Gyms are many things to many people. Some view them as temples of vanity and arrogance, where juiced-up beefcakes make eyes at themselves in the mirrors while flexing their biceps; for others it’s a place to achieve something on a daily basis; for someone else it might a place of healing, where they build themselves back up after an injury. For some people – usually men – however, the gym is a free-for-all meat market, a gallery of women in tight-fitting clothing squatting, stretching and sweating.

The gym is a confluence of many complex social norms and assumptions, particularly when it comes to women and how men to choose to interact with them. The foundation of it all is traditional gym culture, which has been built up around masculine strength and power, and a competitive mindset. Add to that a number of incorrect and sexist assumptions about women – that women dress themselves with the sole objective of attracting male attention, that men are entitled to ogle a woman’s body, that women know less about physical strength and power than men – add soaring levels of testosterone and a generous dash of ego-boosting drugs and supplements, and you can end up with a place where, at best, normal social rules and expectations don’t seem to apply, and at worst, a seriously toxic environment where women feel unsafe and objectified.

Obviously talking to women at the gym isn’t completely unacceptable. With the limited means of making genuine connections with people in the real world these days, the gym is one place where it’s possible to regularly meet new people. You can absolutely engage in respectful, non-creepy conversation with women at the gym. The problem lies with the totally unrespectful and fully creepy ways that some men approach women at the gym, and the assumptions behind these behaviors.

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

The first incorrect assumption made by many men – and this applies to the world beyond the confines of your local fitness centre – is that women are always happy to receive male attention. While this is true of some women, and it is definitely acceptable in certain social contexts, it’s not safe to assume that all women enjoy it. The truth is that most women are very wary of being approached by men they don’t know – particularly in a context where it’s unexpected, like a gym.

“I basically avoid all eye contact with anyone at the gym,” says Diana. ”There have been too many times where I’ve been zoned out, looking at nothing in particular while I work out and have caught the eye of some guy who has creepily smiled and stared at me.”

A 2016 study found that 63% of women in the UK feel unsafe in public spaces; a 2016 Runners’ World survey found that 30% of female runners have been followed by a person in a vehicle, bicycle or on foot, compared with 7% of men. When approached by men in public, women never know if an encounter is going to be hostile or friendly. Even if a man comes across as friendly initially, a woman will probably be wondering if he expects something from her in return for his attention. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that women like Diana avoid eye contact with men at the gym.

Sara recalls that she was once followed out of the gym by a guy “who was convinced we had made meaningful eye contact.” He asked her out and she turned him down, but she was relieved that this all happened in broad daylight. Another woman, Lena, had a guy stare at her at the gym for a long time before he approached her and addressed her by her name; she had never met him before. Both situations left these women feeling like the gym was not as safe a space for them as they thought.

Another assumption is that women don’t take their workouts as seriously as men, and, therefore, that it’s ok to interrupt them. One of the most common forms of interruption is men correcting women on their form, assuming that they know the exercise better than the woman in question.

You’re not helping a woman out by turning the resistance down on her rowing machine, or by telling her she’s squatting more weight than her lady parts can handle; you’re disrupting her concentration and assuming that you know more and better about what a woman is doing than she does herself (commonly known as “mansplaining”).

It’s hard to imagine a man being OK with being interrupted mid-set by unsolicited feedback from a non-professional, Regular Joe at the gym, yet women experience this all the time, and are expected to be grateful for it.

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

The second form of interruption involves men not respecting women’s personal boundaries while working out, and disrupting their workout for some idle, irrelevant chat. In almost every incident of harassment Highsnobiety heard about from women for this article, they were in the middle of their set or workout, and had their headphones in.

At the end of a workout one day, Nora was finishing off with some yoga stretches. She was in downward dog pose when a man approached from behind, ducked down to look at her through her legs, and said a cheery “hello!”. Nora was too shocked to say anything at the time but it made her feel, in her words, “like I was doing something unseemly and inappropriate somehow, which I had to keep telling myself was bullshit, because I was literally exercising in a space dedicated to exercise.”

Preeti recalls one incident where she was approached by a man who started talking at her while she was in the middle of a set, and clearly concentrating. “I stopped, took my headphones out and before I could say anything he proceeded to talk to me about his YouTube channel, and asked me to pull it up on my phone right there and then. I was like, “No thanks! I’m here to work out!”.”

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

The man then grabbed Preeti’s hand and forced her into a vigorous handshake. “I felt some relief once I put my engagement ring back on when I finished my set,” she notes, “but I hated the fact that I felt it made a difference. My own personal boundaries – mid-set, headphones in – should have been enough for him to leave me alone, regardless of any ring.”

One of the most problematic assumptions made about women inside and outside the gym is that they choose what to wear based on what will attract male attention, and that the less clothing a woman is wearing, the more interested she is in male attention. The logic behind most women’s clothing is, funnily enough, the same as their reason for going to the gym: they want to work out, and they want to be comfortable while they do it. It is not to provide eye candy for men while they squat, crunch or lift.

The argument that a woman should avoid drawing “negative attention to [her]self by dressing provocatively”, as advised by the top Google search result for “what should I wear to the gym female”, erroneously assumes two things. Firstly, it assumes that women deliberately dress provocatively. As noted previously, many women can’t avoid looking “provocative”, because they naturally have bigger breasts or a big butt. Secondly, it completely ignores the role that men play in creating discomfort for women at the gym by staring, commenting and, in some cases, touching them. Who or what do you think is the source of the “negative attention” in this context?

Erin Bailey, a fitness professional based in Boston, wrote a powerful piece on the sexual harassment she has experienced during her running and workouts. She quit her gym after being told by a male patron that “he liked my leggings, that they made my ass look great, and they’d look better off.” The gym, a space which is supposed to enable people to better and empower themselves becomes, for many women, somewhere they feel “belittled by the comments, by the glares, and by the entitlement.” You might think your comment about a woman’s butt is a compliment, but she’s probably perceiving it as unwanted objectification at best, and a potential threat to her safety at worst.

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

Of all the many complex social environments that humans create for themselves, the gym is one of the most difficult to navigate. Many of us are reluctant – or flat out refuse – to go, and, for some, working up the courage to just get dressed and walk through the gym doors is an achievement in itself.

For many others, the scrutiny of other gym-goers and/or a lack of confidence is what keeps us away. To get an idea of what the gym is like for many women, take those anxieties, and add a hundred other questions around whether what you’re wearing is too provocative, whether you feel safe and comfortable doing this particular exercise in front of men, and what that guy is saying to his friend as he stares at you in the mirror.

There’s a reason that women-only gyms exist: because, for many women, getting to the gym and exercising is nerve-wracking enough without having to worry about whether you’re going to be harassed. As Erin Bailey notes, “we deserve to be judged on our merits, not our outfits.”

So the next time you’re impressed by a woman at the gym, consider simply leaving her alone. And, if you must approach her, talk about how much she can lift, rather than her ass. We all deserve more than that.

Now check out these 7 workout supplements that actually work.

  • Photography: Thomas Welch
  • Photography Assistant: Bryan Luna
  • Models: Tyler Carmichael, Arianna Zaidenweber
  • Brands: Outdoor Voices, Nike, Puma
  • Special Thanks: Ace Hotel
Words by Fern Seto