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It’s the year 1966. You browse through the Boca Raton daily newspaper, a local news publisher in Florida, and you chance upon a monochrome advertisement from “Elaine Powers”. Posing unapologetically is a slender—arguably to the point of emaciation—and prepossessing model, along with statistics of dress size reductions and “special offers” plastered all over; the headlines innocuously reads: “You can be your new dress size for the holidays”.
Elaine Powers was one of the first few women-only gyms established globally, and it was an indefinite hit. Thousands of women would throng their facility, anticipating to achieve the highly-coveted, slim physique. Utilising a body-centric approach to market their programmes, this rudimentary formula was credited as an enormous success.
However, in our current social climate that strongly advocates body-positivity and has zero tolerance for discriminating body types, this marketing strategy would be castigated.
That said, women-only gyms are not a novel concept.
Types of Women-only gyms
Essentially, women-only fitness facilities are seen as a safe space for women to exercise and build a cohesive community. It is salient, though, to note that in Singapore, different types of women-only gyms exist.
“I have been to a few local female-only gyms. Many of them had their specific target markets, so each space had its unique traits. For instance, one of the gyms offered only group classes, while another offered solely personal training,” Sharlynn Ooi, an NCFS (National Council on Strength and Fitness) certified personal trainer, observed.
There are women-exclusive fitness centres that house conventional gym facilities such as Amore Fitness and those that provide specialised classes or training such as Van Lee Fitness, accredited as the first all-female Muay Thai gym in Singapore.
A change of pace from mixed gyms
Ivy Ng, a pre-post natal & personal trainer at personal gym boutique, Meta, shares her experience working at a women-only gym.“It’s a really friendly, genuine and safe environment for all the females. They are free to do what they want in the gym without worrying who might stare or look at them when exercising. There is also this culture of women supporting and empowering one another.”
While it generally lends a sense of hospitality and warmth, the environment gravitates towards a less vigorous and more laid-back atmosphere than a conventional mixed gym.
“Admittedly, it’s a very nice and hospitable environment, but it’s not my scene as it’s too mild for my liking, especially since I train competitively,” Emily*, a 3-year jiu-jitsu athlete, adds.
Rachel Lee, an NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certified personal trainer, shared, from her experience at a women-only gym, that “there was a lot more focus on group classes and personal training, as opposed to a conventional gym that allows you to train independently.”
With its most prominent feature being a female-exclusive environment, many issues that a female may encounter in a conventional mixed gym, such as feeling body-conscious, are cushioned or even diminished.
“One of the most common reasons women are hesitant to begin strength training at a mixed gym is because they feel intimidated by men, especially at the weights area. So, having a women-only gym would be a great alternative for them to build confidence,” Rachel posits. Even in a mixed gym facility, Sharlynn observed that “a huge majority of (her) female clients preferred female personal trainers to male ones because they would feel more at ease with them”.
Safiya Tyebally, a personal trainer of 7 years, aptly highlights that many women tend to feel more self-conscious when training around guys because they may not be as familiar with the environment or equipment. They also fear that they may look silly.
Apart from experiencing feelings of self-consciousness in a mixed gym, other social problems also tend to be more prevalent than in an all-female gym.
“Sometimes, men tend to hog the machines as they’re not as self-aware about sharing. It can then be really intimidating for a woman to approach them and ask if they are willing to share. I have also experienced some episodes of ‘mansplaining’ while I was lifting,” Safiya recalled. “There was once I was doing a lateral pull-down, and a random guy started giving me feedback on how I could do it better. Though I understand that he meant to be constructive, I still found it quite annoying.”
The downfall of “smaller and lighter”
Upon stepping into a women-only gym, one would imagine entering an establishment similar to a traditional gym. However, one may also notice that some things appear, well, a little smaller and lighter.
Emily was intrigued by the idea of a women-only gym, so she decided to attend a free trial at the nearest outlet to her house.
“The weights were significantly lighter compared to that of those in conventional mixed gyms. A standard bar at the gym is 20kg, but their bar was only 10kg, so I was quite shocked when I lifted it,” Emily recounted her first—and last—experience in a women-only gym. “It generally seemed more targeted towards middle-aged ladies,” she remarked.
Ivy, on the other hand, noticed a “huge difference between unisex and female-only gyms”, elaborating that “the all-female gyms usually only provide ‘baby’ weights, placing more emphasis on bodyweight training.”
The clarion issue is that these gyms hinder women from venturing into other avenues of fitness, especially when it comes to tackling heavy lifting.
Apropos to personal experience, Rachel shares that these gyms have adopted a paradigm of fitness for women, which can feel backwards, “placing more emphasis on weight loss, and less so on strength and performance.”
