The Vagenda

"Everyone Has An Inner Bunny" and Other Bullshit They’ll Tell You About The Gym

So, I joined a gym. Because y’know, health. My weekend is fry-ups, no sleep, and all the wine. I’ve inherited my mother’s slim frame (shout out to Jeanette!) but was never a PE-lover at school. The only exercise I did at university was horizontal. It’s about time.
After crying into a cake for the amount it costs to sign up to a gym (did I say cake? I clearly meant a stick of celery and some protein shake), I checked out what this exercise thing involved. And who knew that before I even came face-to-face with a cross-trainer, there was so much to get wrong? 
Try Googling ‘women exercising’ – go on, I dare ya.
I am not these women. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a crop top for all the cupcakes in West London. My gym sessions test the limits of dry shampoo (personal best: 4 days). 
But I knew exercise wouldn’t just be based on stock imagery. I was buzzing because I thought the gym would be full of strong women doing totally badass things. I was going to do weights! It was inspirational. 
Then I checked out the classes. 
Women’s exercise culture, here’s my beef with you:

  • ‘Playboy’ and ‘exercise’. Not two things that traditionally go hand-in-hand, unless we deem a teenage boy’s under-duvet motions as being active. GymBox has teamed with Playboy to bring an empowering class for y’all, because Playboy doesn’t objectify women, ‘Playboy embraces the women of today in a very respectful way, and nurtures their goals and talents’ (yes, that’s an actual quote). Rating the size of my titties is totes a respectful way to nurture my ‘talents’, all the way to the cosmetic surgeon.


  • ‘Bitch Boxing’. Another GymBox special. Tina Fey has got this already:  “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Thanks, Tina. I don’t like Joe “Harasser” Bloggs calling me bitch, either, even when I’m punching him.


  • ‘Pole fitness’. I get it: it’s toning, it takes incredible strength. But, BUT. Hen parties twerking on poles just feels like it makes it more acceptable for greasy Steve from Hull to pay £20 to have a woman shake her vagina in his face. When I go to the gym, I don’t want to reinforce my sexuality as a thing for male gaze.  I don’t want to normalise a culture that represents women as ever-ready for sex. But clearly I’ve got this totally wrong because women’s exercise IS about sex, obvs. High five!


  • Pole fitness. FOR CHILDREN. With one 9-year-old interviewee mentioning her concerns about tummy fat. Presented without comment.


I chose these examples because, although extreme, they demonstrate something about the dominant culture surrounding women and exercise. Look sexy doing it; do it so you can look sexy. Now, men don’t necessarily escape this: those going on about ‘leg day’ on my timeline account for that. But the exercise gap between men and women starts at a crazy young age. When I walked into the gym in my boyfriend’s old sweater, I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t doing it right when I was desperately trying to shorten my school netball skirt. We weren’t doing it right when we begged the P.E teacher to let us keep tights on under our P.E kits, to hide any leg hair growth (if I could write a letter to 14-year-old me, it would be ‘THRUSH’ in damn big gold letters.)
A straw poll amongst guy friends suggested that most of them exercise because it makes them feel good.  When a group of women were polled on the reasons they exercised, 25 out of 30 sent photos of a little black dress. Bunny Bootcamp plays into the idea of exercise as an endgame in looking sexy for those who already have a bunny bod. And this is bullshit because if that is going to do anything at all, it’ll only be stopping me from doing ‘leg day’ after ‘eat-all-the-left-over-lasagne day’.
Exercise is important – it makes you stronger, faster, healthier. It helps prevent breast and womb cancer. THAT is ten times more empowering than sticking a pompom to your arse and running around Playboy Mansion so Hef can get his rocks off. 
Go get sweaty. Do it in a crop top or the joggers you slept in, and all the damn power to you. Splendour in your red-faced hard work. But for the love of all things chocolate, can we stop women’s exercise equating to another expression of sex? Didn’t we already do that with women eating and buying cars and drinking alcohol and, y’know, ENOUGH THINGS?
Let’s take exercise back to something distinctly removed from doggy-style, the 69, and 38GG boobs. Because this culture is discouraging women from doing an amazing thing that can be amazing for THEM – and not just for the men looking at them.

