Women have long been hypervigilant about unwanted male attention in the gym. But before smartphones, the feeling of staring was more of a feeling than a certainty.
Now, catching alleged offenders in the act has become its own sport on TikTok, with women secretly leaving their phones recording and then watching the resulting video to see who’s staring at their behinds while they do squats.
On the app, the relentless hashtag “gym freaks” has over 1.9 million views, with videos showing men trying to flirt or pick on women who just want to get through their sets without bothering.
Gina Love is one such TikTok detective. She goes to the gym at least four times a week because the endorphin rush that comes from a good deadlift counteracts the daily stresses of life.
“Watch this bastard approach my personal bubble as he does so [Romanian deadlifts]Love wrote in the caption of a meeting he posted on TikTok, which was liked more than 50,000 times. “The gym was practically empty and there were so many angles and he chose this one.” In the clip, the man stands right behind Love as she lifts dumbbells before deciding to leave.
“I’d say I get chills 15 percent of the time I’m working out,” Love, who is 29 and lives in Atlanta, told the Guardian. This usually manifests as a man staring at her for an “uncomfortably long” amount of time. “It’s almost like they’re trying to undress you in their heads,” Love said.
Some might say that inappropriate looks or lewd comments are just as common for women in the gym as broken workout equipment or crowds. A 2021 study found that 76% of women feel uncomfortable exercising in public due to harassment. In another study by Run Repeat, 56% of women reported being harassed during their training.
Love sometimes leaves the gym when the stares are too much. “It makes me feel disgusted, anxious and my survival instinct kicks in,” she said. “Usually I’ll cut my workout short because I can’t get back to feeling comfortable with that guy around me.” Love trades stories with friends: One of them recently told her that a man tried to secretly record her during a workout .
Comments on her videos and others posted by women with similar experiences have mixed reactions. Some commentators agree that gyms feel like predatory spaces. But others dismiss the women’s complaints as an overreaction.
“This is not your personal space,” one person wrote in response to Love’s clip. “WTF is a personal balloon in a public gym?” asked another.
Joey Swall is a men’s trainer and TikToker who calls himself the “CEO of Fitness Positivity.” He often reposts these videos with comments about gym etiquette, or exonerating the so-called “creep,” or validating the exhausted woman’s feelings to his 6 million Tiktok followers.
Last month, an influencer named Jessica Fernandez posted a gym video showing a man looking in her direction while she was working out. “I hate it, I hate it when there are weirdos,” she said under her breath in the clip. “Wild, wild, wild, like fucking wild.” The man then asked her if she needed help with a weight and she declined.
Swoll responded to her video, writing: “Women are harassed in gyms and it needs to stop, but you are not one of them. A kindness or a look does not make you a victim.” The video was liked over 812,000 times and Fernandez eventually apologized for his post. Swall and Fernandez did not respond to requests for comment.
Why can’t men mind their own business in the gym? Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian and author of the new book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, said gyms have long been gendered spaces. Historically, there have been separate men’s and women’s gyms, or health clubs have hosted intentional “ladies’ days.”
“When I hear about men looking at or hitting on women in the gym, I’m often reminded of how for decades women working out were seen as a kind of sexy spectacle,” Petrzela said.
In June 1972, for example, New York held its first mini-marathon, which was televised and hosted by the sock brand L’eggs. Playboy Bunnies flanked the start line of the race. “It is clear from the footage that some of the male spectators were there to watch, rather than cheer, the female athletes,” Petrzela said. Even as the second wave of feminism of the 1970s and 1980s encouraged women to sign up for exercise classes en masse, evening hosts constantly joked about watching spandex-clad personalities like Debbie Drake or Jane Fonda gyrate on TV for something “other than exercise” .
In the 1980s, after co-ed gyms became the norm, columnists wrote articles about how gyms were “the new singles bars,” a concept that fueled the 1985 romantic comedy Perfect, starring John Travolta as a reporter who falls for a constantly sweating health coach played by Jamie Lee Curtis.
The majority of today’s gyms are co-ed, and the idea of returning to female-only training venues remains controversial. Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that these districts violated a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sex. However, some parts of the gym tend to be informally segregated by gender.
“Women are overrepresented in the studio and on the cardio equipment, while men disproportionately crowd the weight floor,” Petrcella said. “But the boom in the popularity of women lifting weights and thus becoming more present in a traditionally male-dominated part of the gym means that there are likely to be more instances of these unwanted achievements.”
That means women like Love, who find so much joy in working out, have to negotiate with their sense of safety every time they want to hit the gym. “This behavior of men encourages me to train as early as possible, usually when the gym opens,” she said. “I tend to go with a friend because creeps are more timid when there are two girls together. I try to keep my outfit incognito: a big hood and a hat. It’s sad that girls can’t feel comfortable wearing whatever they want to work out without being harassed.