Women have always been very vigilant about unwanted male attention in the gym. But before smartphones, the sensation of being stared at was more of a feeling than a certainty.
Catching perceived perpetrators at work has now become a sport of its own on TikTok, with women secretly leaving their phones taped and then watching the resulting video to see who was staring back at them while they were doing sit-ups.
On the app, the ruthless “gym weird” hashtag has more than 1.9 million views, with videos showing men trying to flirt or pick on women they just want to cross their groups undisturbed.
Jenna Love is one of the TikTok detectives. You go to the gym at least four times a week, because the endorphin boost that comes from a good deadlift fights against the stresses of everyday life.
Watch this creep come into my personal bubbles while I do it [Romanian deadlifts]Love wrote in the caption She ran into her post on TikTok, which has been liked more than 50,000 times. “The gym was practically empty, there were so many corners to be in and he picked this one.” In the clip, the man is standing right behind Love as she lifts dumbbells before she decides to leave.
“I would say I get a crawl about 15% of the time I exercise,” Love, 29, who lives in Atlanta, told the Guardian. This is usually shown as a man staring at her for an “uncomfortably long” time. “It’s like they’re trying to undress you in their heads,” Love said.
Some would say that inappropriate looks or intimidating comments are as much a feature of a women’s gym as broken exercise equipment or crowds. One study From 2021 it was found that 76% of women feel uncomfortable exercising in public due to harassment. in another place survey From Run Repeat, 56% of women reported being harassed during their workouts.
Love leaves the gym sometimes when staring is just too much. “It makes me feel disgusted and anxious, and my survival instinct kicks in,” she said. “I usually do a short workout because I can’t get back to feeling comfortable with this person around me.” Love swaps stories with friends: Someone told her recently that a guy tried to secretly tape her while working out.
Comments on her videos, and other posts by women who’ve had similar experiences, elicit mixed reactions. Some commentators agree that gyms seem like predatory spaces. But others dismiss the women’s complaints as an overreaction.
“It’s not your personal space,” one person wrote in response to the love clip. “WTF bubble figure at a public gym?” another asked.
Joey Swoll is a male trainer and TikToker who calls himself the “CEO of Gym Positivity.” He frequently reposts these videos commenting on gym etiquette, either to vindicate his so-called “creepiness” or validate a woman’s confused feelings to his 6 million Tiktok followers.
Last month, an influencer named Jessica Fernandez posted a video from her gym that shows a man glancing at her while she works out. “I hate this, I hate when there are weirdos around,” she said, sighing in the clip. “Brutal, savage, savage, like a damned savage.” The man then asked her if she needed help with weight, and she refused.
Swoll responded to her video, saying, “Women get harassed in gyms and it needs to stop, but you’re not one of them. An act of kindness or a look doesn’t make you a victim.” The video was liked more than 812,000 times. Fernandez eventually apologized for her post. Sowell and Fernandez did not respond to requests for comment.
Why don’t men mind their own business in the gym? Gyms have long been gendered spaces, said Natalia Mehelman Petrzella, historian and author of the new book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. Historically, separate gyms for men and women existed, or health clubs hosted intentional “ladies’ days”.
“When I hear about men gouging or beating women in the gym, I’m often reminded of how for decades exercising women was a kind of erotic spectacle,” Petrzella said.
In June of 1972, for example, New York held its first mini-marathon, televised and hosted by sock brand L’eggs. Playboy Bunnies surrounded the starting line for the race. “It’s clear from the footage that some of the male spectators were there to voice their opinions, rather than encourage them, on the athletes,” Petrzela said. Even as second feminism in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged women to sign up for exercise classes en masse, late-night hosts constantly joked about watching spandex-clad characters like Debbie Drake or Jane Fonda gear on TV for something else. Change the exercise.
In the 1980s, after co-ed gyms became the norm, columnists wrote articles about how gyms were the “new single bars,” a concept that led to support for 1985 romantic comedy Perfect, starring John Travolta as a reporter who falls in love with an ever-sweating health coach, played by Jamie Lee Curtis.
The majority of gyms today are co-ed, and the idea of returning to women-only workout spaces remains controversial. Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that these areas violate a state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Certain sections of the gym, though, tend to be informally segregated.
“Women are over-represented in the studios and on the cardio machines while men disproportionately flock to the weight floor,” Petrzella said. “But the surge in the popularity of female weightlifting, and therefore a greater presence in a part of the gym that has traditionally been more male, means that there are probably more instances of unwanted advances.”
This means that women like Love, who find so much joy in working out, have to negotiate with their own sense of security any time they want to head to the gym. “This behavior of men encourages me to work out as soon as possible, usually when the gym opens,” she said. “I tend to go with a boyfriend because creeps are more shy when there are two girls together. I try to keep my clothes disguised: a big hoodie and a hat. It’s sad that girls don’t feel comfortable wearing whatever they like to work out without getting harassed.”