May 29, 2000 -- When she'd tried two different health clubs in Anchorage, Alaska, Joan Pirone never quite felt comfortable working out. She worried about wearing the right clothes and felt too intimidated to venture into the free-weight room. "I was afraid of making a fool of myself," says Pirone, 60. "All these guys are pumping 250 pounds, and there isn't even a 4-pound dumbbell for me to pick up. How are you supposed to feel?"
Three years later, Pirone feels so confident with free weights that she offers technique tips to her fellow club members. She uses 20-pound dumbbells for her bicep curls, and never worries whether her jog-bra is too tight or her shorts properly stylish. The difference: Pirone has switched to Women's Nautilus, one of two women-only health clubs in Anchorage.
"At coed clubs you feel like you're on TV, like the men are constantly looking at you," she says. "But our club is so supportive. I have achieved a lot more here than I ever would have at the other clubs."
Pirone isn't the only diehard fan of women's fitness clubs. Despite a handful of lawsuits claiming that these clubs illegally discriminate against men, the women-only health club industry appears to be thriving. Nationwide, there are about 1,250 clubs that cater solely to women or offer a women-only workout area. That number is on the rise, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
Some women join these clubs because their religious beliefs forbid them to show skin in front of the opposite sex; others have suffered abuse by men and feel threatened working out in their presence. However, most choose women-only clubs simply because they feel self-conscious exercising in a coed environment.
"Some women enjoy the attention from men, but some of us are intimidated by it," Pirone says. "I'm glad I have the choice of going to a women-only gym."
Pirone's choice was briefly threatened earlier this year, when -- in response to a complaint from a disgruntled man -- the Alaska Human Rights Commission tried to ban single-sex health clubs. Ultimately, the state legislature passed a bill allowing gender discrimination in fitness clubs; the new law takes effect in June. The same battles have been fought in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In both cases, the legislatures voted to protect single-sex clubs.
That's how it should be, says Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's director of government relations. "We're trying to get more people to exercise," Ablondi says. "Some women are so uncomfortable exercising in front of men that, if that's their only choice, they won't exercise at all."
Psychologist Robert Tanenbaum came to the same conclusion in 1998 when he surveyed 500 members of women-only gyms and interviewed 100 others, in preparation for testimony before the Massachusetts statehouse. "Almost unanimously, these women said they would leave their club and would have to return to at-home exercise," Tanenbaum says, adding that most of the women had already failed to maintain a workout program at home. "A lot of these women had been overweight and were in transition with appearance."
Although some women might exaggerate the threat that male health club members actually pose, Tanenbaum says he did witness several incidents of "rude comments and leering" when he went to coed clubs to observe. "There were men who would stand outside the women's locker room and say things like, 'Boy, you really must have sweated today.' "
Although the opposition to women-only clubs has been generated by a handful of men, these men have been joined in their fight by an unlikely ally: the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although NOW didn't get involved in the Alaska case, members of the Massachusetts chapter lobbied hard in that state against the proposed legislation supporting single-sex clubs.
"I'm totally sympathetic -- we live in a culture where women are harassed and objectified," says Andrea Mullin, president of the Massachusetts NOW chapter. "But our objection is to passing a law that permits discrimination." NOW fears that allowing gender discrimination in health clubs could open the door to resegregating golf clubs and other sports venues, Mullin says.
Mullin says she would prefer that women-only clubs compromise by offering smaller, separate areas for men to work out. Owners counter that men have no shortage of places to choose from, and adding facilities for men at women-only clubs would create an unnecessary financial hardship, not to mention undermine the purpose of such clubs. "This is about a woman's right to privacy," says John Sankey, owner of the two Women's Nautilus clubs in Anchorage.
But privacy isn't the only issue. Many women prefer the equipment commonly offered at single-sex clubs. For instance, the two women-only clubs in Anchorage offer a line of Nautilus machines downsized for women's bodies. The weight stacks increase by 3-pound increments instead of the usual 10. And instead of jumping from 5 to 10 to 15 pounds, the dumbbells increase by 1- or 2-pound increments.
For all these benefits, however, even advocates of women-only clubs say that a single-sex environment isn't always better than a coed club. When Susannah Sallin, 31, lived in Bend, Ore., she belonged to a women-only club that she adored because the staff and members were so encouraging. "You could go there looking like hell, and it didn't matter," Sallin says.
But when Sallin moved to Carpinteria, Calif., she found that the staff members at her local women's club were neither friendly nor knowledgeable about the equipment. After visiting a half-dozen clubs in her area, she settled on the YMCA. There, she's found a good atmosphere, devoid of the "scene" at other gyms. "I miss the women-only environment," Sallin says, "but the Y is low-key and casual, and there's a sense of community."
Suzanne Schlosberg is the co-author of Fitness for Dummies, second edition (IDG Books Worldwide, 2000), and author of the Ultimate Workout Log, second edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), and a freelance writer in Santa Monica, Calif.