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The sexism behind the continued closure of fitness studios

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HIIT Pilates classes in Hackney Wick

The sexism behind the continued closure of fitness studios

By Rhian Cowburn (Studio Founder)

Why is no one talking about one of the most misogynistic decisions made by the UK government during the pandemic?  The reopening of gyms but the continued closure of fitness + yoga studios.


The 12th April 2021 was a big day for a lot of people – the return to the gym. As the owner of a fitness studio, I was sent dozens of well-meaning texts from friends congratulating me on the big day. Finally after over a year of on and off closures we could reopen our indoor studio.

Except we couldn’t. Why? Because unlike gyms, fitness, yoga and dance studios were not permitted to open.
 
Since 12th April, you can go to the gym, swim in a pool, climb on a climbing wall (the list goes on) but yoga and pilates, which the government has deemed ‘group activities’, remain off limits.


To illustrate the issue, it is now permitted to open a 1000 square feet gym, with ten members using weight lifting machines, for example. But a fitness studio, which is identical in size, with space for the same number of people, hoping to practise yoga – that is not permitted. 

I’m my view, Covid would have to be a pretty smart virus to know the distinction.

We are all familiar with the factors that mitigate covid spread – distancing, ventilation and masks (where appropriate). I have seen no evidence that suggests the virus is more likely to spread through yoga practise than weight-lifting.

So, an industry that employs predominantly women (65% of UK fitness instructors are women source) and serves predominantly women customers is marginalized. On what basis? Well it certainly doesn’t appear to be based on data.

(Side note here, of course many women go to the gym. So the reopening of gyms hasn’t only benefited men. However the closure of fitness, yoga and dance studios has disproportionately affected women).

The data on covid transmission linked to gyms + fitness studios was all lumped together so there’s nothing to suggest it was more likely to spread in a class environment than a traditional gym.

However it is hard to believe that classes operating on capped capacity, with distance between each participant with thorough cleaning of kit could be more likely to contribute to the spread of the virus than a traditional gym environment; whereby customers are free to wander around and touch multiple pieces of equipment in any given session.

It’s worth noting that the hygiene practices I describe above (distancing, participant limits, cleanliness routines) are all part of running of any decent fitness or yoga studio. Not just quick fixes put in place in response to the pandemic. A culture of keeping people healthy and safe was always in existence.

Covid transmission linked to the fitness industry as a whole was very low (less than a 1/3 of cases compared to those linked to pubs and bars source) so my argument is certainly not against the opening of gyms, but the inclusion of another equally (if not more) safe way of exercising.

 So how did it come to this?  I can only put it down to one thing, male dominated covid decision making.

Males dominate covid decision making globally. Looking at the covid response teams in 87 different countries 85.2% were made up of mostly males. (source). When it comes to reopening businesses decisions like this one make it seem that the needs of men are paramount, the needs of women are frivolous.

We have seen this elsewhere in the covid response- for example; when close contact services (such as threading) at barbers were allowed yet the same services in beauty salons were still off-limits. If a man wants it it’s a case of good health and hygiene, if a woman wants it, it can only be driven by vanity.  

You may remember during the Prime Minister’s Question time last year when the MP William Wragg MP posed the question when beauty salons could reopen.

In response, Boris Johnson said:

“I am sure that one day I will go with my honourable friend to Lush Beauty, but it is a sad reality for many of those excellent businesses that they cannot yet open in the way they want.”

The response from the predominantly male MPs – laughter. Forgive me for not seeing the funny side of female dominated industries being left on the side-lines when it comes to recovering from months of forced closures.

The reasons why group fitness classes exist and why so many women gravitate towards them cannot have been taken into account when the decision was made to keep them closed.

A survey found nearly 71% of women had been harassed in a gym (by the way – not just as a one-off occurrence; harassed on a regular basis) while 81% had at some point changed their gym routine because they were being followed around their gym. (source)

 And before anyone starts with the ‘not all men’, and ‘not all gyms’ –  you can see from the data it is nearly all women who find it hard to exercise safely. So it cannot be denied that the closure of fitness and yoga studios will have had a profound effect on women’s ability to exercise confidently and safely.

I’m sure many women would happily swap the class they can’t do for a run. Except 46% of female runners in the UK say they have been harassed while running…  (source)

At a time when women are shouting loud and clear that they are tired of it being their responsibility to be ‘vigilant’ when what we actually need is a cultural shift towards men taking responsibility for women’s harassment, the government should be prioritising safe spaces for women.

A recent report from researchers from the London School of Economics found the government has “consistently failed” to consider gender in its response to Covid-19 despite men and women being affected in distinct ways by the pandemic.  The distinct needs of women when it comes to requiring a safe space to stay fit and healthy most certainly wasn’t brought to the table when decisions were made.

Despite fitness studios being closed for an additional five weeks compared to traditional gyms, there’s no additional financial support for the (largely female) business owners.

I assume this is because you can legally open your studio, you just can’t offer classes. A bit like a swimming pool being open but not allowing people to swim or a pub that can’t serve booze…  you get my point.  An additional month of not being allowed to operate, after nearly a year of closure may well be the final straw for many studios who’ve struggled to stay afloat.

Add the lack of additional financial support for these predominantly women owned business to the fact that women have disproportionately been negatively impacted in nearly every other area of their lives during the pandemic (from the share of the housework, to the responsibility of home schooling) it’s hard to not see the continued closure of Fitness and Yoga studios for what it seems to be– another blatant form of sexual discrimination.

Wembley football stadium welcomed back 4000 (of course predominantly male) football fans before we’ll be able to offer a yoga class to 6 socially distanced participants. Granted, those attending the football match were tested on arrival, but my point is, if it can be done on that scale, there’s no reason that testing could not have been offered to businesses like ours.

The government vowed to follow data and good sense when it came to reopening businesses after the (supposedly) final lock down. It seems clear from the decision to keep fitness studios closed, that was all hot air.

Thankfully my studio Strong + Bendy in Hackney has an outdoor garden, so we have been able to run in some capacity since March. However it goes without saying we are counting down the days until we can reopen the indoor studio and welcome back our much missed and beloved members.

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