Muscular, intimidating and sometimes toxic.
That’s how some students described the “gym bros” who frequent the Pepperdine Recreational Facilities. Gym bros are men who fit the hypermasculine, aggressive, protein-filled stereotype closely associated with toxic masculinity. Pepperdine’s gym attracts students of different demographics, body types and skill levels, however, students who don’t fit a classic gym stereotype said they sometimes feel uncomfortable and unwanted.
“Going to the gym is a positive thing,” first-year business major Luke Lewandowski said, “but being a negative gym bro can make people not want to go.”
Many Pepperdine students love going to the gym daily, but gymtimidation can hinder some students from working out.
The gym bro stereotype
Gym bros are men who take pride in a strict workout regimen, ruling the gym and lifting for hours. People recognize gym bros through their attire, speech, motivation, behavior and gym-attendance.
But the real people behind the gym bro stereotype are complex.
Not all gym bros are the same, nor do they have the same positive or negative impact on gym culture. Pepperdine students view gym bros in a variety of ways.
For some, embracing the gym bro stereotype is positive as it encourages males to workout with their friends and adopt a healthy lifestyle, Lewandowski said. But there are some who use the stereotype to lean into and justify toxic behavior.
“I was at the gym the other day and I saw some guy go up to another guy and like basically tell him that he was doing everything wrong,” Lewandowski said. “But like it wasn’t in a helpful way it was in like a rude way like ‘You don’t know what you’re doing so just don’t go to the gym’ and it definitely was not a good thing.’”
A Pepp Post poll of 50 students found that 62% have felt intimidated while working out at the gym. More than half said they experienced intimidation from the opposite gender.
The poll found that women are more likely to experience intimidation from men, but only eight men responded.
Gymtimidation is when frequent gym members intimidate others physically or verbally — belittling gym goers for messing up their form, flexing on other people, and other forms of bullying and harassment.
Another element of gymtimidation comes when people have poor self-esteem regarding their own fitness level or body image when comparing themselves to intimidating gym-goers.
“I’ve been going to the gym for a long time,” first-year nutrition major Emma Monte said. “But I think that if I was new to the gym I can see where gymtimidation would come in.”
Gymtimidation makes new members reluctant to go to the gym at all.
Another aspect of gymtimidation is the fear of being “fizzed.” Fizz is a social media app where verified students post about their experiences at college.
“I have been afraid of getting fizzed at the gym,” Lewandowski said. “I’ve seen fizz posts about people lifting and making noises at the gym and sometimes you can’t help that and I think that’s really messed up.”
All posts on Fizz are anonymous, and there are some who use the app to call others out, detailing student’s appearances or even posting their name with no consequence.
Stereotypes in the gym also harmfully impact women, seen in the gender divide in fitness centers.
“I think that mainly girls will be on the cardio machines and the guys will be lifting and doing the free weights at the gym,” first-year communication major Faith Baxter said. “So the divide makes girls intimidated and uncomfortable when they try to venture over to the masculine side.”
These stereotypes promote unhealthy body images, with women supposed to be skinny without muscle and men needing to be muscular and big.
Baxter encounters gym bros daily, but she doesn’t always have pleasant interactions.
“I have been made uncomfortable by a gym bro,” Baxter said. “Sometimes guys will just come right up next to you and start flexing.”
Baxter recounted a story where a man followed her throughout the gym and stared at her workout through a window by the treadmill, making her uncomfortable.
Monte told a story where she was waiting to use a machine but the man who had been using it let a plethora of other men cut in front of her and told his friend not to listen to the female attendant about the rules of the gym.
Gym bros that negatively impact the environment of the gym carry characteristics associated with toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is “the dominant form of masculinity wherein men use dominance, violence, and control to assert their power and superiority,” according to the Green Hill Recovery article “Toxic Masculinity vs. Healthy Masculinity.”
“Toxicity is poison,” said Doug Hurley, associate dean of Student Affairs. “I would imagine there are people who express negativity in the gym at Pepperdine.”
The poll found that half of students surveyed have witnessed someone exude toxic masculinity at the gym.
The poll found that 42% prefer working out at off-campus fitness facilities, compared to 38% who prefer on-campus gyms.
While a man exuding toxic masculinity burdens the people around them, they also burden themselves and suffer mentally and physically from societal norms and stereotypes to act and look certain ways, Psychology Professor Jennifer Harriger said.
“Particularly when you look at toxic masculinity over traditional masculinity, men who endorse more characteristics of toxic masculinity are more likely to view aggression toward women or minority groups as OK and are more likely to engage in sexual assault,” Harriger said.
Traditional masculinity advocates for men to express their emotions, have female friends, and motivate themselves and men to be better and do better for others, according to the Green Hill Recovery article. Toxic masculinity encourages the opposite.
Toxic gym bros often take their anger out on other gym-goers and are motivated to go to the gym purely to be better than and bully other people, according to Green Hill Recovery.
“Gym bros are people who also have layers to them,” said Paul Mejiak, junior psychology and business major. “There’s more to me than going to the gym.”
Hurley and Mejiak say they believe being a gym bro can be positive, encouraging others and working on mental and physical health. However, when men exemplify toxic behavior it poisons the gym bro lifestyle and stereotypes men who work out, Hurley said.
“With gym culture and especially with the whole idea of gym bros, I feel like going to the gym is almost a coping mechanism to avoid your problems,” Mejiak said. “Putting your energy toward lifting weights as opposed to talking things out and self-reflecting.”
Toxic masculinity promotes standards that can tarnish male self-esteem.
“There’s been a lot of research that shows that men who internalize a lot of characteristics of masculinity are less likely to seek any sort of support if they are struggling,” Harriger said.
Harriger added these stereotypes cause men to feel angry with themselves if they aren’t buff, tall, workout, have girlfriends or if they are gay.
Of course not every gym bro emulates toxic masculinity or gives into the toxic side of the stereotype.
“My kids are gym bros,” Hurley said. “And they take pride in it.”
Hurley said his sons are positive gym bros who use the gym to make friendships and work on their health.
How students can make the gym a positive and welcoming environment
By being aware of the harmful effects of stereotypes and gym culture, students and faculty can work together to make the gym a welcoming and encouraging environment, Hurley said.
“Let’s talk about it, and not just have it be something we don’t discuss,” Hurley said. “I want our guys to read this information and understand if they are portraying this intimidation.”
Hurley said he advises students to recognize toxic behavior, stand up for others, and politely and respectfully offer others aid if they are struggling.
If a student is visibly harassed or bullied at the fitness centers, they can ask the staff for assistance, said Robb Bolton, director of Campus Recreation.
If students are not comfortable talking to gym center staff, Bolton recommended they contact the Pepperdine Counseling Center or the Student Care Team.
“We take the health and safety of everyone who comes into the fitness centers very seriously,” Bolton said.
Bolton said he has doubled the fitness center staff, trained them to rotate around the room, check on equipment, make sure the atmosphere is positive, as well as identify and settle conflicts.
“We can’t prevent the gym’s environment from there never being conflict,” Bolton said. “But what we can do is provide resources and staff and training and be aware of potential issues that we can hopefully offset.”
Quinn Boyle completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.