Women’s only workout classes and women’s only gyms are not a new phenomenon. They cater to a section of the population that are not comfortable exercising in a mixed group. But are women’s only workout classes sexist? The introduction of “CrossFit Pink,” a women’s only CrossFit class by the Sydney-based gym, CrossFit Black set up an interesting debate.
In “Women and the hardcore CrossFit culture,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported on CrossFit Black’s new women’s only class that the reporter, Sarah Berry, found to be more “doable” compared to what she called, the “normal” classes. She reported that the classes had “more of a softly, softly approach. And it certainly isn’t intimidating. It’s actually fun,” adding, “As well as this, the exercises, while hard, seem more achievable and at no point am I concerned I’m going to ‘puke’.”
Between calling the class “CrossFit Pink” to considering it more manageable and “less intimidating” than “normal” classes, could this entire episode possibly be more sexist?
“This acts as a way for women to be put in a separate category. Weaker, smaller, less capable,” says Vicki Smart, CrossFitter and Yoga teacher at Preshana Yoga, “Saying women are more comfortable here is like saying that women don’t like being around men, are intimidated by people who can do things to a higher capacity and if that doesn’t come from ego in some way then I don’t know what does.”
“I agree it does sound sexist, however many women who are overweight feel very self-conscious and vulnerable when they’re exercising in a mixed group,” says Kate Swann, Psychologist and Director of PS Counselling and co-author of Do You Really Want to Lose Weight, “overweight and unfit men feel exactly the same way about exercising around women.”
Given that self-confidence is at the core of the debate, it’s not surprising that Vicki believes that the fault lies solely with the business owner for using gender-based insecurity as a marketing tool. “I understand businesses trying to secure new people and I totally get innovation, but can we really call pandering to stereotypes and patronising, innovating? What about building people up and encouraging them to strive for their best regardless of what gender they are?”
On the other hand, Daniel Cook, Director and Head Coach at CrossFit Black, doesn’t consider this an issue at all. “I don’t believe CrossFitters will consider it sexist,” he says adding that the programming of CrossFit Pink, the womens-only CrossFit class, is identical to the other, mixed group classes through the day.
He dismissed Sarah Berry calling the classes more “doable” compared to “normal” classes as her “choice” and that CrossFit Black does not “tone down or program the Pink classes differently.” For him, the idea of CrossFit Pink is simply, ”Offering a women’s only class is focused on bringing CrossFit to women in a setting they’re comfortable,” he says.
And therein lies the irony. Can one acknowledge the concept of “a setting they’re comfortable” in without calling it a sexist concept? A study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in the UK found that 26% of women did not like the way they look when they exercised. The study also showed that women found women with athletic, muscular bodies, associated with sport undesirable and it would be “inappropriate of them to develop one, as it appears masculine.” That 21% of men agreed that ”being sporty is not feminine” should come as no surprise. How then is taking advantage of this insecurity not opportunistic?
Unfortunately, as Kate Swann puts it, sexism will take a step back because “for some women, it will genuinely be fear around being negatively evaluated by men, and rejected due to their body shape.”
Case in point, Natalia Hawk, writer at women’s portal MamaMia, who believes that women would obviously hate the way they look when they exercise because “exercise involves unattractive facial expressions, messy hair, red faces, unflattering clothes and body odour.” For her, women’s only classes are important because of the way men behave in gyms…
It’s what happens when you’d like to use the weights section of the gym, but it’s entirely populated by a large number of burly men, all of whom are lifting giant dumbbells and saying things like “I’m two sets down, man”. And the weights you use are absolutely tiny compared to theirs. And you’re not really sure how to use the assisted leg-up machine. And you don’t want to get laughed at, so you just stick to the treadmill.
As Vicki puts it, “fitness has no business getting into this, it’s there to make people stronger, fitter, healthier and happier. On an everyday basis gender imbalance and inequality are battled against in the workplace, education, social media, I really hate to see the CrossFit box just be another scene for the fight.”
But in the end, it’s a question of priorities. “If it comes down to a choice between not exercising at all because it’s just too hard to be around men, or exercising in a women’s only group, I’d encourage my overweight clients to do the latter,” says Kate Swann, “Hopefully, as they build up some confidence around their body and fitness, they’ll be able to venture forth in mixed groups.”