Approximately two million American women belong to women-only health clubs. Some women, such as those with religious objections to wearing revealing clothes in front of men, and abuse survivors who find it traumatic to display their bodies in front of unfamiliar men, use these clubs by necessity. Other women join these clubs to avoid unwanted male attention while they exercise. Still others, including overweight women and women who have had mastectomies, feel much less self-conscious exercising in an all-female environment. The owner of one women's health club boasts, "I like to think we're for real women. We don't have everyone looking like a Barbie doll. They're average size and shape. And we don't let men in. We say, 'No men, no mirrors, no kids.'" The owner of a club that holds women-only aerobics classes explains, "It's a privacy issue. The women are sweating, they don't have makeup on, and they feel that the guys are staring at their butts."
Some women find men to be a distraction when they go to coed gyms. Cynthia Parziale, director of research and development at the Naturally Women chain of fitness centers opines, "If you're really serious about your workout, it's distracting to have people of the opposite sex around. Women will spend time getting dressed or fixing their hair or putting on their lipstick before they come to the gym. The coolest thing about a women's gym is you can be ugly." Joan Pirone, who patronizes a women-only exercise club in Anchorage, Alaska, told CNN that "[a]t coed clubs you feel like you're on TV, like the men are constantly looking at you. Some women enjoy the attention from men, but some of us are intimidated by it. I'm glad I have the choice of going to a women-only gym." Other users of women's health clubs find that the women-only facilities are cleaner and smell better than coed gyms. Women's clubs also often emphasize the workout equipment that is used more frequently by women, and many even have special equipment built for women. The two women-only clubs in Anchorage, for example, have smaller-than-average Nautilus machines designed for women's bodies, with the weight stacks increasing by three-pound increments instead of the usual ten. Women-only clubs also emphasize educational programs focusing on women's health concerns, such as preventing osteoporosis and losing weight gained during pregnancy.
Despite their popularity and the privacy interests served by allowing women to work out free from male oglers, women-only clubs have sometimes run afoul of state laws banning sex discrimination in public accommodations. In 1988, noted feminist attorney Gloria Allred filed a sex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a Los Angeles man who was denied admission to a women's health club. Allred dismissed the concerns of women who join all-women gyms to avoid male ogling. She contended that the idea that all men ogle is a stereotype and that men who misbehave can be excluded from sex-integrated clubs on a case-by-case basis. Yet common experience suggests that heterosexual men are inclined to "check out" women, particularly women wearing small shorts or tight leotards. Further, Allred did not explain how a club would enforce or prevent an anti-ogling policy on an individual basis. It would be very different to actually prove the subtle act of a man evaluating a woman's body (Mr. Jones, please stop undressing Ms. Smith with your eyes), and sensitive women could very well feel ogled whether or not it was actually happening. Despite these
arguments, the Los Angeles club ultimately agreed to settle Allred's lawsuit and began admitting men. Successful lawsuits against women-only gyms in Minnesota, Orange County, California, and Wisconsin followed.
Happily, the tide seems to have turned against applying sex discrimination laws to the membership policies of gyms. In 1997, a Massachusetts trial court ruled that a women-only health club, Healthworks Fitness Center, could not exclude men. The decision was met with dismay by the 40,000 female members of that and other such clubs throughout Massachusetts. Despite the National Organization of Women's objections, legislators responded to a flood of protests from angry female exercise enthusiasts by exempting single-sex health clubs from Massachusetts's public accommodations law. Since then, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Tennessee have also passed laws specifically permitting single-sex health clubs, catering to either sex.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), meanwhile, has sued women's health clubs for refusing to hire male employees. The most significant case involved the Women's Workout World chain of fitness clubs in the Chicago, Illinois metropolitan area. After a showing that the chain hired only women, a federal judge granted summary judgment to the EEOC's claim of employment discrimination. In response, Women's Workout World filed a motion for reconsideration supported by a petition signed by over 10,000 club members. In support of its motion, the chain noted that it specialized in individual attention for its members and that its members did not want men touching them during workouts or seeing them disrobed in the locker room.
The judge concluded that Women's Workout World had articulated a legitimate privacy interest with regard to nudity and withdrew the summary judgment, but he allowed the case to continue. After seven years of crippling litigation expenses, Women's Workout World settled. The company agreed to hire men for certain restructured positions that would (hopefully) maintain members' privacy, and to pay $30,000 to men who had been turned down for jobs. Other all-women clubs have also fought and sometimes lost sex discrimination lawsuits filed by men who were refused employment.
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