20 thoughts on “"Everyone Has An Inner Bunny" and Other Bullshit They’ll Tell You About The Gym

  1. Yepp. When I started going to gym it was admittedly to look better in dresses – but actually I caught the exercise bug and go now more for the mood boost that exercise gives you and regard the looking more toned bit as a pleasant side effect.

    My gym is really good though and there are lots of different women of all shapes and sizes that go and a really good range of classes that don’t focus on ‘looking sexy’. Plus no one seems to give a shit about getting hot and sweaty – in fact it’s proof that you’re working damn hard in a class.

  2. I get this – 2 years ago I was training for a 10 mile race & no-one seemed to get that I was doing all that running because I wanted to achieve something, everyone just commented on how I was losing weight and looking better!

  3. While your average hen pole fitness class may involve tweaking and dancing around the pole jiggling your boobs (as very few people have the ability to do anything more when they start), a normal pole class is a lot more about cardio and, as you mentioned, strength. Particularly in the UK, classes focus less on the sexy side and more on gymnastics. I strongly urge you to try a class, as they are not about being ever ready for sex, but are a great way to workout, and can give women (and men on occasion too, of all shapes, sizes and athletic ability), the courage to try other types of working out too, in order to aid in their pole training. It is also gives the amazing endorphin high after a hard workout, as well as the sense of accomplishment when you finally get a hard move or technique you’ve been working on for months.
    Aside from this, thank you for an interesting article, even if it clashes strongly with my opinion on pole fitness.

  4. So much appreciation, but Steve from Hull could be from Leeds or London or West Sussex ya’know. Some bits of Hull are actually pretty feminist (the bits I go to anyway).
    Grace, from Hull.

  5. I’ve been researching weight training, I’m looking to start going to the gym when I get back to uni. All the books I’ve been reading are by douchey American guys saying ‘look like a victoria secret model’, ‘do it for the “wow, you got hot”‘. I’m doing for the ‘wow, i can carry 4 bags of shopping and not feel like my arms are about to rip off’. I kinda feel like men encouraging women to weight train are just doing it because they find that type of body (muscular, athletic) attractive. That said, weight training seems like an effective way to lose weight.

  6. Ugh to all those pictures.

    I’ve recently started running again ‘cos I like being fitter, and I’m a touch overweight (that’s doing a PhD for you- all desk and no moving…).

    However, there’s also this little inner demon that pipes up, saying ‘You’ll look better thin, get thin!’ and then it says ‘OMG but if you lose weight your boobs will shrink!’. Reason stamps on the inner demon, but I think its presence suggests that exposure to eg, womens mags, icky photos like the above, and life in general does things to your subconscious you’d rather it didn’t, even if consciously you’re a feminist and say fuck what society thinks, it’s my body. Does anyone else’s subconscious mess with them, or is this just me?

  7. Hey Grace. Unfortunately Steve had to come from somewhere. But you’re right, there’s defs plenty of gross men in London too.

    Teddy – I recognise pole fitness has been a segway into exercise for lots of people, it’s a good workout, etc. But that does not negate that it’s a normalisation of a horrible thing. I don’t welcome pole dancing into popular culture.

  8. I go to a small, independently run local ‘bootcamp’, which involves mostly women but some men as well. There is a fantastic, mutually supportive atmosphere as well as some excellent uninhibited grunting. Many of us are there because we love feeling strong, pushing ourselves and hurling around kettlebells of a weight many men would blanche at.

    However, it is interesting – and disappointing – that the trainer who runs my bootcamp wouldn’t make a living if he sold it purely on that basis. He recruits new clients far more successfully if he advertises on the basis of ‘lose a jeans size in 4 weeks’ or similar. Most people, sadly, aren’t attracted by the idea of simply being fitter, stronger, and grunting in a park every Saturday. So in some ways maybe we can’t blame the gyms for marketing in the way that they do.

    Not that I’m able to offer any answers as to how we can change this sad state of affairs – personally, if my gym started offering the kind of gross classes described above I’d find a new gym….

