The first sport I learned how to play was basketball. I would spend my afternoons on the neighbourhood court playing against a boy who was the same age as I was. Every day at 3:30 p.m., we would meet outside with water jugs filled with orange juice to see who could score more points against the other. My most cherished possessions were my purple Lola Bunny Space Jam basketball and my Sam Boy Lim basketball card. Looking back, I don’t remember much about who won or lost, but I do remember getting really mad whenever I lost.
Things changed one summer when our parents enrolled us in basketball camp. We were segregated into groups that corresponded to our gender, which was frustrating for me because a) I had to make new friends and b) the boys’ group had more advanced drills than I did. They were being taught to be future professional athletes while I was being taught to “stay in my lane.”
Girls aren’t expected to be good at sports. If we were, then strong female athletes would be the norm rather than a novelty. Girls who excel in sports are expected to be good — but good within reason. Comments like “You’re pretty good… for a girl” or “You throw like a girl” are things that female athletes constantly hear from their male counterparts. But who wants to excel confined to the limits of a certain class? Why do female athletes earn significantly less than their male counterparts? Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Hidilyn Diaz — why can’t they be the best in their respective sports without the modifier “female” in front of the word “athlete”?
The gym should be a different story because of the way it’s designed. At first glance, the average gym looks like it’s a free-for-all space with equal access for everybody. But anyone who has ever spent a reasonable amount of time in a gym knows that there are specific areas where gender binaries still exist. Case in point: the weights room is usually filled with men while the cardio area is filled with women. Despite appearing to be a gender-neutral place, the gym is still coded with gender norms that have existed since the beginning of mankind. It’s okay for men to lift weights, because the assumption is that their strength will be used for productive work-related activities. However, when women walk into the weights area, they are often met with questioning looks or — even worse — the assumption that they won’t be able to handle the exercises that are supposed to be done in that area. Women are expected to be skinny, not strong; primarily doing their workouts for aesthetic reasons.
There’s a common belief that women aren’t supposed to have muscles. The sight of a well-toned woman makes certain people uncomfortable — it almost seems unnatural to some. Women aren’t supposed to look strong; women aren’t supposed to be strong. But why is this? A woman with muscular arms must have spent a good amount of time training in order for her guns to look that way. Is it because a woman with strong arms is a visual manifestation of the challenge against gender norms? Why is it that, even in a supposedly “gender-neutral” place like your local franchise gym, women are still in a constant battle to look and act according to existing gender norms?
Traditionally, the gym is supposed to be a private space where we take some time to work on a version of our bodies that we wish to present to a more public sphere. However, with the advent of social media and #gymselfies, the private aspects of our workouts have been compromised. Now, more than ever, this means that the gender norms and standards that were once dominant in the public space have bled into the gym as well. And though men are born with certain physical advantages, societal structures and institutions should not be reinforcing these beliefs. The truth of the matter is that women can and should be as strong as their male counterparts. The problem is that existing athletic and fitness norms are doing nothing to help women become stronger than society believes they are.