I need to mentally prepare myself for Dodge Fitness Center on a weekday night. Whenever I go, I fall into the same routine. First, there’s the internal debate: whether to fight for a cardio machine or to pass this time around. There’s the look at the sign-up sheet, on which just about every slot for the next hour is full. There’s the ultimate moving on.
If I’m desperate for a run, I turn to the track, running 1/10-mile circles around and around until even my top-notch Spotify playlist can’t drown out my sheer and utter boredom. When I stop running, it’s time to turn to the weight machines. Without fail, I am confronted with both athletes and amateur gym-goers like myself jostling for the strength machines and free weights. We outnumber the machines. And we need more space.
At Columbia, these workout spaces are limited and limiting. As a first-year, it took me two months to stumple upon the small but noble Barnard gym in the basement of Barnard Hall. So, during the first months, I felt I had no choice but to go to Dodge. A gym was a space I needed.
Dodge, located entirely underground, houses everything from the Uris Pool and Levien Gymnasium to rooms for yoga classes, recreational badminton, and cheerleading practice.n. It is also home to three levels of curved and narrow spaces filled with cardio machines and strength training equipment.
I have never been to this underground expanse at a time when it wasn’t crowded. Every body around you is moving in some way, shape, or form, and if you get there at the wrong time, it can feel almost suffocating.
On the top and bottom levels, the cardio machines line a section of the indoor track and are monopolized by the men and women who were lucky enough to land a spot on the gym’s cutthroat sign-up sheets. However, in the middle level, primarily filled with weights, there is a different dynamic. On a typical Monday night, I might observe two women bench pressing together. I see few, if any, other women anywhere near the weights—not by the dumbbells, not by the cables, not on the machines.
My favorite machines, the chest, back, shoulder, and arm machines, are on the top level. Yet they’re often crowded with men lining up to take each other’s spots. I usually see only one woman among them. Sometimes, that one woman is me.
Every level in Dodge feels almost impenetrable, as if adding even one more person—one more woman—would throw the whole system out of order. Most times, I find it best to just stay away.
For context, I have always been weak. Or at least, that’s how I saw myself. Growing up, my almost ridiculous lack of upper body strength combined with my almost absurd shyness made me see myself as visibly fragile.
It was genetic, my mom always told me. I couldn’t help it. And so I felt helpless.
I tried to diminish my feelings of weakness with sports, testing my limits in soccer, swimming, tennis, lacrosse, hiking, biking, and running. I was never a star athlete in the slightest, but racing through cool waters in the early morning and the sound of my feet thumping across freshly cut lawns gave me a sense of belonging in my body that no immobile activity could rival.
I quickly learned that my happiness was tethered to my physical activity. To me, feeling the oxygen course through my lungs and the sweat upon my face means rejuvenation. If I cannot move, my restless mind runs in a million directions. I need to move for peace of mind and body. I need to move.
When I came to Barnard, I saw it as an opportunity to become stronger in every sense of the word. I told myself I would try with all my heart to take on the academic world and my physical well-being with courage and strength. And so I began strength training.
As a wide-eyed first year, the weight machines and dumbbells that pack the Dodge gym were daunting. Each machine required me to learn its techniques and unlock its mysteries.
It wasn’t until the summer before sophomore year that I truly mastered the ability to lift properly and with purpose. The machines that had once intimidated me are now part of my weekly routine. I have become tremendously self-aware: aware of the strength my body is capable of, aware of how much I can truly grow.
The days I wake up with aching muscles are the days I experience a feeling of newfound strength and clarity. Strength training has given me a stable meter with which to tame a busy, stressful, Columbia student-worthy life. For 45 minutes a day, Mondays through Thursdays, my steady routine gives me a sense of productivity. These blocks of time that I spend with myself, challenging and learning about myself, have become sacred to me.
But when I exercise at Dodge, I stick to the top level. I don’t even try to grab a spot at the cables, which feel like a testosterone territory I dare not cross. I have just as much of a right to be there as anyone else, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Clearly, the spatial and gender dynamics at the gym are a problem. And it isn’t just me saying that.
After conducting a series of studies at a university in the mid-Atlantic region, a study published in the American Psychological Association demonstrated that women were less comfortable than men at the gym, especially when using weight machines and free weights. It’s not just the space; exercise itself has become gendered, with strength training seen as a more masculine activity, and “fat-burning” cardio exercises seen as comparatively feminine. One study found that when participants imagined exercising around other people, those who imagined using the bench press reported greater feelings of what researchers termed “evaluation concerns” than those who imagined using the StairMaster™.
The study describes “evaluation concerns” as psychological concerns that are “pervasive and powerful mechanisms of both self regulation and social control.” Feeling scrutinized, judged, or even watched by others, especially by people of the opposite sex, can strongly deter us from certain actions, such as strength training at the gym.
I can finally put a name to what I experienced for the better part of my first year here, and, to some extent, what I continue to experience. When I first started exercising at Dodge, when I didn’t know a thing about lifting but was eager to teach myself, these evaluation concerns definitely deterred me from trying everything I wanted to try. I found myself not even going near a bench if I felt it would take me too long to adjust it. It took me days to figure out where the dumbbells even were, all so that I didn’t look like an idiot wandering around, dodging the dozens of people in my path.
Of course, there’s always the argument that women should suck it up and walk into male-dominated spaces with our heads held high. That’s the whole reason I came to Barnard, right? But the lack of space and the stark gender dynamics in certain places, including this one, make this easier said than done. This is why the existence of the Barnard gym—where women are always the majority—is so important. It’s a space where I can lift side-by-side with my female peers, with fewer—if any— men hovering nearby to take up my space. This place has become a humble haven, where I can seek shelter from a bad day or mountains of schoolwork and where I can focus on my physical well-being when my mind needs a breather.
However, the entire Barnard gym is smaller than even one level of Dodge’s lifting areas, and it is not nearly as extensively equipped. I find myself using the same machines every week, and there isn’t a single dumbbell that weighs more than 40 pounds. It has always been considered a “low-key alternative” to its counterpart across the street. I move for the Barnard gym to become a solid alternative. Investing in student wellness is important, and Barnard more than just about any other college knows the value of women-centric spaces. I can only imagine how many more women would value the Barnard gym like I do if its capacity to support strength and growth surged.
Still, even with limited capabilities, the Barnard gym has given me a space that Columbia’s Dodge does not. I chose to come to Barnard because I saw it as a place of vast possibilities, where I could learn about myself and unlock my strength and potential. Who knew that a tiny room in the heart of campus would grow to mean so much to me?
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