With New Year's resolutions in full swing, gyms might appear more packed than usual as new gym-goers work on their fitness goals. While this renewal period feels natural for some, many new gym members find the traditional gym experience daunting.
One Waukegan gym is taking a different approach with the goal of uplifting women and reshaping fitness ideals.
After leaving the corporate world and having her first child, Marybel Wilson took a chance on herself and opened WWM Fitness, a new gym for women starting their fitness journeys.
Inspired by her own love of fitness, Wilson wanted to share her passion for working out with women in the community who might struggle to see themselves reflected in the fitness industry. Her gym has grown to include more than 130 members and serves women of all shapes and sizes.
“I hope to instill hope in other women that they can also go out there and feel amazing every single day,” Wilson said.
Member Mireya Martinez said that attitude is exactly what she was looking for.
“I was starting my, I guess you could call it weight-loss journey, where I was at a place where I was the most vulnerable,” Martinez said. “I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence.”
For Martinez, WWM provided a different perspective on fitness.
“It wasn’t like going to a regular gym where a lot of people are already really, really fit and lifting heavy and wearing crop tops,” Martinez said. “… I didn’t want to be taken in by that. I didn’t want to be brainwashed by the image that I needed to be like an Instagram model. No, I need to be myself.”
Psychology professor Jocelyn Carter, who leads the Healthy Families Lab at DePaul University, said media can often influence how individuals view themselves.
“A lot of the media, including social media, in sort of the fitness athletic space is largely geared towards white women and has historically been a woman with a particular body type,” Carter said.
As girls get older, physical activity often decreases, notably for Black and brown girls as they move into adolescence and become more self-conscious about their bodies. That’s especially true, Carter said, “if they have been victimized or they’re teased about aspects of their appearance.”
But Carter said there are ways to make exercise and fitness more inclusive by taking a more community-centered approach.
“We can get women into gym spaces, where it's not just a focus on what the weights are or what the different equipment is but there’s some sort of sense of community,” Carter said. “Maybe people are learning how to do particular things together and making a connection and having it be more of a family and community space.”
WWM is taking a community approach to fitness by creating events that go beyond workouts.
When not being utilized as a gym, the space hosts conversations for the community. Past events include discussions about breast cancer, sex, miscarriage, abortion and infant loss.
Martinez said the WWM experience feels like therapy, not just fitness.
“I feel like a lot of us have a lot more in common than we think,” Martinez said, “but it’s not talked about.”
Wilson said members have become more comfortable with one another.
“I have women here who talk about all types of things,” Wilson said, “… so I feel like this place has become an outlet for how we have grown up.”
For Martinez, the goal is no longer to lose weight. It’s about much more.
“It’s not all about weight loss anymore,” Martinez said. “It’s about meeting new people. It’s about being me. It’s about finding myself again.”
Whether it’s a mental or physical workout, members said they are strengthening the bodies they have, at times, struggled to love.
“I want women to feel empowered after leaving WWM,” Wilson said. “I want them to feel that they can do anything in this world, anything in this life. They can make any changes.”