Lifts, Gains, and Growth: Creating a More Inclusive Gym at Tufts

Walking into the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, students encounter a myriad of machines, free weights, and people hurrying to their next exercise. To many, the Tufts gym is a place to squeeze in a workout between classes and meetings. However, it can seem overwhelming to those who are new or don’t fit the typical “gym rat” persona often associated with male gym-goers. For many, fitness has morphed into an aesthetic of masculinity rather than a space for self-betterment. At the intersection between gendered divides, predatory behavior, and inaccessibility, the gym is an uncomfortable and unsafe space for many women and non-binary people.  

One group of students is trying to change this reality. Recently, they started a Tufts chapter of Girl Gains to create a gender-inclusive space for those who are interested in weightlifting and fitness. Girl Gains is a national organization with college chapters across the US aimed at empowering women as they pursue their fitness goals.

Sophomore Courtney Kreitzer, co-founder and co-president of Tufts’ chapter, explained, “I just really liked the idea [of Girls Gains] because when I first started going to the gym, I realized that it’s not the most safe space for gender minorities… I was often the only woman in the weight section, and I know that this was not the most comfortable experience for me… I could definitely see that [Tufts] was an environment that could use Girl Gains.”

This discomfort is only amplified at a smaller school like Tufts. In describing the Tufts gym, sophomore Natalie Rossinow, the vice president of Tufts Girl Gains, said, “You are going to see people you know, and I think that brings about a lot of insecurities for people who are getting into lifting for the first time, [which] is most of the time gender minorities… [Those] going there [are] feeling uncomfortable because of the looks and comments they get.”

One important step in cultivating an inclusive gym community was branding Tufts’ chapter of Girl Gains to be inclusive of all gender minorities, and not just women. The national Girl Gains organization doesn’t explicitly specify this inclusion, but Tufts’ chapter felt that it was needed.

“I identify as female and non-binary,” said sophomore Gideon Bennett, the social chair of Girl Gains. “And I think that the Girl Gains organization is great, but the title can be a little bit misleading and I really wanted to push and advocate to have a space for all gender minorities, not just women.” 

This change has opened up the club to many more students. With close to 300 followers online and more than 65 students attending their general interest meeting, Girl Gains has garnered support quickly. This is not only a testament to the club’s strong leadership, but also to students’ desire for change in Tufts’ gym culture.

“The involvement we’ve been seeing so far shows how needed this community is at Tufts… [Students have said they have] wanted to start lifting for so long, wanted to learn, or [have] been lifting… and want to see more gender minorities in the gym,” said sophomore Lauren Sylvester, co-founder and co-president of Tufts Girl Gains. “I’m excited that [this gym community is] starting to form.”

As the club’s traction has increased, members have begun coming up with ideas to make this community bigger. One program, Swolemates, hopes to bring more students to the gym by pairing them up with a partner. 

“At the core of this club, it’s about feeling more comfortable in the gym, and that’s going to happen when [you] see friendly faces at the gym and you’re smiling and laughing,” said Kreitzer. “[Swolemates is] basically the Marriage Pact but for providing a gym buddy… to go to the gym with, [to] feel more comfortable, [and] see a friendly face.”

Swolemates is intended to reduce the anxieties that come with going to the gym that are sometimes exacerbated by the disproportionate number of men in the space. The program, along with other events like Girl Gains Olympics, a fitness competition with games and prizes, helps the members get to know each other better and is a part of Girl Gains’ mission to make a community of their own. 

“[The fitness culture] is very male-oriented. The barrier to entry for girls and non-binary people is [such] that they don’t feel comfortable enough to go to the gym on their own, which is why I appreciate the Swolemate program,” said sophomore Emily Pham, a new member of Girl Gains. “[Going to the gym with somebody] can be so uplifting and makes you feel a lot safer, which is the number one reason for why I joined Girl Gains.”

Another big problem is that there are knowledge gaps in terms of what exercises one should do and what the proper technique is when people first start out. Many people don’t feel comfortable asking for help in this male-dominated space. 

“There is a lot of judgment at the gym, especially if you don’t know exactly what you are doing,” Bennett said. “It’s a very visible space, so not knowing what you’re doing can feel really nerve-racking… It is very hard to ask for help, especially in a male-dominated environment… that is a big problem we are trying to address.” For Bennett, this means undoing the gender divisions that exist when it comes to fitness and its culture. Girl Gains has already been in contact with female coaches certified in weightlifting about the possibility of teaching their members. 

As effort continues to come internally from Girl Gains, members have stressed the importance of recognition and accountability on the part of men and those that take up more space at the gym. “Cis men have to recognize that this is an issue… Having that acknowledgment and validation that how we feel is a real issue is a big thing,” said Rossinow.

Accountability and support from institutions are equally important to the success of Girl Gains. The Girl Gains board reached out to Tufts Community Union Senate about establishing women- and gender-minority-only hours at the gym. Jaden Pena, TCU president, spoke to the future of this proposal, saying, “We thought it would be easiest if we went directly to the athletic department… they’ve been helping us plan the space, the timing, and the staffing.”  

Pena continued, “What [TCU has] been doing is also researching what peer institutions do… A bunch of peer institutions [like Harvard] have programs like this, so that’s something that is super important. We are dedicated and we are confident that this is going to get done [by] the end of the month, if not [by] November, which is super exciting.”

As Girl Gains picks up traction on campus, members are excited to see what the future holds. With upcoming events like their Girl Gains Olympics as well as the possibility of separate gym hours, there is much to look forward to. “It’s just really motivating to see how many people are so supportive of it so quickly,” said Rossinow. “We hope this becomes a really big part of the Tufts community.”