While it is laudable that these women-only gyms have created a safe sanctuary for novices to exercise, these women-only gyms still pander towards the stereotype that women should lift light—or not even lift at all.
“Recently, there’s been a lot more females getting into weight training, so it’s nice to see that,” Sharlynn said.
The influx of women stepping up to the weight racks reveals a seismic shift in the fitness industry—from females eschewing heavy weights due to a litany of reasons to confidently incorporating them into their weekly gym routines.
This growing demographic of females lifting consequently leads to women-only gyms neglecting a significant group of females who may wish to train more vigorously. These gyms suffer from a lack of broad inclusivity in what was meant to be a safe gym haven for any female to work out in.
“It’s not viable for me to return to a women-only gym. Thankfully, I’m comfortable training at a conventional unisex gym. These women-only gyms also don’t provide the heavier free weights essential for my training.” Rachel remarks. Ivy echoes the same sentiment, mentioning that she is unlikely to revisit it “due to the limited weight range”.
A commodity for all women?
An adult’s standard women-only gym membership fee comes up to around S$130 per month, while a monthly student membership starts from S$94.
Kelyn Lau, a freelance personal trainer, shares that she finds the fees costly, even for students, relative to the international gym franchise Anytime Fitness, which costs less than $100 a month for both adults and students. Unlike women-only gyms, Anytime Fitness also offers 24-hour access.
“It’s quite expensive given that they don’t provide a wide range of equipment. Moreover, the space is relatively smaller than the other mixed gyms I visit,” Emily weighs in.
Though a price increase can be validated to an extent due to it being “niche”, Hui En*, a 21-year old running enthusiast who also runs a fitness blog, comments, “The difference shouldn’t be so glaring. I understand that women-only gyms might be priced higher due to the operating costs and staffing needs. Still, the additional feeling of safety also shouldn’t be exclusive to only those who can afford it.”
In tandem with the limited number of women-only gyms in Singapore, the premium price tagged to them serves as another hindrance in a woman’s fitness journey—especially if they are already resistant to entering a mixed gym facility.
Kelyn further posits that it becomes more financially inaccessible to women who wish for a female-only gym environment, especially those with lower incomes.
Still a step forward?
At the skin of the argument, women-only gyms are established to help ladies seek a female empowered community. By creating this explicit segregation between men and women gym go-ers, the solution comes off as non-confrontational. Thus this effort to create a safe environment for women could be perceived as failing to address the root of the issue directly; the reservations females tend to have towards exercising in a mixed gym.
Evy, co-founder of OMNI Strength and Performance—a gym that provides personal training—speaks on the internalised issues that women harbour around the stereotypical gym culture.
“They are generally more self-conscious, and there is the stigma of gyms being a ‘rough and tough’ space. Thus, having such gyms can hopefully encourage more women, especially beginners, to pursue active lifestyles while also fostering a strong female community.”
Changing peoples’ mindsets on certain stereotypes is a very rocky terrain to navigate, especially when they have become so deeply entrenched. Thus addressing the basis of the issue—which is women feeling resistant towards entering a mixed gym facility—is not the most judicious way to go about it.
Essentially, women-only gyms serve as a springboard for women who fear the daunting atmosphere of conventional gyms but are also interested in getting into the field of exercise.
“There will always be a certain gap to bridge in welcoming females who are novices in exercise, so women-only gyms aid in supporting their initial fitness journey,” Evy added. Rachel similarly asserted that a women-only gym is an excellent alternative for females to build confidence before moving to a conventional gym.
“As body image is also quite a sensitive topic among females, joining a women-only gym allows them to feel more comfortable in their own skin without feeling judged by the other gym-goers,” Hui En says.
The Be-All-End-All for Women-only Gyms
Moulding the idyllic all-female gym does not come from watering down the facilities to cater to stereotypes of a female’s physical grit. “It should bear the likes of a conventional gym,” Kelyn mentions.
In a similar vein, Rachel shares that “it should house the same equipment found in a conventional gym while encouraging independent strength training, as well as providing coaching for beginners.”
Regardless of how noble the idea of women-only gyms sounds, indubitably, there will be its boons and banes, but that does not mean the flaws should live in the shadows of its upsides.
“Ultimately, it should be a place where any woman would feel safe working out in,” Hui En says.
In taking that pivotal step of creating an exclusive space for women to congregate and exercise without feeling judged or inferior, it has laid the foundation for a powerful and nurturing female gym community.
However, in our volatile society where politics and social norms are constantly evolving—as illustrated in the ultimate demise of pioneering women-only gym Elaine Powers—it shows that even the best or in-vogue things should always remain a work in progress to stay afloat.