I cut my teeth, or my muscles rather, at an all-ladies gym that went by the questionable name of Viji's Slim Centre, named after the lady who ran it. In retrospect, the facilities were terrible: the treadmill went at a single speed (you sprinted or fell off) and coconut oil left behind by long-haired clients usually ended up slicking up the benches. No one thought of greasing the machinery though. The most coveted equipment there was something we called the vibrator (no, I am not kidding), consisting of a pulsating belt you placed around your middle, hoping to emerge with six-pack abs by the end of a 5-minute jiggle session.
But this was Chennai at the end of the 20th century, and we had few other options besides the friendly neighbourhood aunty offering an aerobics or yoga class. Gyms were usually poorly-ventilated dingy rooms containing Mr Chennai aspirants, who heaved rusty weights in front of spotty mirrors, looking uncannily like Johnny Bravo with their overdeveloped upper bodies and chicken legs.
So sure, my ladies gym was far from ideal, but it was the only way I could have worked out.Even if the regular gyms had been better back then, I doubt I'd have managed to muster up the courage to go to one; I would have felt too intimidated. There are other women for whom a women-only gym was the starting point of their fitness journey. Murugeswari Ravi, a Chennai-based entrepreneur, who started working out in a ladies gym in 2014, is one of them. She wanted to drop some weight, so she enrolled in a ladies gym, she says. "That was the only gym close to me, and I was scared to go to other gyms," she says.
I am not surprised, therefore, about the recent spotlight on women-only fitness spaces. Instagram, for instance, has 13,650 posts with the #womensonlygyms, while Shape.com reported recently that the same hashtag has garnered 18 million views on TikTok. A quick look at these Instagram posts indicates the reasons why women choose to go to a women's only fitness space. These include building a community of like-minded women, finding a safe space to workout, avoiding debilitating gym anxiety, or other, cultural, reasons.
Swetha Subbiah, the co-founder of Sisters in Sweat, a community of and for women that focuses exclusively on sport and wellness, says that there is a different energy when women train together. Also, it gives women from conservative families, whose families may have apprehensions about them playing in a mixed group, a chance to play a sport. "I think it is important to create these spaces," Subbiah says, adding that women are less inhibited in an all-female space.
Hamsa Kannan, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, was all of 39 when she discovered Sisters in Sweat; she joined their football community. “I have never played an organised sport before," says Kannan, who says that she would have hesitated to try this in a mixed setting. "This is a safe space," she says. And this is important: whether in gyms and outside them, feeling unsafe is something nearly all women have experienced in their lifetimes. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of more than 80,000 women's daily experiences of gender inequality, wrote in a 2016 article in The Guardian, the need for all-women workout spaces doesn't come from privilege but necessity. "It is a direct result of the male harassment, sexism and sexual violence that has driven a quarter of women to give up exercising outside altogether and countless others to abandon the gym in frustration," she wrote.
The same article also pointed out that the Everyday Sexism Project had received hundreds of testimonies from women, who write about their experiences of sexism, harassment, and assault at the gym. "Many women-only spaces exist for one reason: to avoid male harassment," Bates wrote.
Feeling uncomfortable in a unisex gym was why Aishwarya Lakshmi, a Hyderabad-based actor, switched to a women-only gym. "I wasn't comfortable doing lower body exercises," she says, adding that men in that gym constantly stared at her.
However, this is not to imply that women-only fitness spaces are perfect. After all, as some commentators have pointed out before, it is often a particular thin body type that is sold to women in the garb of fitness. While this is changing—thanks to the internet, mainstreaming of sports like CrossFit and powerlifting and the body positivity movement—the “skinny equals fit” fallacy hasn't completely gone away. And this is often especially pronounced in female-dominated fitness ecosystems. Every all-women gym I've been to, and I've worked out in several, has stressed the following things: lots of cardio, light weights and low reps, 1200 calorie diets and aspirational skinniness.
Bengaluru-based health coach Pooja Zeuch, who started her fitness journey in a women's gym, admits to finding this environment very claustrophobic. "A lot of body shaming happened there, so I changed it later," says Zeuch, who adds that while she did feel uncomfortable in a regular gym at first, she adapted to it. "I don't feel out of place now," she adds, pointing out that far more women are working out now, and people, in general, are more used to it, especially in metro cities. “Everyone is out there running, cycling and gymming,” she says.
Another common problem with women-only gyms appears to be this: in India at least, they're not very well-equipped. Ravi, for instance, admits that she was not particularly happy with the women-only gym: it had less equipment than a regular one and no proper guidance. Lakshmi also faced similar issues, adding that the most crucial part about a fitness experience is a good trainer, something many women’s gyms lack. “We need more women trainers, that would help,” says Zeuch.
While deciding to go to any specific type of gym is an individual choice, having conversations around women's fitness and health will always be a positive thing. As a 2020 paper, published in the Qualitative Research In Sports, Exercise and Health, an international journal, points out. "The gender gap in physical activity is well-documented, with women around the world less likely than men to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations for health."
This perspective is reflected in The Lancet Global Health Journal, which, in 2018, stated that women are less active than men (global average of 31.7% for inactive women vs. 23.4% for inactive men). "Many women are put off by certain physical activities over concerns about stereotypes, because of insecurities around body image, or feeling constrained by cultural acceptability," it says.
For me, Viji's Slim Centre helped start something that continues to this day: understanding that regular exercise is less about what your body looks like and more about how it makes you feel. And for that, I am grateful. However, over the years, I have evolved far beyond pretty pink dumbells and vibrating belts. I am grateful for that, too.