Is this bad for me? Thoughts of a woman at a co-ed gym in Pakistan

From finding loopholes for parents’ rules to dodging unwelcome stares, women really do go through a lot for fitness

Mahnoor Vazir June 12, 2024

The gym. A battleground where we face our insecurities, push our limits, and dodge unsolicited advice from the guy who thinks he’s the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s no secret that many women in Pakistan face family-imposed bans on co-ed gyms. All-female gyms, where they do exist, often lack the variety in classes, affordable prices, and top-notch equipment found in co-ed facilities. Ironically, the only time parents seem to make an exception is before their daughters’ weddings, where suddenly, solo sessions with a male personal trainer isn't as horrifying a thought as it was a couple of years ago.

But if you’re privileged enough to have been navigating this testosterone-fuelled jungle for a while now, you’ve probably entertained every gym-related thought from "Is my sports bra trying to suffocate me?" to "I wonder what I should treat myself to after today’s workout." Yet, some of these musings have a way of making regular appearances, here are seven of them:

That’s a lot of sweat

Sweat is a natural byproduct of exercise, or so they say. But as you mop your brow for the umpteenth time, glance around and see that while everyone around you seems to have mastered the art of a delicate, dewy sheen, you’re over here with rivulets of sweat streaming down your face, making it look like you’ve been caught in a mid-July monsoon.

What rep am I on?

There you are, mid-workout, squatting while your knees sound like the creaky floorboards of a haunted house, when it hits you: you’ve completely lost track of your reps. Was it eight? Or ten? Maybe you’re on twelve and don’t even know it. So, you improvise. Add a few reps here, subtract a few there. Who’s really counting, anyway? Still, the mental fog that descends halfway through a workout is real, and you’re left wondering if this is what early-onset gymnesia looks like.

I think I know her

You’ve perfected the art of dodging acquaintances by strategically timing sets and avoiding the popular machines. Add the awkward small talk with someone from your past, and your carefully curated playlist is rendered useless. A simple, “Hey, how’s it going?” while mid-pushup feels like a cruel intrusion. It’s not that you’re antisocial; you just prefer your workout time to be devoid of awkward small talk.

Am I doing this right?

Being a regular for a decade doesn't count for much when you're standing in a corner by the water cooler, squinting at your phone at its lowest possible brightness, frantically Googling the proper form for tricep extensions. Then you pretend your little break was planned, casually walk back to the machine and follow the step-by-step instructions the YouTube trainer just gave you.

Something’s better than nothing

By some luck, you’ve managed to convince your stricter than strict parents to let you go to the fancy new co-ed gym that’s trending on TikTok. But wait, there's a catch – you're stuck with a chaperone. Now, instead of working out at your own pace, you're at the mercy of your snooze-loving brother's schedule. You find yourself timing workouts to match his so that you don’t take longer than him, lest you face the wrath of his impatience.

Is this bad for me?

Despite the mountains of research proclaiming the health benefits of women lifting heavy weights, the tiny voice in your head that loves to overthink can’t help but squeak out, “Is this bad for me?” An enduring myth persists that it could cause infertility, organ displacement, or a medley of other medical mishaps. This age-old fallacy often finds its most fervent advocates in well-meaning mothers and their allies.

Contrary to these beliefs, scientific studies have repeatedly shown that strength training is not only safe for women but also incredibly beneficial. It boosts metabolism, enhances bone density, and improves overall cardiovascular health. Yet, try explaining this to your mother as she clutches her pearls and insists that a squat rack is a fast track to infertility, enlisting the family doctor (read: uncle) to back her claims. The reality is that weightlifting can improve mental health, and, contrary to myth, have no adverse effects on fertility or organ placement. So, the next time someone warns you that heavy lifting will leave you in hospital with a displaced spleen because you’re a woman, you can confidently cite science and lift on.

They’re looking at me

Finally, the question that haunts almost every woman in the gym: “Am I being watched?” You tell yourself that they could be critiquing your form, or maybe your outfit, but whether it’s a gym-bro with a staring problem or an aunty with a judging problem, the gym has a way of feeling like a metaphorical fishbowl. You catch someone looking your way and a layer of self consciousness is added to every rep. Was my squat too shallow? Did my leggings turn see-through? Wondering if the guy staring at you through the mirror is impressed that you just broke your 110 kilo deadlift record, is zoned out in your general direction, or is just a creep, is a mystery as old as gyms themselves.

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