Belonging at Beauchamp: How students are overcoming “gymtimidation” one rep at a time

By Camille Kuroiwa-Lewis | December 4, 2023 10:16am
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The weight room in Beauchamp Rec Center.

Media Credit: Esther Beaulac / The Beacon

In the early days of junior Rand Aldujaili's fitness journey, she often found herself driving to her new gym, parking her car in whatever space she could grab and just staring at the building from behind the dashboard. Some days, she would go inside. 

Other times, she'd just drive away without setting a foot near the gym doors.

Many avoid the gym out of “gymtimidation,” a word which describes the anxiety some feel regarding the gym. Though this scene may be familiar to some, it is particularly relatable for those who don’t see themselves represented by the stereotypical Beauchampian. Especially in Beauchamp, where the weight room is predominantly made up of men, how are UP students confronting their gymtimidation? 

The hardest part of any new journey is to follow through with starting down an unfamiliar path. For Aldujaili, this makes showing up to the gym a crucial part of anyone’s fitness journey.  

Photo courtesy Rand Aldujaili.

“The best thing to lose intimidation is to just get started and step in,” Aldujaili said. “There will always be a time where you’ll keep saying ‘I’ll just go in tomorrow.’”

Additionally, Aldujaili finds the community aspect of fitness a great reason to stay with the gym.

“Once you start your journey, slowly but surely not only will it become a habit, but your intimidation will more likely keep going away [as] you surround yourself with great people that you train with,” Aldujaili said. 

Aldujaili’s experiences with gymtimidation eventually fostered a love for coaching Hijabis and women of color. Out of this passion, Aldujaili spearheaded UP’s weightlifting club — which is now on pause for Aldujaili to finish her semester abroad. 

Photo courtesy Rand Aldujaili.

“I got that feeling [of intimidation] when I first went to Beauchamp my freshman year,” Aldujaili said. “That was the reason why I wanted to start a weightlifting club.” 

Getting coached, either one-on-one or in a group class, is a great way for students to get introduced to the world of lifting. Senior Madi Niemi teaches ‘Intro to Weightlifting’ at Beauchamp. For her, group fitness has brought a sense of community to her weightlifting journey.

“I joined a gym where they do group [weightlifting] classes,” Niemi said. “I found so much more joy out of that because I built relationships with people who are also wanting to weightlift and we supported one another.”

Similarly, Beauchamp offers group weightlifting classes to students on Wednesdays from 7:05 to 7:50 a.m. Britt Barnett, Beauchamp’s recreation operations program manager, finds that these classes are helping make Beauchamp a more inclusive environment for students.

“We used to have an ‘uplift intro to weightlifting’ [class] that was really more for female [students] and we ended up deciding to change it to ‘intro to weightlifting’ because we felt like gymtimidation is [felt by] everyone,” Barnett said. “That has been a really popular class.” 

There does seem to be power in numbers, especially considering that many who work out at Beauchamp do so in pairs or larger groups. Senior Ezekiel Kavanagh is one of many who prefers to go to the gym with a friend.

“Having a friend with me is far and above the best way to manage discomfort, not just because he’s kind of a buffer, but because we’re hanging out, we’re having a conversation, we’re engaging with each other, so I don’t have to be self conscious,” Kavanagh said. “I’m thinking about what we’re doing. He also encourages me to actually go.”

Feeling self conscious is one of the biggest obstacles for new lifters to overcome. Niemi has also had to deal with self consciousness and comparison in the gym.

“I would compare myself a lot and that’s just the thief of joy,” Niemi said. “The hardest thing was to not compare myself and make myself feel down about what I had accomplished compared to everyone else because I was on a different track.”

Photo courtesy of Madi Niemi.

As for managing insecurities in the gym, confidence has become an important part of the game for many weightlifters.

“Walk into that space with your shoulders high, your chest up — you’re proud, you belong here,” Niemi said. “No one has more of a right to be there than you do. Don’t feel like you don’t belong. Be confident in yourself. Approach the machine with confidence.”

Kavanagh also thinks that self-consciousness can be mediated through introspection.

“I’m not looking and judging anyone else, so it's a little silly that I would be so afraid of people looking at and judging me,” Kavanagh said.

While reminding oneself of these things can often be easier said than done, it’s important to remember that comfortability with the gym develops overtime. 

Junior Tegan Graham started lifting near the end of her freshman year. The journey to where she is now in the gym was neither quick nor easy.

“I’ve been going to the gym since my first week of school here,” Graham said. “That’s how long it took me, almost until my sophomore year, to be comfortable going downstairs to be in the big weight room.”

Today, Graham is confident enough to use the weight room however she needs. 

“Now that I’ve gotten comfortable with it, I kind of just go in there and stand my ground and own my space because I know where all the equipment is, I know what I like to use and I feel like for the most part I know what I’m doing,” Graham said.

While there’s a lot that can be done on the individual level to overcome fears about the gym, some find that the Beauchamp environment remains far too intimidating. 

The first-floor weight room can be an especially uncomfortable space for women to be in. Over the years, the idea of introducing women-only hours to Beauchamp has been discussed but ultimately shot down. 

For students beginning their fitness journeys at Beauchamp, Aldujaili finds that women-only hours can be empowering for women.

“It’s a great [place] to start for women who are extremely intimidated [by] the opposite sex or from the overwhelmingness of male dominance in the gym,” Aldujaili said. “[But] in the real world, stepping out of that comfort zone is crucial.”

Others have found it important to maintain all-inclusive workout spaces at UP.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate to divide people in this setting on campus where everyone should have access,” Kavanagh said.

Additional concerns are raised by the proposition of having women-only hours, especially in regards to how transgender and nonbinary people would fit into the conversation. 

“I think it would be discouraging to trans women and people questioning their gender,” Kavanagh said. “Categorizing non-binary people with women is a whole thing. It’s fundamentally flawed for a lot of reasons. Mostly the fact of ‘who is determining who counts?’”

According to Barnett, other issues concerning the layout of the gym make the implementation of women-only hours a difficult process. The open layout of the building negates the easy solution of sectioning off the gym for women-only hours. 

Though the openness of Beauchamp isn’t ideal for women-only spaces, it can provide comfort for those feeling vulnerable to harassment in gyms.

“Part of me is really happy that our weight room is not in a bad corner anywhere,” Barnett said. “It’s open to the front and everyone can see what’s going on.”

Beauchamp staff are also a resource for students concerned about harassment in the gym. In the past, students have let front-desk staffers know about any uncomfortable encounters, according to Barnett. Posters with Barnett’s email are also available around Beauchamp in the event that students experience harassment at the gym.

“We’ve had a couple times where students have gone to the front saying ‘he’s giving me a weird feeling’ and we’ve been able to say ‘what do you need?’” Barnett said. “They [responded] ‘I just wanted someone to know.’ In that case, the front desk is right there, and we’re able to see [what’s happening].”

The front desk staff are also equipped to help anyone with questions about how to use the weightlifting machines.  

“[The front desk workers] are trained to be like ‘I can teach you’ or ‘I can show you,’” Niemi said. “That’s why there’s two of us up there, so that one of us can leave and go help and the other can sit.”

More suggestions to help alleviate gymtimidation include missing the crowds by going earlier in the day, listening to music and having a premeditated workout plan.

“You feel intimidation at first but then you build your own routine,” Aldujaili said. “You meet new people and you just make [the gym] your new home.”

For Niemi, the key to confidence at Beauchamp is to “put your headphones on, play some music that you like, make sure you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing and just own it.” 

Camille Kuroiwa-Lewis is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at kuroiwal26@up.edu.

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