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.)