Sexual politics at the gym. What does it say about human behavior?

March 9, 2011


Girls gone wild!

Linking the following essay to advertising might be a stretch, but I believe one of the best exercises for copywriters is the study of human behavior. As it happens, the human behavior I’m about to talk about involves copious amounts of stretching and exercise. So, kismet!

I try and work out for at least one hour a day. (Yes, it’s an addiction but it’s a healthier one than those it replaced. Trust me.) My passion has put me in gyms, clubs and spas all over the world, whether on vacation or for business. Currently, I belong to the Equinox Fitness Club in Chicago.

This is what I’ve noticed: men work out alone and women take classes. I know it seems like a small observation. If the numbers weren’t so staggeringly one-sided I wouldn’t be writing about it at all. Yet, in every class at Equinox –and there are many- every single attendee is female. They are old, they are young; some are fit and some are not. But, save for one of the instructors, they are all women.

Conversely, just about every man in the club (including me) works out by himself. Usually, on the machines or free weights.

This is not a coincidence. As it relates to the sexes, there must be some insight into human behavior. But what? Could it be that women feel more comfortable in groups than men? If so, why? And what of men? Why do we prefer exercising alone? If nothing else, this dichotomy debunks the popular myth that health clubs are pick up joints, otherwise wouldn’t men and women prefer getting sweaty together?

Digging deeper, I wonder if these distinctive behaviors are markers for both genders. Men have always identified with the lone wolf. We have James Dean. The Marlboro Man. Even the Terminator. Men find something timeless and appealing to the rogue iconoclast. We always have. Clint Eastwood and Rambo acted alone. The darker the persona the more we relate. Look at Don Draper.

Necessarily, then, this would have women identifying with groups. Which they do: Charlie’s Angels. Mean Girls. The Real Housewives of… But women also have their share of individual icons: Amelia Earhart. La Femme Nikita. Even Flo, the Progressive Insurance gal. Like Don, On Mad Men Betty plays a lone wolf, albeit a pluckier less “manly” version. But still, she’s no “agency Betty” or anybody’s fool.

Lord knows men play on teams. Fight on battlefield’s together. Make asses of themselves in fraternities. We can relate to a band of brothers.

So, why is it that women almost universally work out in groups and men don’t? I believe it has more to do with each gender’s willingness to ask for help. In other words, the same psychology that makes so many men reluctant to ask for directions is also what keeps us out of those gym classes. Ironically, it is a defect of character (as opposed to a hallmark) but the stoic problem solver is too ingrained in our masculinity for us to behave otherwise. We consider it feminine asking for help. Especially at the gym, where our physical manhood is on display. In general, women don’t have this problem. They take comfort in unity or are at least motivated by it.

A long time ago my father told me that if I wanted to be a good copywriter I should take psychology courses (along with creative writing) in college. That and work in a bar. Good advice. Observing human behavior (the patterns and distinctions) helps marketing men and women market to men and women.

On the other hand, maybe I need to keep my eyes on the prize and not on all the kickboxing girls in yoga pants.

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5 Responses to “Sexual politics at the gym. What does it say about human behavior?”

  1. I must have a LOT of testosterone, Steffan since frankly I never take classes (except for yoga which I also teach and which almost always include men). I’m not alone (at least in NYC) and I’ve been an Equinox member as well… I’d rather workout at my own pace, in my own time and welcome/ need the disconnect it offers… empty mind as well as purge body. and btw I’m with you – 100% – about The Bachelor but then I was in a women’s ‘liberation’ group in college… how far we have slipped back, eh?

  2. I agree for the most part. I run fitness classes at our gym and have only ever had women enroll, but I attributed that to men only wanting instruction from men. I’m a skinny, 120 lb woman – what could I possibly teach them about getting huge as quickly as possibly? :P
    On the other hand, there are fitness classes that cater almost exclusively to men – the “Strongman” style where they flip over tractor tires and work till they throw up.
    Maybe there’s something in the way the classes themselves are presented (or marketed :P) that dictates who will sign up.

  3. Tracy said

    Perhaps not just a matter of a woman’s willingness to seek help but also mutual support. And for many I’d argue, a degree of self-consciousness. That classes and groups provide safety in numbers. See Curves, etc. How many facilities are there with baby blue signs promising a comfortable environment for men? It’s also a social thing. Though the gym seems to be as much a hotbed of gossip for my guy friends as the ladies.

    I personally could never stick to organized and group physical activity. The concept of spinning or joomba or zoomba (whatever it is) mortifies me. I’m all for workouts via manual labor and accidental exercise.

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