Sneaky Sexism: the gym pin-up girl is happy to help
Caroline Dormor on her gym confrontation with the pin-up poster of a spandex-clad woman... Are gyms today promoting or preventing self love?
“Too tired to put your weights back? Ask at reception and the girls will be happy to help.”
These words caption a photograph taken from a provocative angle of a young spandex-clad woman loading weights back onto a rack at my local gym. I stare at sign for a while in confusion. I’ve made it out of bed and travelled twenty minutes because I’ve made the decision to keep myself fighting fit, and yet, here I am fighting a very different battle.
Firstly, the image itself is a little confusing. It affirms female strength; here is a woman, keeping fit, working out, lifting weights, but it does not manage to demonstrate this without erotic or sexual implications. This photo echoes the style of a pin-up portrait; another example of an unachievable, photo-shopped and sexualised ideal.
Secondly, let us take the caption itself. You may argue, there’s not much wrong here; the phrase suggests that women are able to lift weights. Except we don’t read women, but ‘girls’. Anyone who has seen the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign from Always will be aware of the stigma we still attach to the word ‘girl’, and in this sentence it is still being used as a diminutive, not simply as a subject pronoun. The caption tries to strike at humour, but only connects with condescension; if you’re so weak you can’t put your weights back, get a girl to do it for you. ‘Girl’ acts as a qualifier for the subject’s weakness.
Furthermore, this ‘joke’ relies and plays upon gendered stereotypes – it only works if a man reads the sign. As a woman reading the sign, it makes very little sense, so despite the picture of a woman lifting weights, this suggests to me that I’m in the wrong place. I’m not the right audience for this sign; so should I be hanging out around the squat rack?
I look around a little more and notice the signs for liposuction, skin treatment, and sunbeds. These adverts all advocate technology and advanced treatment in order to maintain a healthy weight and look, and yet the walls of the gym are plastered with motivational posters; “Do today what others don’t and tomorrow you’ll achieve what others won’t." Am I to go under the knife and have any fat passively sucked off my body? Or is the power in my hands to actively pursue and achieve my own fitness goals?
On the television screens pop stars dance or roll around in lingerie. This is the body-image and behaviour that is constantly placed before us. Exercise is something empowering; encouraging self-confidence, determination and teamwork, but none of those values seem to be reflected on the screens, posters and walls around me, or in the blank faces of fellow gym users, plugged in or tuned out.
For many men and women, going to the gym is a difficult process. It is a battle with self-esteem and self-confidence to get two feet through the door. Perhaps, this conflict might be half won by removing the confusing images, adverts, videos and signs from these places. Indeed, a gym itself has become a very strange place; a group of people running, sweating and flexing in silence and avoiding all eye contact, surrounded by propaganda and distorted images. So politely point out any signs and images you take issue with to staff, say hello to the person next to you, smile and introduce yourself. If we begin to break down these barriers and make exercise an affirmation of self-love, I believe we can look forward to the day when ‘she runs’ and ‘she lifts’ loses its force as an advertising slogan.