FEATURE: A weight lifted

Women-only hours at the RAC are increasing participation rates and giving women a space where they are more comfortable working out, especially in the weight room.


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It’s 10 a.m. and Alex Murdoch is at the gym, her hair up in a messy bun and headphones in her ears, listening to her workout playlist. Her hands grasp the handles on the lying leg curl machine, her body parallel to the floor as she extends her legs out and in. Murdoch started going to the gym at the beginning of winter semester, after her roommate told her about the women-only hours at Ryerson University’s Recreation and Athletic Centre (RAC). Since then, she’s been here almost everyday, always at the scheduled times when the weight room and the track are closed off to men.

“I’m more comfortable just in women-only hours,” she says.

Murdoch has never been to the gym during regular hours at Ryerson, but she’s been to other gyms in the past where the weight room is predominantly filled with men with only a few women working out. Murdoch says she feels more judged with guys around since they usually seem to be “more hardcore” when working out, and she thinks other girls probably feel the same way.

Women-only hours began at the RAC last fall on a trial basis after the issue was raised by the Ryerson Students’ Union. “It came out of the Centre for Women and Trans People, the Muslims Student Association and students just all around campus,” says Pascale Diverlus, the vice-president of equity for the RSU. “People who had experienced sexual assault and didn’t want to be in a male-dominated environment.” She said in a later email that female students had raised concerns over having to pay fees to both the Mattamy Athletic Centre and the RAC, and not being able to access either of them because for religious reasons they cannot exercise in front of men. After meeting with Ryerson Athletics, the RSU decided the RAC would be the best space to have the program.

The women-only hours were continued by the RAC after being so popular in the fall semester. But the program at Ryerson creates much more than a time slot for women to work out. Women-only hours at the RAC are increasing participation rates and giving girls, like Murdoch, a space where they are more comfortable working out, especially in the weight room.

During women-only hours, the track and the weight room are off-limits to men. To ensure privacy, blinds are pulled down over the windows surrounding the track and the door to the weight room, which is normally propped open, is shut with a staff member on duty to make sure men don’t go in. Although the track is unsupervised, a paper is stuck to the door as a reminder and a large metal sign detailing women-only hours stands to the right of the doorway to the track. Women-only hours run for an hour and a half from Monday to Friday, alternating between mornings and afternoons.

Although concerns were raised for religious accommodation, some girls who wear hijabs say that it’s more an issue of comfort rather than the fact that they can’t exercise in front of men. During women-only hours, they can take off their headscarves while exercising, while during co-ed hours they have to keep them on.

When women-only hours first started, there weren’t many girls coming in, but the numbers have increased significantly. Melissa Langis, a RAC staff member who is normally on duty during women-only hours, says that at times there are upwards of 40 to 50 women who come to use the gym during the scheduled times. The staff members keep track of the number of women coming and going using a clicker.

Ryerson isn’t the first university to implement women-only hours. Other universities across the GTA, such as York University and the University of Toronto also offer them. At University of Toronto St. George campus, the women-only hours have been in place since the 1990’s, are popular, and have led to an increase in the participation rate of women.

“When women are provided women-only environments, they tend to participate at a greater rate,” says Michelle Dionne, an associate professor of psychology at Ryerson. She is currently doing research about sociocultural barriers that affect female participation in sports and exercise, with a focus on the role self-objectification plays.

During regular gym hours, Langis describes the RAC as being more of a male-dominated environment, where she rarely sees a lot of females. “I see a lot of girls that used to go in the morning at the MAC that come here instead because it’s just as empty, and it’s only women,” she says.

Today, there are around 10 girls scattered around the weight room. Murdoch’s roommate, Laura Burrett, is seated at a machine nearby doing leg extensions. The two girls normally work out together Monday to Wednesday, and Burrett also comes on the weekends. The only difference is, on the weekends she uses the cardio room on the floor above instead of the weight room.

“On the weekends, guys can still be in here, so I’m not really comfortable,” she says.

Burrett has been to the weight room during normal gym hours before, but it made her feel judged and inadequate compared to the guys around her, who were lifting much heavier weights. In particular, she mentions guys looking at her while she was doing squats.

“I felt like they were judging my form or they were just, like, looking because I was a girl doing squats. But that was uncomfortable, so I stopped going to the MAC,” she says.

Dionne states that social (not body) physique anxiety, which is worrying about how your body looks like or functions, when you are around others can be increased in mixed-sex environments. “When women are exercising with other women, their social physique anxiety tends to be not as high as it is when they are exercising in mixed-sex groups,” she says.

Although Joanna Tsui feels no discomfort working out in front of men, she is used to thinking about the perspective of others as a social work student. Tsui tries to workout twice a week when she has classes downtown and sometimes goes to women-only hours. Tsui says she doesn’t know whether the hours are serving its purpose of creating a place where women can work out without being seen by men. “There’s still guys in the hallway, and kind of everywhere still,” she says. Tsui also points out that those running on the track can be seen by the people using the rooms running below it, as the track runs above part of the weight room and two other fitness courts.

As a regular gym-goer, Keith Wan doesn’t normally see a lot of women in the weight room, and thinks it’s a good idea to continue women-only hours. “I think it’s totally fair because I do have some lady friends who display interest in working out,” he says. However, Wan mentions the minority of women as a deterring factor to his female friends who are interested in working out. “There’s so few women in the gym it’s, like, they kind of become the centre of attention,” he says.

The times for women-only hours don’t bother Wan, but there are always men waiting outside as the time for women-only hours draws to a close. He says that it depends on the time of the day as to how many men will be waiting, and points to the afternoon times as being busier. Some people at the gym are unaware of the scheduled hours. Langis says that they still get men who will run on the track during women-only hours despite the signs posted everywhere.

“We basically just go up there, stop them, and ask them to leave, and just wait until they walk out. Because sometimes you’ll leave, and then they’ll just keep running or keep lifting or something, so it gets to the point where you actually have to sit there and wait for them to leave to make sure they do,” says Langis.

She thinks the women-only hours will continue as long as the popularity keeps up. “The longer it runs, I find, the more people come because the more people know about it,” Langis says.

This may lead to more than just increased participation rates for the women attending the hours. Dionne says that women on average report more body dissatisfaction then men. However, when they start exercising, generally their body satisfaction increases rapidly.

“You don’t even need to experience weight loss in order to see those enhancements in body image,” says Dionne. She points to sociocultural factors for being the main reason that lots of women feel like they are not competent or capable of playing sports.

“Women have been taught their entire lives through various means that they’re not strong enough, that sports, particularly sports requiring muscularity, are not appropriate for women,” says Dionne. She thinks that both men and women overestimate gender differences in strength and sports skills between sexes, and that women-only hours is a step towards equality because it proves to women that they can be strong and competent at sports.

“If we can do small things to accommodate women’s needs, and to increase participation rates then, then I think we should do them,” says Dionne.

As the door opens and men start walking in, girls start leaving, including one who puts her hijab back on before exiting the gym. Burrett waits for Murdoch to finish stretching. Murdoch says that the reason why she started going to the gym was because she didn’t really like her body, and she wanted to get fit. She hasn’t had any extra confidence yet, but says she believes that she soon will. “I haven’t really been working out that long,” she says. A few minutes later, the two girls walk out the door together, their workout done for the day.


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