. She just has bad form or something.”

Misconceptions like, women go to the gym to be around guys, which I don’t think is true. I think women who go to the gym actually wanna get fit and healthy. 

Shriya: What are some of the benefits you had from lifting weights? 

I felt so much better when I was lifting. I felt a lot more like myself. I was in a sport from the ages of 2 to, I would say maybe 13. The reason I went to the gym in the first place is because I couldn’t do a team sport anymore because my feet were so flat. I had to get constructive surgery my freshman year. I really didn’t have the physical education credit I had to fulfill, so I had to go to the gym. But when I was there, I felt so much healthier. I just felt like myself. I also felt stronger. I could see the changes in my body, not weight wise, but I felt like I could just do more with my body.

I also felt proud of myself because going into this, I was like, “I can’t do anything. I’m so weak! I haven’t played a sport in a couple years. I don’t really know how I feel about this.” But, it made me really proud that I could do some of the things I never thought that I could do.

Shriya: What were you worried about when first starting out? 

I was like, am I gonna break my back? I thought I was doing everything wrong. I was so concerned about doing something wrong. But after a little bit of validation from coaches and a lot of other people, I realized that I was actually doing something right. But honestly, I was really not concerned other than the fact that I was like, was my form off? Will I actually break a bone? Will I do something wrong? 

Shriya: How can men create a more inclusive community around lifting? 

I think just when lifting, creating a positive environment by not saying, “Oh my God, you’re being such a girl. Why can’t you do that? I can do that!” Instead of saying, “Oh, you’re not strong,” to the women, men, or anyone in general at the gym, just be encouraging. Make the space feel welcome, like everyone can go in there. It doesn’t matter what you look like, everyone is able to do this.

Shriya: How can women support other women who lift or who are thinking about starting?

Just encourage them to do it. I think the main thing we can do is have a welcoming environment where everyone is positive and just wants everyone to do their best. A lot of people around here have that, but I know a lot of people are scared to start because they think, “Oh my God, everyone’s looking at me. I’m just not strong enough.”

Shriya: What advice would you give to a girl apprehensive about lifting weights? 

I would say just do it. And this is gonna sound a little bit mean, but genuinely no one in there is looking at you, I guarantee you. My sister doesn’t wanna do it because she’s like, “Kennedy, everyone will be staring dead at me!” No! They won’t be. They’re going to be making sure nobody’s looking at themselves and being conscious about that. And, if you need an older girl to talk to, there are people you can talk to, and everything’s going to be okay. Just get rid of all that mentality in your head.