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Don’t Let Toxic ‘Gym-Tok’ Culture Make You Feel Unwelcome at the Gym

Marge stands next to a muscular woman at the gym in 'The Simpsons'

Tis the season to (let’s see, pulling out my checklist): put on holiday weight, get depressed because of the weather, ponder the ceaseless passage of time, and—oh, right—deal with family bullshit because it’s the holidays and Ha Ha Cheery Times we all have to get along because Chrimus!

leslie knope laughing gif
(NBC)

No, I’m not a Grinch, I just find it easier to cope by being realistic about our circumstances. By extension, I decided I’d do something a little different this year and take more control of my own circumstances. That’s right, I got a damn gym membership.

I want to be very clear with my intentions in this article: I don’t think getting a gym membership is something EVERYONE should do. And, as a thicker person myself, I really don’t want the takeaway to be that weight loss is or should be everyone’s ultimate goal. I’m writing this for the people who—like me a year ago—want to start exercising more but don’t know where to start, and feel like the gym isn’t an option because of some toxic ideals in the culture surrounding it.

To my girls, gays, and theys, lemme tell ya: I actually really love going to the gym. The people who work there are generally very nice and want to help you achieve your goals, yet they’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want. I go on my little treadmill runs while listening to “piss-and-vinegar” playlists, and then I do my little thigh exercises so I can regain my old strength.

Going back reminds me of how much I used to get out of the gym when I’d go during college (when it was free … lol). I wasn’t as aware of the toxic mentality some people have surrounding the gym back then, so I’d go and treat it like a date with my own body. I’d get familiar with all my muscles and how I wanted to take care of them, and I’d leave feeling more centered. Plus, it’s just plain fun most of the time, especially if your local gym is up to date and aesthetically cool!

So, now that we have all that established, let’s get to the meat of this article: “Gym-Tok” toxicity and how to get around it.

What is “Gym-Tok”?

I have no idea why, but my Instagram FYP started blowing up with Reels of people showing off their gym habits. On paper, this seems harmless and I’m always down to celebrate people reaching their milestones and enjoying their bodies. Plus, some of the videos feature really sweet celebrations of positive masculinity, with guys hyping each other up and supporting one another.

However, there is always a note of bitterness and angst that makes me side-eye most of these videos. I won’t link any of them because I’m not a masochist, but chances are you’ve seen these videos, too. A lot of them are reaction videos that basically send the message: “I’m going to the gym because I’ve been rejected so many times in my life and I’m tired of it.” Again, relatively harmless, yet they often go further in directions that are very dark, aggressive, and at times frightening.

Sometimes, they go in a predictable direction, along the lines of “fuck the women who hurt me, I’m gonna make them want me/fear me.” These videos will include audio talking about exes or old crushes in a misogynist manner (like they’re “sluts”) while showing off their bodies in ways that are deliberately meant to seem intimidating. In essence, they’re presenting the image of the sort of person you don’t want to walk past in a supermarket. And this is such a classically unproductive way of dealing with angst and rejection—things EVERYONE goes through. Women as a whole aren’t the reason you feel bad, buddy. It’s just that it hurts to not feel wanted, and at a certain point, you need to grow up and realize that’s a part of life. By all means, go to the gym to literally work out your feelings—that’s healthy and highly recommended. But don’t turn it into some misogynist crusade to shun women altogether, or reinforce a childish “bros before hoes” mentality. Everyone experiences rejection, and other people have just as much of a right to use the gym as a positive space.

Then there are the videos where the subtext seems to be “I’m so ugly, the only way I can validate myself is by exercising”—which is awful, and it breaks my heart every time I see it! I want to reach in and shake these people and say, NO, you’re not ugly, you’re just a product of a society that doesn’t teach us how to value ourselves on our own terms!!! These videos will show before and after images—often with totally normal bodies and faces as the “before” image, referenced in a derisive way—with text overlaid that says something like, “I have no friends/nobody loves me, so I go to the gym.” And the music they use is nothing but downer tunes, so the tone is just entirely piteous.

As much as I feel empathy for these people and what they’re going through, these kinds of videos only add fuel to the fire of self-loathing. Watching these videos, a person might think themselves inferior; that they’re being “ugly” by not going to the gym; or they might figure that they, too, are just another ugly person going to the gym to forget their ugliness. Y’all! Oh my god! Who hurt you!!! Please stop hurting other people in turn!!!!

Ultimately, what these two strands of digital darkness reinforce is the idea that the world is out to get you and that the gym is the only place you can find solace. And that, in my opinion, only serves to scare other people away from the gym. They might see this rampant self-hatred and believe that they’ll feel out of place at the gym because they’re not on some hyper-masculine “quest” toward … ugh, forgive me for saying this …”the sigma grindset.”

And look, your mileage may always vary, but I gotta say: As loud as those guys are, they don’t seem to be the majority in the slightest.

What the gym is ACTUALLY like, from the perspective of a 5’1 queer Asian girl

Trish sitting in the gym, holding a piece of paper in Marvel and Netflix's Jessica Jones season 3.
(Netflix)

I walk in and say hello to the people working the desk (who are around my age), and then I hop on the treadmill. While there, nobody bothers me, and I’m blissfully able to focus on the task at hand. Then, when I’m done running, I work on my thighs. I finish with light upper-body work, and then I head out. 45 minutes undisturbed, and at my own pace.

All around me are people of all kinds: Older women just going for a light jog, kids trying it out for the first time, buff queens getting in their reps, queer folks working out in groups, easygoing bros doing some after-work lifting. And sure, there’s creepy old guys who leer, but I actually feel empowered doing my workout around them because I know, deep down, they won’t do anything about it. They see what I’m doing and what I’m capable of, and while the show is nice, sure, they know I could flatten them with little effort if they tried anything.

Ultimately, I leave feeling better about myself and about people in general. Everyone goes to the gym to accomplish their goals, and so far I’ve only met positive people with no judgmental attitudes whatsoever. I wanted to write this article to encourage the rest of my holiday curmudgeons to give the gym a try if they’re even the least bit curious—some of us don’t have neighborhoods to walk or run in, and some of us want more than a home workout can provide. I also want to validate the fears some people might have going into environments that have been so stigmatized by toxic masculinity. And, as someone who would normally be an easy target in those kinds of environments, I have only gained from going to the gym thus far.

… unless you count the soreness the day after because wow. Oof.

(featured image: Fox)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer and dog mom. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself, and is currently working on a novel. However, when she isn't writing, she's either battling insomnia or taking too many naps. You can read her stuff at https://madelinecwrites.com/