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Gender and Turbo Kick

Victoria, the group fitness instructor, leads a hip rotation movement in the middle of an ab routine she created. I am the only regularly attending male in the primarily female Turbo Kick class of 25-35 participants. I focus on my core muscles while rotating my hips, but I have a little bit of trouble given that my back is tight. “Alright! Really engage your entire core with this one!” Victoria challenges the class.

This is Turbo Kick.

Turbo Kick, created by Beachbody, is a combination of traditional kickboxing and high-intensity interval training to the rhythm of contemporary upbeat music. Turbo Kick has a regimented half hour of cardio revolving around arm, leg and ab exercises followed by a two-minute high-BPM “turbo” time, a 15-minute lower intensity section, specialized leg, arm and core routines, and a warm down stretch to end it all. Despite the predominantly female attendance, Turbo Kick is and has always been a co-ed class.

This same routine is done every class session, but sometimes males other than myself attend the class, and something different happens.

Victoria leads a hip rotation movement in the middle of the same ab routine. A group of guys show up to the class for the first time. They’ve been laughing and half-attempting the routine for the past 45 minutes. The rest of us rotate our hips, and one of the newcomers even lets out an “Ooooooo…” while his friends giggle. “I know that this move feels silly, but it engages your entire core!” Victoria reassures the class.

Why does this happen? Why does a shift in the gender balance change the dynamic so much?

“I actually prefer not to say this during my routines.” Victoria said when I asked her why she described the hip movement as “silly.” “I’ve included this to try to bring [new guys] on board and to politely stop the laughter, since that kind of behavior is distracting to others and can make others in the class feel very self-conscious.”

Surely she’s right. As I asked other regular female attendees about this particular incident, all of them distinctly remember how uncomfortable the group of males made them feel. Some noted that they felt sexualized because they knew the men weren’t very focused on the workout itself. Others felt like they should be less intense in their workout because they shouldn’t take seriously what the men deemed worthy of laughter and derision. With their mockery, this group of men negatively impacted the women’s perception of both themselves and their workout in their own space.

Gender is highly at play in this situation. This group fitness class has a blend of stereotypically “masculine” exercises (physical aggression, high-intensity interval training) as well as “feminine” ones (occasional hip movement, rhythmic exercise), yet it is perceived and viewed as a feminine group fitness class due to its strong female presence and its mistaken association with Zumba. Disrespectful men enter the space expecting an easy workout because they expect as much from a “feminine” space but have a rude awakening once the class, which necessitates a high amount of physical endurance and attention to detail, begins. (Victoria even acknowledges that “it’s an intimidating class to come to as a male because you are surrounded by 20-30 females who have been attending pretty regularly.”) In order to compensate for their inexperience and ineptitude in a female space, they make fun the workout so that they redefine the workout as a joke and they no longer feel inadequate. Women in the class note this delegitimization of their workout and become self-conscious, experiencing feelings of sexualization and embarrassment upon doing the workout that they love. The result is that male attendees have unjust power over the female attendees when they don’t take Turbo Kick seriously. The same effect occurs in other stereotypically female spaces such as yoga, Pilates and (co-ed) Zumba.

But what if women entered a stereotypically male space? Would this same effect occur the other way? No; this effect is a one-way street.

If a woman were to enter a stereotypically male space and make a mockery of it, men would not be threatened. For instance, if a woman were to enter the weights section of the gym and play around with the weights as a joke, men would not feel objectified nor would they feel that weightlifting is intrinsically dumb and not work as hard at it. In fact, women that take weightlifting seriously still experience feelings of delegitimization and belittlement even though they’re playing by the rules of weightlifting. It seems that, no matter the gym setting, women are disempowered to express themselves physically in the presence of other men who do not value them as worthy gym members.

So, what is the underlying issue at play?

The issue here is not that men and women exercise in the same space, but that men do not see women as equals in the gym or in athletic settings at large. Sexism is the problem, not coeducation.

My presence in Turbo Kick for the past two years is my experiential apologetic for this claim. After trying one Turbo Kick session my freshman year (and struggling and sweating my way through it), I decided to give it another shot at the beginning of my junior year in an effort to regularly exercise. Though the class had a steep learning curve, I slowly memorized moves to the routines and became a regular attendee. Through this class, I’ve made quite a few friends (including Victoria!) and have become an avid Turbo Kick advocate. I even brought my mom with me to Turbo Kick this past week!

After the the incident with the disruptive and disrespectful group of guys, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was contributing to this power problem or not. I surveyed the attendees and Victoria, and I found something quite interesting. None that I surveyed felt uncomfortable by the fact that I’m a male attendee and all affirmed my presence in the class because I took the class seriously. Taking the class seriously as a male in a predominantly female space is a form of legitimization, a method of affirming that there is nothing deficient about the workout, and a way of celebrating that men and women are worthy of the same respect. I will acknowledge that women making light of Turbo Kick damages the dynamic of the class as well, but the impact men have is far greater. Therefore, an attitude of male superiority, or sexism, is the issue.

So what’s the solution? What can men do to exist in the same workout space without promoting sexism?

With this understanding, men and women should be able to occupy the same exercise space as long as there is mutual respect between genders. The less that men and women occupy the same exercise space, the more ignorant (heterosexual) men and women become on understanding how to have healthy interactions with the opposite sex. Not to mention that Wheaton is one of the very few places that has exclusively gendered group fitness classes, so men and women cannot evade this issue forever.

All of this being said, I highly encourage the men of Wheaton to attend Turbo Kick! The workout will kick your butt, but it’s a fantastic, energetic full body workout. In light of everything I have mentioned, here are a couple pieces of advice for men attending Turbo Kick.

  1. Be in the front row. This is an exercise in humility given it is easier for others to look at you when you’re front and center, but this is such a service to those around you because they know you aren’t looking at them instead.
  2. Get to know others in the class. Many of the girls I spoke to said that they haven’t had an issue with me because they know me. Trust comes from relationship.
  3. It’s okay to laugh at yourself, but try your hardest in the workout. If it’s your first time, you will mess up and laugh at yourself, and that’s okay – the problem arises when you make a joke out of the workout itself.

The reason why I’m writing this article is because I love Turbo Kick and I care about those in the class. The space has empowered me, allowing me to overcome my anxiety surrounding exercise and truly enjoy working out again. Turbo Kick has also taught me to be more confident in my athletic ability and to love my body more. Because everyone deserves an athletic space where they feel comfortable, one that is free of gender superiority, I want to ensure that this space is just as empowering to women as it has been to me over the past two years. I hope this analysis has revealed the threats to comfortable athletic spaces and how the sanctity of these spaces should be preserved.


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About the Author

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Peyton Finley is a recent graduate of Wheaton College (IL) with a dual Mathematics and Physics degree. He works as a Real Estate Strategy Analyst for Walmart Corporate in Bentonville, AR. When he's not creating statistically-supported data dashboards, he spends his time training to be a Turbo Kick fitness instructor, soulfully riffing on the bass guitar, and reading sociological pieces on sexuality, gender and race.

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