Sexual politics at the gym. What does it say about human behavior?
March 9, 2011
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.