  9. I started hitting the gym because I was pretty HUGE and wanted to drop a few pounds. And I did. But, on route to doing so I got the weights bug. It is AMAZING. So much more fun than tedious cardio. I went from unfit and fat – to hard as f***. I can outlift most men at my gym. Interestingly, they (the boyz) spend all their time gassing and talkign about protein. I just get in there and do my stuff. It is pretty grim though being about the only woman prepared to lift a weight that isn’t clad in pink. Interestingly, most of the women worried about ‘getting bulky’ and poncing about with a face full of makeup at the gym – I see them out and about toting handbags heavier than the weights they are prepared to go anywhere near. So what’s that al about?
    But, seriously, weights is the way to go: it improves bone density – osteoporosis does not sound fun. Also, lots of muscle means higher resting metabolism, which means I was able to have 6 skinny cow ice lollies (n one sitting – oops) and not return to my former humungousness. And finally – being physically strong is cool. It is quite empowering.
    So ladies, stray over to the weights. The grunting men seem quite comical once you realise you can do what they do – but without any of the fuss!

  10. Couldn’t agree more. Lifting weights is one of the best, most empowering things I’ve ever done for my emotional as well as physical health. Just gaining the confidence to not give a fuck about being the only woman in the free weights section is enough. And the occasional incredulous glances from the meatheads when they see how much I put on my bar (I’m still pretty big – you wouldn’t know I lifted if you didn’t see me in action) feel pretty good too. Non-normative bodies (what is a normative body anyway?) doing badass things is radical politics. POWER!!!

  11. Lifting is one of the best things I’ve done. Unfortunately my mum keeps telling me I’ll look to chunky and not very pretty XD but I don’t care, it’s so empowering (even though I still can’t lift much at the moment)!

  12. Yes yes yes. Lifting is awesome. I do body pump at my gym and can now do proper press ups and lift things without fear of snapping bones and doing my back in.

  13. Okay. Not reading much about, you know, actual exercising. I was like you, CB, hated PE at school.

    Burlesque classes were the first time I could get through an actual one hour exercise class without (a) feeling a total klutz or (b) staring at my watch/a clock on the wall, wanting the time to be up. Or (c), both. And yes, I tried yoga and t’ai chi as well as BLT. And I loved dressing up and seeing other women dressed up and all of us feeling good about our bodies.

    As a result of serendipity and trying to please a friend, I ended up discovering that I really, really like deep aqua aerobics. And I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been.

    But I still love burlesque and think that it deserves respect.

  14. I totally respect your opinion, and can definitely see where you’re coming from, but my perspective is quite different, and I thought you might be interested in it. :-)

    I’m an aerialst; I work mainly on the silks. I know plenty of pole dancers (and for that matter burlesque) dancers, and aerial work itself often does have a sexy aspect to it. I think it’s an absolute travesty that pole dancing was so fully commandeered by strip clubs. That shit is an incredibly challenging art form that can look gymnasticy, sexy, dancy, yoga-esque, what have you! I went to one strip club (not my idea; a good friend of mine was very drunk at her bachelorette party, so I went with her), and I was genuinely amazed by the stuff the women working there were doing on the pole. I told them so, and they were so grateful, and obviously proud of the hard work they put into their performances.

    The problem wasn’t the women wearing little clothing doing amazing spins, climbs, and slides. It was the men who thought that those women existed to entertain and sexually satisfy them.

    I think it’s way past time we take back the pole for ourselves. We shouldn’t let douchebag men ruin it for us!

  15. No disrespect to Hull (as a northerner myself, I’m always careful that the stereotypical sleazy guys in such narratives aren’t lumbered with northern cities too much, and I’d been overusing London and Essex!)

  16. This reminds me of when I signed up to my local gym, I already kept myself fit before(considerations: future health and present feel goodness, as well as mental health). When I had my induction I could not believe when the guy started showing me “the best exercises for weight loss”… Didn’t ask me what I was there for, just assumed that I would clearly be wanting to shift some pounds of my already rather slender 6-8 figure. Didn’t even offer to show me the free weights room…

  17. If you really walk your talk, you’ll cancel your membership at this gym. They exploit the false hype that glamorizes the degrading institution of prostitution. Did I just make up a rap? Dang, (c)2013 then. But seriously, find another gym. Don’t give these people another cent of your money. They don’t deserve to stay in business.