Thinking About Female Bonding Over Sweat and Jeers and the Etiquette of Exercise

Until last year, I exercised alone. My “routine” was easy: grab my water bottle, headphones and iPod, enter the gym and make as little eye contact as possible. Why smile at a stranger while I was willingly walking towards 60 minutes of torture on the elliptical? It was a great routine, which gave me just enough time to get through a single “This American Life” podcast.

Last fall a fellow mom asked me if I wanted to join her in a weights class. I hesitated, and managed to put the decision on hold for a week or so. As an extrovert, the idea of working out in community seemed like a logical move, but as the sometimes-insecure-woman-who-can’t-believe-she’s-still-struggling-with-moments-of-insecurity I wasn’t sure if walking into a room of women was a good idea because, let’s be honest, women can be a teeny bit catty.

As someone who is genetically predisposed to having a small, petite frame, I’ve found myself in dangerous female territory. I’ve had to explain why I exercise because certainly a thin woman doesn’t need to exercise. Right? Sure, there are plenty of reasons to exercise, but the media wants us to believe the reason to exercise is weight management. (Insert appropriate hate the skinny girl comment.) My polite comeback to the “you don’t need to exercise” comment is this: If we were looking at my 80+ y.o. grandmother and my 60+ y.o. mother (sorry, mom) I would agree with you. I don’t need to lose weight. But if you knew my mother and grandmother you would know that my mom had a heart attack before she turned 60, and both my mother and grandmother are on medication for bone density loss. Yes, I do need to exercise.

Add to that the entire exercise class sub-culture – barbells, hand weights, mats, steps & boards, exercise balls and bands, walls of mirrors and bad lighting combined with early hours and perky instructors all looked like a well-packaged means of torture. 

I was so wrong. It only took a few classes before I was hooked because I had taken a few negative personal experiences and my own prejudices and applied them to something I had never experienced. Muscle Max, Sculpting and Cardio-Mix turned out to be something that can be hard to come by – a fairer playing field where women spanning at least three decades are supportive of each other and their goals whether it’s losing a few inches or pounds, releasing some stress, or just making it through crazy push-ups (you should see this set of push-ups).

I’ve learned about parenting high schoolers and college-aged children. I’ve learned about diabetes. I’ve learned about what aging gracefully can look like. I’ve learned to laugh at myself when the voice inside wants me only to hear “you’re not doing it right” and keep moving even when I can’t figure out the step combo. I’ve learned that most of us can still name 5 things we would change about bodies, but I’ve also learned that in a room full of women we’re quicker than I thought to offer words of genuine encouragement to shed the lies that hurt our souls.

But that’s enough about me and my journey of discovery through sweat and squats. Anyone else out there finding that exercise is teaching you more than you expected? Anyone else learning to face their own prejudices and stereotypes of others through activity? Anyone else want to join me? (Bring some water and some Advil. Trust me.)


  1. Grace September 26, 2009

    Kathy, your such a hoot! 😉 I think I’ve come a long way in the past few years with this. I’ve been trying to focus much more on being healthy with eating right (or better) and with working out & letting my body look however it looks as long as I’m working out and eating healthily. Unlike you, I’m genetically disposed to being a little chunky – like teetering on overweight chunky… so it’s hard to not get motivated to just shed the pounds for beauty sake. All that said, when I’m working out regularly (aside of course from right now being 37 weeks pregnant)… I’m feeling GREAT. As a matter of fact, I can’t wait to get back to a “normal” work-out routine post-baby… not just to shed the baby pounds but to have good energy levels & take my daily dose of “feel-good.” 🙂

  2. Michelle September 26, 2009

    Yet more evidence that we live parallel lives! I joined a Circuit Training class few weeks ago and have been reflecting on so many similar things…

    … like how God must have hard wired us for mentoring. I’m not sure why exercise has been so much more enjoyable and effective when I have a 5 foot 2 inch fiery Latino woman yelling, “Abs In!” and “Good! Now I’ll expect even more out of you!”. Maybe it’s just the teacher-pleaser in me, but I feel loved and affirmed and motivated like never before in the world of exercise.

    … and like how community does seem to put lies into perspective. Our class has the full palatte of people in it: young moms drinking in their one hour of “me-time”, middle age men battling beer-bellies and coordination, an older couple savoring what their bodies can still do, professionals and stay-at-home’s, black, white, and latino (though conspicuously missing are my Asian friends… Kathy, maybe you should join me!). Honestly, it helps me to put aside the lies that exercise is about reaching a “one-standard” kind of beauty. And I feel free to just focus on pushing my body to become stronger and healthier, thankful for the ways God made us each uniquely.

    I know it may sound silly that I’ve been thinking about this stuff in the midst of mats and machines, but I’m enjoying this class so much that when our trainer told me she was “graduating me” soon to the advanced class, I was kind of sad. I like this group of people. They’re my community every Monday Wednesday and Friday. Joe likes to tease me. And Dorothy just had her 76th birthday. Clearly the class is about more than bigger biceps and heart rates.

  3. Jessica September 26, 2009

    Great post Kathy! I remember feeling like this when I went to curves to workout before I got married. I would go in mid-morning because hey, let’s face it, I slept in as a new CSM! I remember feeling annoyed by the older women & young moms who would say similar things to me- “why are you here? You’re young, you don’t need to work out!” It made me feel bad for even coming to work out.
    I can really relate to Michelle’s comment about having a diverse community to work out with. A few years ago I took a pilates class with a friend through our local parks & rec program & it was so cool working out with lots of different types of people even if it was on the cafeteria floor of a local high school! Funny enough, I haven’t liked working out by myself until this past year- as an extrovert I was motivated by the community and accountability to show up for the class! But now, I love having the space to be alone with my thoughts, listen to hip hop on my ipod and admire the changing seasons as I run through wooded neighborhoods.

  4. paisley3 September 26, 2009

    I need more. Your words are a kind nudge…I need more community and exercise…just don’t know how/where I’ll fit it in.


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