Discover more from the pillow book
gym rats and gender maps
I saw a law student I know, C. An affable white Harvard grad, ex-high school football player with practiced insouciance, friendliness that betrays seemingly no need. As in, he’ll call your name out like it’s an expression of power, he doesn’t really require you to turn around. We had locked our bicycles in the same spot on campus, his an electric behemoth.
You know, I’ve been seeing R. at the gym, he said.
Maybe I’ll see you next time, I said. I tag along sometimes too.
C. asked me what I was benching and in lieu of answering, both because I forgot and was embarrassed, knowing it wouldn’t be anywhere close to his. I searched for some way to defend my seriousness, although if every weight training bench and squat rack and barbell in the country disappeared overnight I would probably feel no great loss to my life, and maybe some improvement, because how might all of us who strain our muscles in the vast warehouse of pretend-work contribute to human flourishing if we lifted real shit, outside, maybe?
I chose not to be this neurotic aloud. I said, I’m using some Excel sheet that goes up each week.
Oh shit, what kind of program does R. have you on?
I never said that the sheet came from the man in my life, but C. had assumed this, and I biked home thinking about the gym as a gendered space. Philosopher Katharine Jenkins writes in “Toward an Account of Gender Identity” of thinking about social space in terms of maps (metaphor borrowed from theorist William E. Cross and philosopher Sally Haslanger):
“The idea conveyed by this metaphor is that a person typically has an internalised sense of the norms operating in social spaces that they regularly navigate [...] To take a very basic example, suppose that a woman, a man, and a non-binary person all work in the same building, and each is given a map of that building and asked to annotate it in ways that indicate how they experience different spaces. The woman’s map might have the female toilets marked as a space where she is able to go [...] This example concerns explicitly gendered spaces, but we can extend it to apply to spaces that are not explicitly gendered. Suppose that the workplace is a hostile environment for women—specifically, in meetings, women are regularly talked over, ignored, or belittled. In this case, the meeting room might be marked as ‘somewhere I am not supposed to speak much’ on a woman’s map, but not on a man’s map. Or think of the way that a woman might experience certain streets as ‘no-go’ areas during certain times of day, whereas a man might feel fine walking in those streets regardless of the time of day.
[...] Responses to interactions with norms can produce bodily responses. For example, entering a space that is designated on your ‘map’ as a ‘no-go’ area for people like you might result in feelings of bodily awkwardness, tension, and even the physiological responses associated with fear.”
C’s innocent remark, What kind of program does R. have you on?, was a reminder of my gender, a statement that put me in my place. It unfurled the map, pointed to the gym, and said, You need a man to go here, don’t you?
Hearing our conversation in my head again, I spot how I betrayed myself: tag along, I’d said.
It’s almost always felt that way. The first time I really “gymmed” was in junior year of high school. I joined the wrestling team and we had pre-season conditioning. With the other members of the team — more than three dozen boys and about five girls — I trudged compliantly into a room with strange machines that reminded me of medieval torture devices. Someone had to explain everything to me. Only the leg press was easy: I could lie on my back and push immense amounts of weight upward with my legs, and the sensation of doing work like this, feeling good at it, was rewarding in a way nothing else was. In wrestling practice we had to do a pullup if we wanted to be excused to use the restroom. I couldn’t do a pullup; I couldn’t actually reach the bar. I told this to Coach M, and he gestured for me to jump onto his shoulders. I did my first pullup hoisted up in the air in this nostalgically paternal fashion.
The gym in college was giant and anarchic. I went with a friend at 7 AM and, to my extreme mortification, did leg lifts and hip bridges in the direct eyeline of the gray-haired South Asian Studies professor who taught me about the Ramayana and Mahabharata. With what felt like the whole sorority population of Berkeley I did jumping jacks and burpees in frenetic succession during group classes. I mostly saw women in the classes and a handful of gay men. In the weight room the dynamics were flipped. I tried to lift sometimes. The collars that went on the bars to keep weights in place were stored on hooks at the top of the squat racks. These hooks were higher than my arm’s reach when fully extended upwards. So I had to jump for the collars, and sometimes I missed, per Murphy’s Law always while some yoked 18-year-old in a tattered frat tank smirked at me.
In Berkeley my then-partner and his brother taught me how to play squash. While the two of them played I sometimes found an open court in the basement and worked on my serve. Sometimes the light, which was on a timer, turned off. Someone would have to run outside to turn it back on, their only illumination watery and filtering through under a door or the red EXIT sign above the stairs. Time ran hallucinatory in the squash basement — ticking past in measures like someone asking from the balcony if a court would be open soon, or that light turning off, or my two teachers saying it was time to go. I can still see the way those walls looked, all marked up by the ball, a bunch of black crescent moons. Sometimes when the other courts were in use I sat just outside the court and listened to the boys play while I read. Except for one time, when I played against the friendly older Israeli man who frequented the squash courts, I only played the two boys, because I was embarrassed about how bad I was and didn’t feel like I could ask anyone else to bother playing with me, when I wouldn’t be much of an opponent. Sorry, I said again and again, playing the Israeli.
