Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

“The Gym Is a Micro-Society”, By Lidiia Tulenkova (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

The truth that is on everyone`s lips is that, for some people, gyms’ atmosphere is very depressing and uncomfortable. However, such a negative description of gyms is mostly heard among women. The gym space is extremely body-focused, and simple actions like looking that are not harmful in one context acquire a different meaning in the gym.

In an interview with one of the members of the administrative apparatus at the Athletic Center, Matthew (pseudonym), I asked: “So, do you think that so-called male gaze exists at open gyms?”  Matthew shook his head and took a couple of seconds to choose the right words.   “You know, at gyms, we are a micro-society. People do not stop being people” said Matthew, shrugging his shoulders. That phrase became key to my understanding of the depressive and uncomfortable atmosphere and the differential power relations between genders in gym spaces. The “micro-society” that the gyms re-produce implies that all existing social issues, including the male gaze, freely exist and thrive in sports facilities. 

If this is the problem, what role does the institution play in solving it? Based on the Equity, Diversity, and Excellence Statement, the university “will strive to make considerations of equity a part of the processes of setting policies, developing procedures, and making decisions at all levels of the institution” (2006; 2).

When I asked several physical activity facilitators what they would do if they spotted a gym user persistently looking at another gym user and making them uncomfortable, I did not receive a clear policy response. Rather, administrators responded, “I would of course intervene if it was something physical” and “I am not sure, it depends on the context”. The Athletic Center has policies on how to intervene in physical assault but none concerning the male gaze, which my research showed was one of the most common forms of harassment gym users experienced. The goal, as one administrator rushed to explain, is “to minimize any harms. If there are any complaints, we intervene.” However my research showed that women do not always complain about invisible forms of harassment.

When one of my survey participants shared that she had “fewer problematic thoughts about the eyes watching” during women-only hours, I noted that she did not explicitly say who is watching, who is making her uncomfortable. This observation suggests that the acceptance or naturalization of the male gaze has taken roots not only in the institution’s system but also in the minds of the victims. Because it is expected, there is no complaint.  As another female interviewee mentioned “it is how it is”.

Through its inaction, the institution perpetuates an environment of male dominance in the gym space that is extremely difficult to unroot. All genders are welcome but the space is not safe for all genders. The underrepresentation of women in the gym is predominately rooted in their discomfort due to the male gaze, a problem the institution fails to tackle. 

Figure 1. A diagram illustrating the root of the problem of why women are underrepresented in open gyms.

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