Chicago women find solace at identity-specific gyms


Ruchi Nawathe

Karen Barrie participates in a 30-minute workout program at Curves gym on Devon Ave. The 74-year-old has been exercising at Curves, a women-only gym, for about 20 years.

Many women feel uncomfortable working out in unisex gyms. Tight workout clothing feels all the more revealing while squatting or bending over in front of men. Exercise machines are often calibrated to suit men’s bodies, and many men have demeaning attitudes towards women in gyms.

Karen Barrie, 74, has exercised at Curves on Devon Ave. for around 20 years. Barrie, who has worked out at gyms regularly since she was 28, has never seen better results since going to Curves.

“I was not in bad shape when I joined Curves,” said Barrie. “In two months, I weighed the same… but the shape of my body, and where muscles were building and where I was getting a little more curvaceous, it really began to show up.”

Curves is a women-only gym with locations all over the country. The program features a 30 minute workout designed to be as effective and safe as possible.

“The machines are specially designed for a woman’s body,” said Curves coach Maria Garcia. “Our bodies are different than men’s, for example, our stretching station. The workout beforehand gives microtears in the muscle tissue. When the muscle tissue heals, we want it to heal long and lean, where a man wants mostly to have it bulky, so after our workout we have them stretch…to turn them into long and lean position and then they heal.”

Curves’ program is made to be accessible to the widest range of women possible. 

“Our youngest is 11 years old and our oldest… she was 88,” Garcia said. 

Maria Garcia has been coaching women aged 11 to 88 at Curves gym for 17 years. (Ruchi Nawathe)

The exercise machines are resistance-based, which means that the machine adjusts its difficulty based on the strength level of the person using it.

“You really would have to do something ridiculous to hurt yourself on the machines,” Barrie said.

Many women-only gyms have taken a financial hit due to the pandemic, but Garcia is determined to keep Curves open despite slower business. 

“One of the reasons I kept the gym open, even though it’s not as profitable as many businesses are, is because I personally like working out where I don’t have to worry about any man looking at me and my positions that my body needs to be in to be healthy,” Garcia said.

DePaul senior and women’s soccer team member Kristin Boos has been subject to unwanted stares in the past. 

The toxic masculinity and degrading looks that are projected onto me when comparing myself to men is draining,” Boos said. 

Boos believes in making safe spaces available to those who require them.

“I think that making all people feel completely comfortable and safe is so important,” Boos said. “Unfortunately, in the world today, there is an anxiety that women feel around men because of the high numbers in sexual assault.”

Unwanted stares are not the only reason people would want to work at a women’s only gym. 

“There’s a lot of women who have religious restrictions. They can’t take off their burkas with a man in the environment,” Garcia said. 

Rachel Stansberry is a DePaul senior and employee at the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center, “The Ray.” The Ray is a unisex gym, but employees try to make the environment more comfortable for female gym goers. 

“I know from a lot of certain people’s experiences sometimes, people get intimidated when there are more men, so I know we try to have as many spaces available to make sure we keep the flow of everything going,” Stansberry said.

In addition to secluded sections of the gym, there are spaces available for only women. 

“We have some fitness classes that are just for women, like we have some that are called ‘women on weights,’” Stansberry said.

Barrie enjoys the sense of camaraderie that comes with exercising in a room full of women, especially since Curves has a loyal and consistent customer base.

“It’s like yin and yang,” Barrie said. “There’s a lot of yin energy in this, and I think for a lot of women who don’t have great self-esteem, who maybe they were subjects of abuse in their life, I mean there’s nothing like sisterhood.”