Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2013

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Women's Studies

First Advisor

Birrell, Susan

First Committee Member

Lewin, Ellen

Second Committee Member

Andsager, Julie

Third Committee Member

Parratt, Catriona

Fourth Committee Member

Greyser, Naomi


American women have been accessing fitness spaces since fitness became an industry in the United States starting in the 1960s. Since that time the fitness industry has grown exponentially. Though a majority of Americans do not engage in fitness regimens on a regular basis, the cultural mandate for fitness (a combination of health and aesthetics) permeates American society. Though seemingly gender neutral, the fitness imperative has gendered prescriptions and results; some of which are on display in fitness spaces.

Because of a presumption of equal access, supported by data illustrating that women use gyms in greater numbers than men, little research has focused on their specific uses of gym spaces and potential barriers they encounter in trying to access all the spaces in the gym. This dissertation is a qualitative study of the gendered barriers and fitness prescriptions in the contemporary American fitness center, or gym, as it is colloquially known.

Using qualitative interviews (N=25) and participant observation at three gyms, I discuss the sociocultural creation of gym space and gym practices focusing on their gendered implications. The study focuses on specific spaces (i.e., the aerobics room, the weight room) as well as the more general uses of "open" gym space. I examine the sources of women's fitness knowledge, their entry points into fitness spaces, and their use of fitness technologies. I found that while women's movements within the gym and their choice of fitness regimens varied, they all understood the gendered nature of fitness as a whole and how it manifest on women's bodies. I discuss the pleasures gained as well as anxieties women had about using both traditional and non-traditional gendered gym spaces. Women's fitness regimens comprise part of their identities, in and outside the gym. In fitness spaces women earned social, cultural, and physical capital based on their fitness abilities, physiques, and fitness knowledge. These rewards were available to all women in all fitness spaces but the amount of capital accumulation varied depending on age, race, sexuality, ability and which fitness spaces they accessed and for what purpose.


aerobics, fitness, gender, gym, sexuality, weightlifting


iv, 235 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 221-235).


Copyright 2013 Kristine Newhall