Kent State women challenge gender norms through fitness

Madison Goerl, Reporter

Between years of soccer and track, Alysha Stone never knew a life without sports. Now a Kent State sophomore public health major, Stone remembers learning to exercise without her team.

“I found it hard getting back into the gym after playing sports in high school because I always had a structured routine. I was working out four to five days a week and I was in shape for my sport,” Stone said. “When you stop doing that, obviously your body changes. I didn’t know how to train in the mentality that I’m doing this for me, not for somebody else like your coach or your teammates.”

Many athletes like Stone struggle with motivation post-graduation. A 2017 study linked post-retirement symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with strong athletic identities. These are athletes whose sport has a large effect on their lifestyle.

As her high school volleyball career came to an end, freshman nursing major Emily Mayer transitioned to weightlifting.

When she first started lifting, Mayer had her family’s support. Her father, a health and physical education teacher at the school, was often in the weight room along with her brother, who plays football.

“I got a membership at an almost all-male gym, and all of them are big powerlifters,” Mayer said. “I think that kind of threw me. I was nervous for the first week, but then I realized that they usually aren’t even looking at me.”

Her story highlights a common theme in the fitness industry. A 2021 survey found that 73% of women feel uncomfortable working out at their public gym.

“I can feel when guys are staring at me,” she said. “I don’t mind looking, but not staring. There’s a difference between looking at my form and looking at my body.”

Stone has also experienced discomfort and resorted to changing her routes to ensure her safety. Last spring, she was training for the upcoming CHAARG 5K by running around her neighborhood.

“There was an old man who would stand outside and wait for me. He would yell across at the street and sometimes he would cross the street to come talk to me. Other times he would walk down to the corner to watch me run away,” she said. “I had to reroute everything or run at different times so that I could avoid him. I would have to run at the hottest parts of the day in July to avoid him.”

Even if women overcome uncomfortable stares and harassment, many face body image insecurities.

“I havr really broad shoulders, so if I do an arm workout, my shoulders look shredded,” Stone said. “I feel like society tells me I’m not supposed to look strong; I have to look slender, toned and petite.”

At first, Mayer was worried she would look bulky.

“I was scared of being bulky, but I’ve done my research and you need to be in such a protein surplus in order to even gain that muscle,” she said. “You’re not going to look bulky because you won’t be eating the right amount of protein.”

Through weight training, she learned to embrace her strong physique.

“Lifting adds structure to your body,” Mayer said. “I never wanted strong arms, but now I’m obsessed with it.”

In life after competitive sports, Stone realized that staying in shape doesn’t mean staying in the same shape.

“I feel like I have this conversation with a lot of friends where we will look back at old pictures from high school and be like ‘Oh my God, we were so tiny,'” she said. “I need to remember that I was a child then. It wouldn’t be normal for me to still look like that.”

Setting aside aesthetics, Mayer has new fitness goals.

“I just like seeing myself build muscle, but I honestly don’t lift to change my body anymore,” Mayer said. “I’m just so into it now that I’m focused on hitting personal records and lifting more weight,”

Now Stone and Mayer are more concerned with health, not aesthetics.

“I just feel better after I work out,” Stone said. “it has helped me so much with my self-confidence.”

For Mayer, fitness has changed her quality of life.

“Now because I’m able to go outside and run or lift heavy weights, it makes me appreciate my body so much more,” she said. “it has just made me a better, happier person.”

Madison Goerl is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].