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

Women-Only Hours, Forgotten Genders and Toxic Femininity, 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.”

Women-only hours at the Athletic Center at U of T provide an opportunity for all women and women-identifying individuals to enter the space free from cisgender men. It was an October evening, when I received a message from Sophia (pseudonym), a female friend of mine who attends only women-only hours. Earlier, I had shared with her my concerns regarding how the university monitors that there are only women are present in the gym space during women-only hours. Obviously, it would not be correct to ask what gender someone is. How does the policy work if, in our modern society, we have freedom of gender expression? For example, it is no longer surprising to see a woman with extremely short hair or a man with long hair.

Responding to my initial thoughts, Sophia texted me:  “The way I see it is like this – I think that we use the words women’s only hour really just to refer to non-cis men hour.”  Exactly. But how does the university define how a cisgender man should look like? And why does the university call it “women-only” if, besides cisgender men and women, there is a whole range of other genders like non-binary, transgender, gender fluid, etc.? I interviewed two members from the administration of the Athletic Center and Hart House Fitness Center and this question seemed difficult to answer:

“You know, we do not judge by the appearance, women-only hours are for women and women-identifying people”, I was told by one of the managers, Matthew (pseudonym). I agreed and followed up with “…and if they are not women or women-identifying people?” In this case, Matthew explained, the facility provides a variety of other places to exercise during this hour. It seemed like the institution put treated other genders as an afterthought under the proud “women-only”, so I continued: “but what about non-binary? Non-binary people do not identify themselves as either a man or a woman”. The manager took a couple of seconds to think. Pause. Hesitation… “Well, women-only hours are for women or *with an emphasis* women-identifying individuals”.

Despite my attempts to elaborate on what exactly I mean by the category of non-binary people (those who do not necessarily “identify” themselves with either a man or a woman, or, in other words, do not match binary categories), the quotation above was the only answer that I got. My attempts to explain were useless, and I felt like I reached a brick wall. “For women and women-identifying” sounded more like a mantra that was trying to hide the real answer to the question. It reminded me of learned phrases about diversity that serve as a shield against the confrontation of the lack of diversity. Such learned, “safe” phrases do not deny the existing discrimination nor do they expose it.

It surprised me that the gym’s understanding of diversity was limited to binary categories. Implicitly, non-binary people were asked to choose their identity for one hour to determine whether they could enter the protected “only women and women-identifying women” space. Or, in other words, were they the ones to be protected, or others should be protected from them. But what are the criteria? if we are talking about the control and regulation of the threshold called the entrance doors to the women-only space, how does the institution define who is allowed and who is not?

In an interview with Eli (pseudonym), a non-binary person who works out predominately during women-only hours, they shared with me their experiences on entering the space during women-only hours:  “I do sometimes feel a bit too masculine for the women’s only hours, but I think the way look… I still look pretty feminine, so people can kind of assume that I am a woman or something like that, so it’s okay”. 

This comment pointed out the worry of non-binary people about their gender expression. To better understand this worry, during one women-only hour, I approached Tara (pseudonym), a young supervisor monitoring the Strength and Conditioning room, with a question about how she makes sure there are only women present in the space. After looking around the room and the people exercising, Tara said: “I do not know, you can just… see. We do not ask, obviously”.

These two comments together described the role that the visual aspect of gender, or gender performativity, plays in defining who is allowed to be in the space. The staff members do not ask, but, as gym administrator Matthew said, they “use their best judgment.” He also noted that “in order to avoid conflict” staff do not intervene in explicit discussions of someone’s gender and their acceptance in the space.

The lack of gym policies and discriminatory binary system create a situation in which defining and categorizing gender are responsibilities transferred to gym users. Staff members wait for the gym users, especially women, to express any concerns regarding their comfort of being in the same space with some particular person. Here, the women, who gain power over the room during women-only hours acquire the dominant position that is usually occupied by men during regular hours. Following the gym’s binary system and the designation of protected hours for “women and women-identifying individuals”, women become the authority on deciding whether someone is “feminine enough” (Eli) to be present. In this context, the feminine becomes a new toxic masculine. When including women and excluding men, the system also excludes other genders in a way that femininity becomes dominant or standard. 

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