Back in August, during our program orientation, Georgia Ringle asked the group to share our personal concerns about studying in India. My biggest worry was not being able to exercise regularly for an entire semester. Back home, I work out daily to reduce my levels of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, finding places in India where I can go out for runs has been challenging at times, particularly when visiting highly urbanized settings. Before my trip, I knew that finding these spaces would be difficult because we are constantly travelling to different locations. Additionally, many of the places that we visit are urban environments that lack open areas suitable for jogging. However, because of my determination to find spaces to exercise, I discovered a new side of India’s initiative to create safe spaces for women: single-sex fitness centers.
The first place we stayed at upon our arrival to India was Madras Christian College (MCC). Some Davidson professors and students, who have previously participated in this program, told me that running around the MCC sports complex was the best way to exercise on campus. I used their track several times. However, because of the afternoon sun and heat, Icould only use it before 7:30 a.m. Unfortunately, when I tried running in the evenings, the complex was filled with different men’s teams practicing soccer or cricket. I was the only woman exercising in the complex at that time, so I did not feel comfortable in that space during evening hours. I also felt more comfortable running in the mornings because a few other women also walked or jogged at that time. One difference that I have noticed about the exercise culture in India, is the clothes that women wear while working out. Men exercising at MCC dress similarly to men exercising in America, wearing mostly shorts and t-shirts. Contrastingly, women dress very conservatively, wearing loose track pants and long-sleeved shirts or a full salwar kameez. After leaving Chennai, we traveled to Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram, and Hyderabad. These destinations lacked easily accessible, open areas, suitable for running. However, because we stayed at nice hotels, I could use their gyms and pools to exercise.
Currently, we are back in Chennai staying at a guest house in the middle of the city, as opposed to MCC’s campus. The guest house does not have a fitness center, and because of its crowded urban surrounding, there are no nearby parks or open areas for jogging. Since we are staying here for two weeks, I decided to search for potential gyms that I could join. To my surprise, I came across “India’s largest and most comprehensive all-women fitness chain,” PINK Fitness, located less than two kilometers away from our guest house! Emma and I promptly checked the place out. As soon as we entered, the women at the front desk made us feel incredibly welcomed. Vigneshwari, the girl who assisted us, said that we were not like their usual customers. Unlike the clientele that I have seen in American gyms, Vigneshwari told us that women who join this center are typically “housewives.” Most members join PINK Fitness to improve their health through weight loss, and to take a break from their domestic lives. Additionally, the membership fee is not cheap. Based on the type of women who join the gym, and on the membership prices that they must pay, I realized that coming to this gym might not be possible for most women looking for private spaces to exercise. I wonder what younger, unmarried, women, living in highly urbanized areas, do to maintain physical fitness, and if exercising is even a concern or priority for them.
By joining this gym, besides exercising for my own benefit, I am also learning about an aspect of gendered life in India. One woman in particular helped me realize that these single-sex gyms are great spaces for the advancement of gender equality. I saw her for the first time doing leg-strengthening exercises beside me. I smiled, just as I would to any fellow athlete. However, the next day I saw her entering the facility wearing a black hijab. I did not notice it was her until she removed her headscarf and changed into her long-sleeved t-shirt and sweatpants. At that point, I realized that these gyms offer women comfortable spaces to workout freely without worrying about unwanted attention. They can wear, or not wear, whatever they wish in order to have a comfortable and productive workout. I believe that these centers not only promote safety from harassment, but also comfort. A 2016 article in The Times of India describes these women gyms as “empowering cocoons of privacy and safety where women can [fully exercise] without worrying about the male gaze.”
The concept of single-sex gyms made me realize that more facilities like these should be opened in the U.S to benefit women. I do not have any data to prove that the levels of harassment in American gyms can compare to those in India. But I do believe that many women could benefit from single-sex gyms based on the comfort that they offer.
During my time in India, I have not encountered any “male” gyms. But I believe that men-only work out spaces would be discriminatory given the patriarchal nature of the country. I understand that my opinion might sound like a double standard. However, just as I consider “reverse discrimination” against white people to be impossible, based on the privilege and power dynamics at play, I think that “reverse discrimination” against men, in this particular case, is also impossible. However, providing a safe-space for women to exercise is in fact promoting gender equality. Why? Because of the likelihood of women not going to a mixed gender gym in the first place due to intimidation. Sometimes squatting or stretching while wearing tight clothes can be considered “provocative” instead of convenient because of the norms that we are conditioned to believe in a patriarchal society. If single-gender fitness centers were not available, many women in India would probably not join gym at all.
Some of these facilities already exist in the United States, but I wonder if making them more common would expand the demographic of women with gym memberships. Especially considering women from different female minority groups (physical, racial, or religious), who might not feel comfortable attending gyms with men, might prefer joining female-only centers. Additionally, if women feel more comfortable they can attain better fitness results by using all the services offered, such as weights, which are commonly used by men. Personally, as much as I enjoy weightlifting as a part of my workout routine, whenever there are groups of men lifting weights together, I avoid the area for fear of embarrassing myself. Another aspect to consider, when analyzing the benefits of women-only gyms, is the biological differences between men and women. As a Huffington Post article reported, “…[While] women are certainly capable of doing everything that men do, many find the gym equipment in weight rooms bulky, off-putting and ill-suited to them.” During my time as a member of Pink Fitness, I have not only felt comfortable among the trainers and other women who lift, but I also find the machines that they offer better suited for my short body and physical needs.
I wonder what other workout-friendly spaces I will find as I continue traveling through India. However, I am glad that my search for these spaces led me to discover PINK Fitness, a facility that empowers women to improve their physical health while encouraging confidence and comfort.