“A big man lifts big weights. A bigger man puts them back”
A guest blog by Clare Anderson
This sign is stuck on the wall above the loose weights rack in my gym and it bothers me every time I select my own (pretty respectable) weights from the rack. I assumed that the gym – and all the different zones within it – is intended to be a gender neutral space; a quick glance around at any given moment in the day reveals at least as many female users as male, like me, using weights in their workouts.
For me, this sign needlessly and unthinkingly designates the area as a ‘male only’ space when in reality it isn’t, and the message to users of that space is actually breathtakingly simple: ‘please put your weights back on the rack when you’ve finished with them’. Why is such a simple (and reasonable) message articulated using such gendered language? It plays to conventional and taken-for-granted stereotypes which view strength, power and muscle as the sole province of male-ness, as shown by the statement which connects ‘big men’ with ‘big weights’. Why does a request to tidy up after yourself need to be contained within a form of words which protects and perpetuates traditional constructions of heteronormative masculinity?
I think part of the answer lies in the way in which sexist ideologies continue to be embedded in the texture of everyday life, to such an extent that the messages they contain have ceased to be questioned; they live unchallenged and largely unnoticed as part of ‘the way things are’, perhaps more insidiously acquiring the status of ‘truths’. The ideology which underlies the sign in my gym, like the sign itself, is hidden in plain sight: tidying up=housework=women’s work.
I am tempted to counter such implicit biological determinism by taking (ripping) the sign off the wall and burning it on a fire that one of my male gym buddies will helpfully have lit for me before slinging his Nike animal skin over one shoulder and foraging for a paleo energy bar.
I started my professional life as a blue-chip marketer, and then took that experience into design and brand consultancy before re-qualifying as a teacher of business English, based in Amsterdam. I returned to my geographical and intellectual roots as an academic researcher, completing my PhD at the University of Birmingham in December 2015, to understand how people, institutions, corporations and brands use language, and for what purpose.