Gaining Accessibility: Weight Room Causes Anxiety for Many

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

Anyone who has met me knows I’m all about feminism and dismantling the gender binary. Also, anyone who has met me knows I really, really hate working out. My hatred of the gym probably stems from years of dancing, playing soccer and running varsity track — activities that are generally relegated to the grassy outdoors or a bright mirrored studio.

I never felt comfortable in the gym spaces in my high school — the weight room was dark, humid and loud. There were a lot of bodily fluids coating every surface (hopefully only sweat). There were a lot of bulging muscles and men attached to those muscles, and with those men came their toxic masculinity. I felt weak and small and judged if I wandered into the weight room; I would either choose a wimpy 10 lb. dumbell, or if I was feeling ambitious, something heavier that I could inevitably only complete two or three reps with, and probably a few of the varsity boys would scoff at my attempt.

At Oberlin, I was freed from both intense varsity training schedules and the standard that I needed to work out to be cool. Here, there’s an environment of apathy, even mild revulsion, when someone mentions that they work out. It’s why jocks are often marginalized on campus — the hipster elite would much rather smoke on the Mudd ramp than jog a quarter of a mile to class in King.

But that doesn’t mean that a comfortable and non-judgemental workout space is not necessary on this campus. For many women and trans students, Philips gym is a source of anxiety because of its atmosphere of judgement and privileging of masculinity.

I didn’t frequent Philips until my friends and I began attending women and trans only hours at the rock climbing wall, where I found a welcoming, non-competitive environment to scale the boulder wall and learned how to belay my friends. Despite the joy I felt when I stepped into my harness at the wall, the rest of Philips, especially the weight room, felt daunting in comparison.

Whether I was running on the treadmill or using the free weights, I either felt pathetically weak or non-consensually sexualized, especially if I wore shorts or yoga pants. Sometimes those feelings of humiliation compounded — not only did I feel weak, but I felt ashamed of my body even as others were sexualizing it, criticizing my weight gain since leaving competitive sports. It’s all a part of the cycle of body-shaming that misogyny plays right into — that women or people assigned female at birth are only valuable for their bodies, but that their bodies need to be the right type of body. That was a large part of why I felt ashamed in toxic and misogynistic workout spaces.

So I was very pleased to learn that the Student Health Working Group, along with feminist and trans student groups on campus, were looking to expand the safe space to the weight room. But the safe space hours, slated to begin this past Sunday, Feb. 14, were cancelled due to “logistical concerns.”

On the Oberlin 2018 Facebook page, comments abounded about the new policy. The first was, “Petition to fire and provide a year’s supply of protein to whoever decided to close the weight room at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.” Initially, some of the commenters seemed unsure about the reasoning behind closing the gym — once informed that this would be a safe space for woman and trans people they backed down. Other students took offense at what was supposedly gender discrimination. Someone commented, “Are you kidding? So they are segregating the weight room by sex?” and another student seconded that opinion: “I would prefer not to be thrown out of the gym for having a penis.” What should have been an important conversation about making women and trans people comfortable in the gym morphed into non-constructive conversation about not having access to everywhere all the time.

So I think you can see why I would love a women-and-trans-only weight room, even if for one hour. I could lift in peace without having to worry about cisgender men judging my form and physique, sexualizing my body or making comments on my trans friends’ gender non-conformity.

However, I would love it even more if that safe-space hour was trans-specific or femme-specific. While cis men circulate the majority of discourse and judgment around the weakness or inferiority of women and trans bodies, cis women and masculine-of-center people aren’t exempt from perpetuating that same body policing and objectifying that cis men are vilified for.

In a Facebook post last Tuesday, Feb. 9, Dominique Pearson explained their annoyance with the new policy. I share similar views. “Women and trans folks are not the same. Trans folks and trans folks are not even the same. Stop sticking us in a room with cis women like that group of people does not also perpetuate violence and erasure against trans bodies, or like trans men can’t participate in the same misogyny that makes women uncomfortable and unsafe,” they wrote.

In most circumstances, I believe that fighting gender oppression requires solidarity from all marginalized groups — cis women, trans men and women and nonbinary people — to be most effective. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to constantly be lumped together as one monolithic group. We don’t all experience the same oppression — the newly passed South Dakota bathroom ban against transgender students is an excellent example. The College already has women-and-trans-only housing (Baldwin Cottage, Old B housing co-op); the rugby team; and now the gym. But there’s hardly any official trans only space on campus.

Cis women and trans people don’t need to enter every space hand in hand, despite the whole “divided we fall, united we stand” saying. Fighting gender oppression means also acknowledging the very real ways that privilege and oppression play out in marginalized spaces — how gender non-conformance, femininity, race and ability add complex layers to oppression.

For now, I’m happy with the women and trans gym hour, providing that it’s officially instated soon. For the future, I look forward to a transor femme-specific safe gym space — and dare I think, light years into the future, that the weight room will be free of transphobia, sexism and excess amounts of sweat.