What’s the big deal with gyms?

This is the weightlifting section of the gym, to the right of the stairs
This is the weightlifting section of the gym, to the right of the stairs

The stairs open up to a large space, divided into three distinct but connected sections. The first, containing mostly males, is to the right of the stairwell. It houses weightlifting equipment such as free weights, “bars,” and other machines used to build specific muscles. Throughout the space lie clusters of young men assisting one another and only communicating through slaps on the back, high fives, or congratulatory phrases. To the left of the stairwell lies an array of exercise machines, such as treadmills, elliptical machines, and other electronic machines used to burn fat.  This section is fairly divided between men and women. Ram’s Head Gym on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus is a competitive and male-dominated environment for undergraduate students to exercise in.

In this ethnography, I investigated the culture of Ram’s Head Gym, a primarily freshman and sophomore-dominated gym. I was compelled to study the culture of the gym because I noticed a separation of men and women in what workouts they did and how they presented themselves. This topic could help to better understand origins of gender stereotyping, as well as help in increasing self-esteem and healthy living practices among college students. Based on my observations and interviews, I believe that body image fuels both men and women’s clothing and workout choices, causing the gendered environment that I observed.

Cardio Section
This is the cardio section of the gym, to the left of the stairs.


How I Did It

I chose this site because I believe that it provides multiple different environments that I can study the overall gym culture, and the separation between cardio and weightlifting also added to my observation and interest in self-segregation of a gym space. In this ethnography, I went to Ram’s Head Gym three times over the course of two weeks. I found that the gym was most active in the evening. I recorded all notes immediately upon leaving the gym because I did not want to draw attention to myself and disturb the environment. Since I have been to the gym before, and because it appeared as though I was simply going about my workout as I normally would while observing, I was viewed as an insider. In my third visit, I conducted three informal interviews with gym participants, with two males and one female. My main goal of this ethnography was to get a strong understanding of gym culture, and I was able to achieve this by in-depth observations and interviews with multiple participants.

So, why?

Clothing Choices

Gym Meme

One large aspect of what makes Ram’s Head Gym a gendered space is the difference between clothing choices of men and women. Men tended to wear loose fitting clothes that showed their muscles, such as “muscle tanks” and clothes that show off muscle definition. Their clothes tended to be baggier, and in an interview, one of the participants said that he chose his clothes because they were “Whatever was first in my drawer that was athletic, there wasn’t really much thought,” (personal communications, 2016). Women, however, wore clothes that emphasized their thinness, such as leggings and tighter fitting tank-tops. According to Pritchard and Tiggemann, women wear tighter-fitting clothes because they have higher rates of self-surveillance and lower body image. Men, however, wear loose-fitting clothes that show off muscles, and the same authors argue that this is because of lower rates of self-surveillance and higher body image (2005). These differences between men and women continue the notion that the gym is a gendered space, and fuel the separation of workouts because men and women are confined to certain expectations of how they should look.

                                           Body Image

Another large reason that motivates students to work out, and thus colors gym culture, is self-esteem. A hot topic of discussion today is how the media influence body image of young people, particularly young women. Men are beginning to rate higher levels of body dissatisfaction, especially among first-year college students, which could be an explanation for this gym was dominated by males. Low self-esteem as a result of unrealistic media portrayals of both men and women can result in body dysmorphia, which leads many to work out in order to achieve their ideal physiques. Since the “ideal physique” of a man is extremely muscular, men tend to gravitate more towards using strength and muscle building machines, while women tend to gravitate to using machines that burn fat (Lowrey et al, 625) . According to one of my male interviewees, when asked what his motivations were to work out, he said “I want to be strong and look strong too,” whereas my female participant said she worked out “because I like the way working out feels, and it also helps me avoid the Freshman 15.” I also observed that a lot of the clothing worn by males and females added to the idea of self-esteem as a motivator for gym behavior. For the most part, women dressed in ways that matched more and wore clothing that was “more figure flattering so I look good while working out” (personal communications, 2016). This motivator shows how self-esteem and body image are much more present in women’s motivations for gym behavior than among males.

So, what?media

Men and women separate themselves in Ram’s Head Gym because of societal expectations of how they are expected to look. Since men are expected to look extremely strong and muscular, they tend to work out more often and also use free weights and strength-building machines, while women tend to do cardio exercises because they feel like they should be thin and burn fat while working out. These workout choices also fuel what clothes men and women wear, as men wore mostly loose fitting clothes that showed off their muscles, while women wore tight fitting clothes that were intended to show off thinness. The difference between men and women, both in levels of body image and in clothing choices, created a “gendered space” that separated their workout choices. This study only reaffirms what we already know about unhealthy attitudes towards working out: men and women both work out to fulfill what they believe they need to, along with the intrinsic value that working out may provide. This study can aid in the fight against body dysmorphia, and can also help to recognize problematic behavior in the gym setting.  So next time you go to the gym, stop and think about why you do what you do, and take a look around you. You might be surprised by what you find.

Works Cited

Barney, D. (2012). College Students’ Use of Personal Music Players (PMPs) During Exercise. Journal of Research. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ973952

Egli, T., Bland, H., Melton, B., & Czech, D. (n.d.). Influence of Age, Sex, and Race on College Students’ Exercise Motivation of Physical Activity. Journal of American College Health. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://www.informaworld.com/openurl?genre=article&id=doi:10.1080/07448481.2010.513074

Lowery, S., Robinson Kurpius, S., Befort, C., Hull Blanks, E., Sollenberger, S., Foley Nicpon, M., & Huser, L. (2005). Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Male and Female First-Year College Students. Journal of College Student Development. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=15&sid=188feafb-e668-497d-a747-63c1c124ceef@sessionmgr107&hid=107&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=EJ743904&db=eric

Pritchard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2005, July). Objectification in Fitness Centers: Self-Objectification, Body Dissatisfaction, and Disordered Eating in Aerobic Instructors and Aerobic Participants. Sex Roles, 53, 2nd ser., 19-28. doi:10.1007/s11199-005-4270-0


  1. What are your motivations for working out?
  2. Do you feel like working out is more extrinsically or intrinsically motivated (i.e., do you work out more because you feel like you should, or for your own personal gain?)
  3. What workout do you do, and why?
  4. Why do you think that people do not interact with one another in the gym?
  5. Do you listen to music while you work out? If so, why?
  6. How did you pick the clothes that you chose to wear today?
  7. What are some “unspoken rules” of the gym that you think are important?
  8. How frequently do you come to the gym?
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