When I go to the gym with other people I feel a temporary reprieve from the things that make it feel like a hostile space. If they’re taller than me they can reach the things I can’t. If they don’t know how to do things, our mutual ignorance seems charming and prosocial — we can laugh together at the situation we find ourselves in, puzzling at some illustration on a label. If they know things I don’t, they can save me from errors. In the absence of clearly delineated rules and expectations — like how exactly does one properly queue for a bench, and how much time are you allowed to spend there? I’ve seen some dudes tap out dissertations on their phones between sets — the other person is a buffer against judgment. I feel acutely attuned to the possibility of humiliation when I am alone, much less so when I have a friend at my side. What, you’re going to judge both of us? It’s been more than a decade since I first bench pressed and squatted and adjusted the weight on a leg press and yanked at a rowing machine, but I still walk into the gym feeling like it’s a club where I need a sponsor.
For most of my life, most of these sponsors have been men. Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott said in the debate: “She [Mom] taught me that … If God made you a man, you play sports. Against men.”
Sarah Fields’ book Female Gladiators, about the legal battle for women’s equal participation in contact sports in the US, describes sport as the “last bastion of male prerogative.” That checks out in the weight room with all the dudes in their muscle tanks. It’s also infuriating. As the philosopher and critic Becca Rothfeld writes in her Substack it’s inconsistent to say masculinity requires some positive trait X without saying that women should also demonstrate that trait. If you think men should lift, you should think everyone should lift — especially since strength training helps with bone density and staving off osteoporosis.
Philosopher Robin Dembroff has spoken about changing the way we define patriarchy — moving away from the conventional understanding of a dominance feminism framework, in which all women are subordinated to all men, towards the idea that patriarchy is the process of gendering. I’m annoyed at the gym as a site of patriarchy par excellence not because I feel exactly dominated by men but because I feel sorted: shunted towards the cardio in a group class, or doing Russian twists in a corner away from the horror of the mirror. Gender ideology in the gym is ineluctable; whether you wind up on the bench or in barre is not a decision made outside of gender ideology but in reaction to it, right?
There I am, pushing the weight up, wondering if the reason I’m doing this is because of living in a society where girls grow up having to like the things boys do. Because being able to lift some weight makes a man respect another man, and I want to be respected by a man like a man is, the worst thing about me is how much I want to spite expectation, I like telling someone a hobby and seeing them get that expression on their face that screams I didn’t think a little Asian woman did that kind of thing. It can be a hard place to be, making my self-regard contingent on my success at the opposite of stereotype.
C. assumed I wasn’t the guide of my own lifting regimen, that my Excel sheet came from R. Would R. ever have the experience of someone assuming he was following my direction? In this context, I am always already cast as the junior partner, the follower or pupil. It hurts because I’m also not this perfectly individuated, confident gym-goer by myself, so the assumption isn’t as wrong as I would like it to be. As it happens, the sheet did come from R. He found it on the internet, and then he asked if I wanted it and I said sure. Have I ever been in the particular role numerous men I know have found themselves: being more confident about the rules and skill sets of a physical activity the other person seeks to practice?
What does it mean for some people A to have a building they walk into multiple times every week where people see them and think of their presence there as contingent on someone else, B? For B to have this place where they feel they belong? For A to spend a lot of time as visitors in B’s world, but B to spend none in A’s? (What does A’s world even look like if they’re spending so much time in B’s, if they’ve internalized B’s value system — is their world just a sort of pockmarked, more private version of B’s?)
I’m not sure exactly how to get here, but I hope the walls fall down and our maps all become more porous and everyone finds spaces for joy in movement. Not through moving to perform gender, win or maximize or optimize, but because you’re alive! This isn’t the penance you do to deserve food or the investment you have to make to be more valuable on the dating market. Not the means to an end but the point itself. Just watch how hungrily kids do it. Remember Tag and Capture the Flag and a million other excuses for motion we forgot, remember how our fields were limitless?
recently I really loved:
a book of homoerotic, sometimes rhyming, always whimsical poetry called “The Feast of the Ass” by Jahan Khajavi
Moira Donegan’s piece in Bookforum on trauma and what survivors of sexual assault want
header image: Girl with Beach Ball III, Roy Lichtenstein