The soles of my Nikes rub uncomfortably against the dark, synthetic floors of the room with the whitewashed walls. The smell of metal and rubber are engulfing and unfamiliar. In the room lined with colorful rubber bands, bars and weights of varying sizes and shapes also sits a crossfit cage implanted directly in the center.
One woman sits to the side occupied tying and untying her shoelaces. Another enters the room with the same gawking expression I’d seen on the previous few. With wandering eyes and fidgeting fingers, we all begin to question what exactly it was we had gotten ourselves into.
Though we had played the part in purchasing intricately designed sports bras and overpriced, brightly colored leggings, it was not enough to disguise our inexperience. This place did not feel particularly welcoming for people of our status, but for most of us, that’s why we are here — to break out of our discomfort.
Like all of the women in this room, I was facing “gymtimidation” — the fear of giant metal contraptions, protein-pumped college students and that everyone would notice that I had no idea what I was doing.
“It can be difficult to ask for help with something like lifting when you’re a beginner because everyone who I do see lifting looks really experienced,” said Fiona Shields, a junior and participant in Women on Weights, a class UNC Campus Recreation hosts at the Student Recreation Center.
We were part of that 84 percent of women who face gymtimidation, according to a poll by Cosmopolitan Body. This is the 84 percent who would rather flee to a more familiar machine in the gym instead of asking for help while working out. Like all of the women in this room, I realized I had been missing out on all the potential benefits that come with weightlifting and hoped my experience with Women on Weights, an introductory weightlifting class for women, would help us make a change.
Moments later our instructor walked in, effortlessly outfitted in black nylon capris and Campus Rec top. Her long, blonde hair swept her lower back as she went about setting up the room with a confidence we craved. A few seconds later, she turned to introduce herself.
Hayley Prudente, a UNC-CH senior, didn’t seriously get into weightlifting until after her freshman year. She had played sports for most of her life, but an injury put her on the bench her senior year of high school. This, in addition to the new and luxurious freshman lifestyle of Late Night at Rams and dorm-delivered cookies, put her in a place she wasn’t used to.
“I wasn’t really feeling like myself,” Hayley said.
It was then that she began spending more time in the gym. From there, all she did was grow — in muscle, skill and confidence.
“Knowing how good it felt to make this lifestyle change led me to making it a habit,” she said.
Five girls and I introduced ourselves to the class. Then we began taking initial body assessments. We measured our bioelectrical impedance, weight, height, hip-to-waist ratio and squat assessments. While I can’t speak on behalf of the other girls, I could have been happier with my results. Realizing that at that moment I weighed more than I had ever weighed in my life was disappointing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 38.5 percent of women 20 years and older are obese, compared to 34.5 percent of men. From that point on, I decided I was going to make an effort to do something about my health. From that point on, I would set my own goals and worked out how I was going to accomplish them. I was determined that gymtimidation was not going to apply to me.
The fun continued every Monday and Wednesday for the next month. Intro to squatting started with us assessing each other’s squats. Partnering up, we watched for flat backs, putting our weight on our heels and bending at the knees. We’d alternate squatting and watching, and slowly we’d add on more weight. Ten-pound kettlebells, then 15 pounds, bending our knees over and over again, feeling the burn in our thighs.
After a quick break, we moved to the bar. Fifteen pounds of steel lying on top of us. Moving the weight from my hands to my back felt like I was preparing to hold the world on my shoulders.
We each hit at least six reps of 75 pounds that session. That’s when I began to understand the high. I felt invincible.
Our classes continued, an hour twice a week, gradually introducing us to different types of lifting. At the end of the second week, another participant, Katie, and I decided we could tackle a workout on our own.
We agreed to meet and complete a circuit Hayley had put together for the class. We met outside the Student Recreation Center and headed to the upstairs studios where group fitness classes were generally held, an open room with mirrored walls on both sides. Glossy, wooden planks lined the floors and several girls like ourselves had pulled out yoga mats to section off workout spaces.
Suited up in our T-shirts, Norts and tennis shoes, we tackled the circuit without a second thought. Then, the question came up.
“Do you want to try to use the squat rack downstairs?” Katie asked.
I stared at her hesitantly for a few moments, looking for an excuse. Unable to come up with one, I half-heartedly agreed and we made our way down to the Pit.
