Could kicking some men out of the gym make it better for the rest of us?

I studied a group of amateur and professional bodybuilders a few years ago.  Calling the gym a gendered space is really nothing new.  Most gyms in America move equipment around such that “feminine” and “masculine” machines are not too close.  But the amount of thought that goes into how the gym is organized is more than you might think.

In many gyms, most of the mirrors located outside of the locker room are located in the “masculine” areas of the gym.  During my study, I asked a gym manager about this.  He laughed at me and said, “Women come to the gym ‘cause they don’t like to look at themselves, men come to the gym ‘cause they do.”  This is obviously a gross generalization, and I immediately thought of lots of counter-examples of both men and women.  But the men to which the gym manager was referring are a pretty specific sub-group.

Gold’s Gym brought Venice Beach bodybuilding culture all around the country for Americans to enjoy.  And in most Gold’s, like other large gym chains, you can find the same group of men about whom the manager was talking.  They’re lumpy, lumbering, and when they work out, they’re loud!

Gyms are interesting spaces to study, because they are frequented by people that might not ever meet outside of this setting.  A new gym – Planet Fitness – has an interesting policy aimed at altering the dynamic of commercial workout space in the US.  Planet Fitness’ policy is to not allow lunks to work out at the gym.  They define a lunk as “lunk (lunk) n. [slang] one who grunts, drops weights, or judges.”  Now, you might think, how do they actually police this?  Each Planet Fitness if equipped with a “lunk alarm” that goes off when anyone begins acting like a lunk.  A gym employee approaches the offender, asks them to leave, and they are not allowed back.

There have been a number of complaints from embarrassed lunks who’ve sought to sue the organization for discriminatory practices, but so far, Planet Fitness appears to be on legally solid ground.  The question is, does this actually change the gender of the gym space and allow more people (both men and women) to feel comfortable?  Is it simply a way of structurally endorsing making fun of a population almost everyone loves to tease – so long as they don’t hear us?

Also, at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a company interested in making money.  What, besides memberships, does Planet Fitness get out of this?  At least economically speaking, it’s smart business strategy to kick out the population of gym goers who go to the gym the most frequently and who put the most wear and tear on the equipment.

It’s an interesting issue and certainly merits more attention.  Does this policy de-masculinize the gym?  Do people feel more comfortable at Planet Fitness when they work out?  My guess is that much of the average gym goer’s experience remains unchanged.  I feel judged by a lot of different groups of people when I go to the gym.  But if I’m honest, I think I mostly feel judged by myself… and from my research, I’d say most lunks are no different.

–See my article on the topic here.  Thanks to Kara Bowers for bringing my attention to this gym policy.

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