A dark-haired white woman wearing a black sports vest stands with her back to the camera, raising her arms up above her shoulders to display the muscles in her arms and shoulders

Photo by Coba. Shared under a creative commons licence.

Journalist and men’s rights activist Peter Lloyd is suing Kentish Town Sports Centre (warning: the article is hosted on an MRA website, which some readers may find offensive or upsetting) for offering women-only sessions in their gym and swimming pool. According to Lloyd, barring him from using the pool or gym at certain times, but charging him the same membership fee, is an infringement of his human rights comparable with the racial segregation laws enforced in some US states until the 1960s.

Even the most basic research into Peter Lloyd’s background shows that he’s a man with an agenda. He’s a campaigning journalist with a particular interest in men’s rights, he writes for blogs which advertise websites that publicly name and shame “bigots” (feminists) and “false accusers” (abuse survivors), and last year he accepted an award from the Anti-Feminism League. Suing his gym for the relatively common practice of offering women-only sessions sounds like either an overreaction or a publicity stunt, but if he wins his case it could force gyms across the country to start charging different membership rates for men and women. Since many sports facilities – particularly those run by or on behalf of local authorities – also offer some exercise classes which can only be attended by people over 60, or swimming sessions that are solely for parents with young children, will he be demanding further discounts for those who are young and child-free?

Lloyd claims that all men are being punished because of the minority who might ogle women in the gym, and that this is unfair to those men who can behave like decent human beings, but this shows a misunderstanding of why some women are reluctant to exercise in mixed company. Even if every male visitor behaved impeccably, there are some women would still feel uncomfortable being around men while exercising. Some women might have religious or cultural reasons for preferring to exercise in a single-sex environment, but many will simply be afraid of the silent judgements that men will pass on their bodies.

Although Lloyd is correct in stating that some men also struggle with body image, it doesn’t compare to the level of socially sanctioned prejudice about women’s appearance. Whether it’s the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame or comments from family members, co-workers and complete strangers, women’s bodies are constantly up for public discussion. Boob-size, bum-size, clothes, make-up, hairstyle (which is a particularly sensitive issue for black women), wrinkles, acne, cellulite, body hair – other people feel entitled to comment on all of them. And the worst part of it is that judgements on your appearance aren’t just about your appearance; they’re a reflection of your worth and status. In the eyes of society and the media, not meeting the approved beauty standards doesn’t just make you unattractive, it makes you a bad person.

As well as anxiety about their appearance, women also have to contend with society’s negative attitudes towards women taking part in sport. The competitiveness and athleticism are seen as undesirable in women; we’re supposed to be soft, weak, and passive. When the football referee Sian Massey started working at men’s Premier League matches in 2011, commentators questioned whether a woman was capable of running around at the edge of the pitch for a full 90 minutes. Pre-olympics profiles of athletes, such as the now-infamous Vogue photoshoot, went to great lengths to make the women appear glamorous and feminine by picturing them in bizarre costumes, and in most cases posing like fashion models (and there are rumours that some had their limbs airbrushed to minimise their muscles), while the men were shown training. While male athletes are praised to the point of objectification for their muscular physiques, visible muscles on women are seen as ugly, unfeminine, and even unnatural.

Societal pressures like these form a major barrier to many women’s participation in exercise, and since these attitudes aren’t going to disappear overnight, we need to have ways of mitigating their effect in the meantime. “Equality” doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone exactly the same; some people need extra support to participate fully in society, even though others manage without help. Providing that support isn’t discrimination, it’s inclusion.