It’s been more than a year since I last went to the gym. That visit, for a quick workout, was enough to put me off for life.
A lot has been said about muscle-bound men leering at women from behind the weight machines, making us feel uncomfortable. But they weren’t my problem – it was the women.
As I plodded along on a treadmill, there were two to my left doing a squatting routine. They were in full make-up – including false eyelashes – with their smartphones balanced on the floor to capture it on video.
The moves they were doing, in skintight bodystockings, were – apologies in advance for this – gynaecologically explicit.
Another attractive young woman was endlessly rearranging her cleavage in the mirror.
I didn’t know where to look, though I guessed it was all for the benefit of the women’s followers on social media who lap up the no-doubt-airbrushed videos and pictures they post.
Dressed in tatty leggings and a T-shirt I often wear to bed, I felt suddenly self-conscious.
I was the only woman there not poured into a barely-there sheer ensemble seemingly designed to hoick up boobs and bum, and flash the midriff.
Eve Simmons says the attire and behaviour of some women at the gym is enough to put her off for life (stock image)
My jog lasted all of 15 minutes before I hastily left – pretty much vowing to never set foot there again.
I’m not alone in my gym-phobia. A study published last week showed that half of British women haven’t done any proper exercise in the past year. This compares to just over a third of men, according to the survey of 8,000 adults by the charity Nuffield Health.
The reasons? Some have suggested that it’s because we bear the brunt of other time-consuming responsibilities, such as childcare. But I wonder if anyone else has been put off by the type of carry-on I was subjected to?
Most people have heard of toxic masculinity – the term used to describe the aggressive and domineering behaviour some men adopt. Well, the female version is arguably more pernicious because it is less recognisable.
But just as toxic masculinity makes men see each other as adversaries, toxic femininity demands we too endlessly compete.
Who wins? The girl with best figure or most perfect skin and hair? Or the one who gets the guy?
And, as I discovered, it’s all going on down at the gym.
What’s wrong with young women wanting to get fit and look good, some might ask. Well, I have no problem with that. But that’s not what I see.
Google the words ‘women gym clothes’ as I did yesterday, and what pops up are pictures of girls in exposing outfits. But it’s not the clothes themselves that bother me, it’s how the models present them.
Some squat, back to the camera, pouting suggestively over their shoulder, buttocks splayed. Others thrust their chests, legs apart. I found myself wondering what exercise it was they were supposed to be doing. I’m troubled by this, not because I’m some sort of prude – it’s great when women feel confident and attractive – but because it’s duplicitous. It’s pretending to sell health and fitness, but really it’s saying: ‘Look at my body.’
Young men looking at this think about sex, to be blunt. And studies have shown that the more they view such images, the more they see women as objects. So really, anyone claiming all this is somehow empowering women – it just isn’t.
Young girls strive to fit in, often going to extreme lengths to achieve a body type. Most women over the age of about 13 can achieve flat, toned tummies only by exercising tons and eating very little.
And research shows that women who look at lots of images of supposedly perfect female bodies are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression, compared with those who don’t.
But most of all, when it’s in the gym, the pouting, Lycra-clad show is simply offputting.
Countless public-health initiatives have failed to get women physically active. The same barrier comes up time and time again: we’re worried about the way we look while working out. A recent study found about one in five women don’t exercise because they are concerned about being ‘red and sweaty’ in front of others.
I have countless friends who struggle with their weight and have paid eye-watering costs for home exercise bikes so they don’t have to set foot inside a gym. And if anything is going to make you feel rubbish about the way you look, it’s the washboard abs of a beautiful fitness model who barely breaks a sweat. I know this will be painted by some as a grossly unfeminist attack. But I don’t blame those women in the gym. They are victims of our sex-obsessed culture who are doing what they think is necessary to fit in.
‘It used to be all about Playboy bunnies, but now it is seen as unwoke for men to ogle them,’ feminist author Naomi Wolf tells me. ‘Perhaps the world of fitness is a new guilt-free way for men to engage with semi-pornographic images. These women are athletic – so it’s OK.’
‘Most of all, when it’s in the gym, the pouting, Lycra-clad show is simply offputting’, writes Eve Simmons
At least Playboy bunnies were upfront about what they were selling. This new version is entirely disingenuous. But, of course, that’s the thing with toxic femininity: the last thing you want to do is be honest about the lengths you’re going to.
It’s a bit like Hollywood stars who have cosmetic surgery, then claim the fact they’ve barely aged a day in 40 years is down to yoga, a positive mindset and drinking lots of water. These lies are designed to trump other women: ‘Oh look, my beauty defied the laws of nature and biology.’ And it’s totally toxic.
Wolf is also keen not to point the finger at the women in question.
She says: ‘Some people feel insecure and helpless when they see images of aesthetic perfection, but others aren’t bothered at all.’
I’m not sure I completely agree. Today, it seems this pornified look is fairly ubiquitous in the fitness world. Little wonder the top reason most women give for why they exercise is to change their body shape.
But for many this is not an effective motivator: having fun is. Research shows by far the most powerful tool in helping us stick to an activity is the amount of enjoyment we get from it.
‘I want more women to find fun in movement,’ says Renee McGregor, a sports dietician and author of athletics performance guidebook More Fuel You.
‘I like to run in the countryside with a group of friends because I get a social life out of it, and release pent-up energy. All too often people see the gym as a tick-box exercise – like punishment. Lifting weights while people around me look at themselves in the mirror feels as far away from exercise as you can get.’
So ladies, here’s my plea: go for a walk with a friend. Jog with a dog (or someone else’s). Join a friendly tennis team (which is what I’ve done). Swim in the glorious sunshine – go dancing!
And maybe quit taking pictures of yourself in the gym.