The soundscape of the weight room echoes with effort. People grunt through difficult final reps, weights slam to the ground, barbells squeal as they roll across the pins. While anyone can make these sounds, Natalia Perez, Intramural-Recreational Sports personal trainer, says they reinforce the weight room’s reputation as a gender-segregated space. That’s why she pitched an event last fall with Jackie Lebeau, senior director of fitness and instruction, intending to carve out space for female and nonbinary students in the weight room.
“Historically, [the weight room has] been a space where women have routinely been marginalized and felt unwelcome,” Perez said. “Both because of the geographic space — it’s back in the back corner of the gym — [and] because of the accessibility of the equipment we have in the space, the sounds are equally complicit in all of this. Those are things that aren’t necessarily negative, but they’re things that play a factor in whether somebody wants to walk in the room.”
Thursday night, their gender-inclusive vision became reality as over 200 students gathered at the Aquatic & Fitness Center for the gym’s inaugural Ladies Night. The line snaked from the weight room to the front desk as novice and experienced weightlifters waited to register and collect free merchandise including tank tops, T-shirts and snacks.
“I would have never in a million years thought that many people would come,” Perez said. “We’ve not always had the best success with marketing and reaching the student body, and I feel like we’ve made enormous strides toward that today.”
Male and female trainers, instructors and staff circulated in the weight room to offer tips and equipment tutorials to students who wanted to learn or improve their form. Second-year College student Abby Keatts — who worked out in the weight room for the first time Thursday night — emphasized the educational and financial value of the free event.
“I want to be able to take advantage of the resources we pay for,” Keatts said. “This is a free opportunity to learn to do it the right way. Everyone has been really encouraging — they want you to learn.”
Students at the event began to ask questions and practice using the equipment with each other, as well as with gym staff. As groups gathered around certain pieces of equipment, the evening took on a collaborative spirit. Attendees recommended and critiqued the kinesiology department’s women-only and all-gender weightlifting classes, discussed their personal attitudes toward the space and gave pointers about form and technique.
Third-year College student Hannah Lewis is currently enrolled in a co-ed weightlifting class, which she decided to take with her housemates. That experience proved useful Thursday night, when she taught another participant how to use unfamiliar equipment.
“I had already done the bench presses so I started helping out a woman there,” Lewis said. “She was so excited. It’s fun. There are a lot of people, which is cute.”
Even among women who had used the weight room before, intimidation was a common theme for participants, as they discussed their comfort level with the space on a normal day. Perez described why holding the event at the AFC was so meaningful.
“The reason why we did it in this room is that this room kind of represents something, and it has symbolic currency as a space of physical exertion, and culturally, we associate that with masculinity,” she said.
Second-year Curry student Sequoia Waite spoke directly about gender when explaining why she had never worked out in the space before.
“I’m always kind of intimidated by the weight room,” Waite said. “It’s always filled with these big honcho guys.”
For Waite and Keatts, the experience they gained at Ladies Night created a new sense of confidence in navigating the weight room. Despite being first-timers, both suggested they would probably come back without the structure of a similar event.
“Just knowing that I can do it and [knowing] what I’m doing helps,” Keatts said. “I usually come to the AFC and stay in my area upstairs, so now I’m excited to diversify my workout.”
Some attendees criticized the gender dynamics of the event. Second-year College student Janie Cai voiced concern about the way Ladies Night reinforced the gender binary.
“Women don’t always feel comfortable here but there are better ways to create accessibility,” Cai said.
She observed that the shirts made for the event — which included the pun “pow-her-ful” — only referenced women, despite the nonbinary-inclusive language in the event’s billing. Cai also pointed out that groups tabling outside the weight room Thursday night for organizations such as Barbell Club included men, which could impact the event’s goal to create a non-threatening space free from the male gaze.
Perez acknowledged the complicated role of gender at the event.
“In an ideal world, honestly, I wish we had more female trainers on staff,” Perez said. “Because the reality is that a lot of females feel more comfortable with a female trainer. I was a little worried initially when they said we’ll bring some of the male trainers on, but now seeing it in fruition, I don’t think it’s strange at all. I really think the event is going just as well as it might have if there were only female trainers.”
Conservative outlet CNSNews posted an article about the event Wednesday, characterizing it as “sex-exclusive” and discriminatory against male students. In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Michael Shipe, director of marketing & communications at IM-Rec, declined to comment on the article but stressed that Ladies Night had support across genders.
Early Friday evening, IM-Rec added an event to their Facebook page for a “Men’s Night in the Weight Room” on April 2. Shipe explained that the event — like Thursday’s program — is intended to teach the basics of lifting to people that feel uncomfortable in the weight room.
“We are in regular contact with the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR) and spoke with them before we announced our plans to host Ladies Night,” Shipe said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “They recommend that we have an opportunity for male and non-binary students equivalent to the opportunity given at Ladies Night — the same thing we were already planning.”
Some students that supported the event for women were frustrated by the implication that men and women face comparable levels of discomfort in the weight room. Second-year College student Noah Strike criticized the Men’s Night plan.
“The weight room is a dominantly masculine space,” Strike said in a Twitter direct message to The Cavalier Daily. “The addition of ‘ladies night’ was intended to break down its inherent masculinity & create a space comfortable for women. The addition of ‘men’s night’ is a slap in the face.”
The weight room was closed off to male students between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, though facilities at the University’s three other fitness centers remained open. As the event ended, some attendees stayed behind while other students filtered into the room.
“I think events like this are precisely what’s going to help bring more women into that space, and start to change the dynamic,” Perez said. “In an ideal world, we’ll start having an event like this at Slaughter, and then one at Memorial, and then one at North Grounds and just like, teaching women that it’s okay to be in that room … I think, honestly, the culture of the room will change for the better.”