Metal contraptions lined up side-by-side across the gray concrete floor, surrounded by perspiring, grunting strangers. The smell of sweat and disinfectant had become permanent guests among the expanse of mirrored walls. Immersed in the humidity that seemed to sink into the pit of body odor and cut-off T-shirts, we felt like we had to fight for our spots or face being pushed aside.
We spent 30 minutes moving around to different machines, waiting for a squat rack to open up. Every time we began to approach one, we were beat to it by another swift-moving male and would apologetically move out of the way. It wasn’t until after I left for work that Katie was actually able to get a rack. This left me thinking, how much of gymtimidation is crafted in our minds and how much is actual experience?
“I feel like I’m about to be mansplained to any minute,” Katie told me after one of her own excursions to the SRC.
Fiona agreed that weightlifting still felt predominantly male. But when I talked to Campus Rec employees, they said they take pride in their efforts to create an inclusive, accessible facilities environment for people of all ages and genders.
One of their proudest campaigns, “Body Beautiful,” is a series of posters designed by staffers that aims to promote positive body image and holistic perspectives on health, according to the Campus Rec website.
“I think it’s important for everyone to feel comfortable using all the resources we have here,” said Melanie Mourt, a group fitness intern for Campus Rec.
Resources Campus Rec provides include access to personal training, group fitness classes and fitness assessments and orientations. Some of the faculty and staff are also Safe Zone Allies, which means that they have been trained to have a deeper understanding of and to create safe spaces for LGBTQ students.
But multiple female gym-goers have reported incidents involving male patrons making them feel uncomfortable in the weight room by staring or other means. And when I asked about the process of filing complaints at the SRC, I got a conflicting response since patrons don’t have easy access to make an anonymous complaint.
Liz Walz, the Campus Rec Fitness coordinator, told me that patrons can file a complaint by talking to staff at the front desk, but that there’s no online complaint system. At most, you could go through a series of phone calls and emails.
Monica Luong, an SRC facility operations intern, said the reported incidents have either been addressed or that the SRC plans to follow up with those male patrons.
Hearing about these incidents and experiences motivated not just me, but my new friends to work even harder. The group of girls that once feared stepping into Rams Head were now venturing into the weightroom on their own. The group of girls that was once hesitant to show signs of struggle while getting into the swing of things were now proudly pushing themselves on a regular basis.
On our final Wednesday session, after getting the basics of bench pressing down, Hayley started encouraging us to challenge ourselves by slowly adding as much weight as we could while still maintaining our form.
After we each completed our first set with the bar, Hayley slipped two green 10-pound weights on each side and secured them with red, rubber clips.
“Who wants to go next?” she asked. With no hesitation, Sarah stepped up.
Sarah Van Heusen, a director of research administration for the department of microbiology and immunology, and a mother, surprised us.
Lying with her back pressed firmly against the bench, she tightened her core and placed her feet flat on the floor. She went to grip the bar, tediously searching for the perfect spot for her hands, each equidistant from the center and roughly parallel with her shoulders.
With one big breath and one big push, she lifted the weight off the rack and onto her arms. Still in control, she lowered the weight down and pushed it back up again.
Another big breath, down, up, two. Sweat beading on her forehead, down, up, three. Breath again, down, up, four. Gritting her teeth, down, up, five. Feet pushing the ground, down, up, six.
Spotting her, Hayley reached to pull the bar back onto the rack.
“No, let me do two more,” Sarah said. I can do two more.”
Trembling arms, down, up seven. The final push, down, up eight.
“I have definitely broken out of my comfort zone with this class,” Van Heusen later told me. “I am learning that I can do so much more than I think I can. I’m always amazed by it.”
On day one, I could squat 75 pounds. I now squat 95. On day one, I could bench press 25 pounds. Now I bench 55 pounds. I used to go to the gym once a week. Now, I make time to go to the gym five days a week. This may not sound like much to the regular weightlifter, but I couldn’t be more proud of myself, not just for progressing towards my goals, but for swallowing my doubts and breaking out of my comfort zone.
“Everyone has to start somewhere,” Hayley said. “Sometimes you just have to put on your bullshit blinders and go.”