Content warning: This article contains references to body dysmorphia.
“I’m going for a run” is a loaded statement for women. Most men don’t perceive an alternative meaning behind those words, but for me and many women, going for a run has never been simple. For a woman, there are additional factors in deciding where and when to work out beyond convenience or enjoyment. Getting ready for a run consists of putting my shoes on, mapping out a route with friends’ houses along the way and telling someone where I’m going or how long I’ll be gone.
I don’t go on trail runs alone at home because I am a woman. I can never have the tranquil experience of exploring an off-the-beaten path in the woods with only my thoughts. During winter break, I was getting tired of my usual routes and wanted a change of pace. So, I planned to drive 20 minutes to a nearby trail just before sunset, but my parents wouldn’t let me because they didn’t think it was safe.
Although I was annoyed at their prohibition, I have since reflected on that moment many times. Why didn’t my parents want me to go alone? The answer recently dawned on me: they didn’t want their daughter to become a national headline.
Since 2016, there have been 21 women killed during a run across the world. Three of them were killed within a nine-day span in 2016. Each time I see a headline of similar horrors, it hurts my heart and makes me a bit more fearful. I think about how all those women spent their last moments unassumingly going out for a run, just like I do every morning. It makes me think twice about running in the dark or in a part of town I don’t know very well.
Women should feel safe while working out, but the fear of criticism or harassment often discourages them from exercising. According to a 2016 Runner’s World survey, “43% of female respondents said they’d been regularly subjected to harassing behavior (catcalls, whistles, honked horns, sexual propositions, etc.) that made them feel unsafe.” Regardless of whether other women have experienced these behaviors, knowing these actions occur regularly changes the way women view exercise. Men consider whether they ate the proper food for breakfast before their run; women worry if they are choosing a safe path. The additional planning required for exercise can deter women, especially if they are already squeezing a quick session into their busy days.
Even when women run with men, they cannot escape the perpetual harassment. One morning in January, I ran with two female and two male teammates. We started our run at 5:45 a.m., well before the sun came up. As we cruised through Druid Hills, an obviously drunk man stuck his head out of a car window and yelled, “Take your shirts off!” We were able to laugh it off together, but had I been alone, I would have felt afraid and vulnerable. I decided to go for a run that morning, not to endure unsolicited harassment. When I step out of the door, I should not have to prepare myself for the dangers that might await.
Even off the trails, women are still repeatedly subjected to harassment, especially in the gym. A 2021 RunRepeat survey found that “56.37% of female gym members have experienced harassment at the gym,” a rate 2.68 times higher than that for men. Out of those women, 28.69% reported feeling uncomfortable in their gyms.
Recently, some women have taken to social media to call out perpetrators. On TikTok, women are regaining power in the gym through hashtags like #GymCreep that call out men’s inappropriate gestures or comments. Although this trend provides women a platform to voice their experiences, it is a short-term amelioration that cannot correct an institutional problem. Women should not have to rely on the threat of video documentation to work out in peace. The idea that women need leverage so men will leave them alone is absurd.
In addition to the physical safety aspect of working out, women are also impacted mentally. For many people, working out is a stress-reliever. Lifting weights or running releases the pent-up energy that accrues throughout the week. Personally, I use my runs to step away from school-related stressors or expectations, but doing so becomes impossible for me and other women if we feel uncomfortable while exercising. Women should have access to the welcome distraction that a gym provides. They should not feel additional stress or anxiety in an environment meant to encourage mental and physical well-being.
Men often treat women with a dismissive attitude in the gym, as if they expect women to somehow maintain their physical health without working out. I follow multiple female powerlifters who regularly post videos showing people’s reactions in the gym when they are lifting. While some of the videos are funny and sweet, others show rude gestures of disbelief and a sense of mocking. Occasionally, one will depict a man complimenting a female lifter, but only because he didn’t believe she was capable of moving so much weight — him being impressed stems from his initial doubt about her abilities.
The dichotomy surrounding women and working out is interesting to me. An inherently problematic “thin privilege” leads to many skinny women being idolized in ways those of other body types are not. Although body weight does not equate to healthiness, women are still encouraged to work out solely to look slim.
The pressure to slim down is pervasive, yet men do not foster a welcoming environment for women in the gym. Men obsess over skinny supermodels like Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid, yet they still intimidate women who want to go to the gym. Women who like cardio are seen as weak, but those who lift are try-hards and automatically discredited through comparisons to men. Women should not feel pressured to work out to meet the demands of thin privilege, either. There are various — and arguably more important — reasons to work out. Unfortunately, there are not many circumstances where men are satisfied with how and why women are working out.
Women far too frequently encounter unsafe and uncomfortable situations in fitness environments. Toxic workout culture is a significant issue that men and women must address together. Women should not be expected to cope with distressing situations — women-only gyms and working out with friends only provide a brief respite from the underlying issues.
I was always taught to support another woman, in and out of the gym, if it is clear someone is bothering her. Men need to support women too by providing respectful fitness spaces. Change is possible, but it takes active awareness and dedication to make exercise a safe space for women.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body dysmorphia, you can reach Emory’s Counseling and Psychological Services at https://counseling.emory.edu/. You can reach the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Monday through Friday at +1 (800)-950-NAMI (6264) or https://www.nami.org/help. You can also text “HelpLine” to 62640.
Jenna Daly (she/her) (25B) is from Windsor Locks, Connecticut and majoring in strategic consulting, real estate and philosophy, politics and law. Outside of the Wheel, Jenna is a member of Emory’s Varsity Cross Country and Track & Field teams. In her free time, she enjoys playing Spikeball, cheering on the Boston Bruins and discovering new restaurants in Atlanta.