UI student revamps women’s gym spaces


Jacob Slabo

Aanya Bhatia, sophomore in LAS, does an inclined dumbbell bench press on April 14 at the ARC.

By Megan Krok, Staff Writer

When she began her freshman year at the University, Aanya Bhatia wanted to start regularly going to the gym. However, she noticed a lack of women in the space, making the experience intimidating. Now as a sophomore, Bhatia and senior Aneli Unzueta have co-founded Girl Gains, working to change the male-dominated gym culture.

Girl Gains is a national organization that promotes female weightlifting and provides women resources and community throughout their fitness journeys. It can allow women to organize group workouts and also host workshops about overall health and wellness.

Freshman Aanya Bhatia, now a sophomore in LAS, knew she wanted to begin her fitness journey during her first semester at the University. She was the only woman in a group from her dorm that worked out together. They were supportive, she said, but unfortunately a lot of the fitness and nutritional information they gave her were all based on the male body.

“I did feel a lack of confidence. I noticed all the people (at the gym) were males and it was really intimidating,” Bhatia said.

One day, Bhatia was scrolling on TikTok when she saw a video about Girl Gains.

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“This is something UIUC needs to have,” she said.

She said she knew a lot of her female friends had the exact same issues of lacking a sense of feminine support.

Bhatia continued to see more about Girl Gains online and decided to join an informational Zoom call by the organization. On this call, she met Aneli Unzueta, senior in ACES.

“On the zoom call I was like, ‘This is such an amazing community. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life,’” Bhatia said.

Like Bhatia, Unzueta also felt intimidated by her experience at the gym.

“Personally, as a woman of color, I felt out of place in the gym,” Unzueta said. “It was intimidating to work out in a male-dominated place.”

After meeting on that call, the pair decided to go forward and start a Girl Gains chapter at Illinois.

“I wanted to create a home where women of all backgrounds feel safe and empowered in the gym on campus,” Unzueta said.

The pair decided to send out an interest form. Unzueta was able to recruit girls through her sorority and Bhatia through Illini Powerlifting, which she was a member of. 

Bhatia said there was so much interest and they had about 30-40 women who interviewed for their executive board.

Now, Girls Gains at Illinois has over 300 members.

Bhatia said that this organization has done “so much” for her mentally and emotionally.

“I felt a huge increase in confidence knowing that there are people who are like me, like girls obviously, that are just there for continuous support,” she said.

Although there are hundreds of girls currently a part of Girl Gains, Bhatia said that there are still so many that don’t know about the organization yet. For the future, Bhatia hopes that the group can continue to grow the confidence of girls in the gym.

“When I started off, I wish I had Girl Gains and I want to be that for other girls who are starting to get on their journeys,” Bhatia said.

Unzueta hopes that Girl Gains can continue to “empower women to feel strong and beautiful in a judgment free community.”

While Bhatia is a sophomore, Unzueta will be graduating in May. However, the co-founder is confident in Girl Gains’ executive board to continue growing and supporting the women of this organization.

“I feel very proud to graduate knowing Girl Gains is going to flourish and impact many members in the future,” Bhatia said.


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