image: Flickr | @Mike_fleming

There was the trainer who told me I shouldn’t do so many chest exercises because it would make my boobs shrink. There was the older guy who, for months, would tell me how pretty I was and repeatedly push me to call his son. There was the guy who told me he was a “real freak” and wouldn’t take no for an answer when he asked me out for coffee. (“We can be just friends,” he said after my second no.) There was the guy who’d interrupt my workout for 20 minutes in part to compliment how smooth and pale my skin was.


Comments about my body ranged from concern over how bulky my style of training would make me to overtly sexual. The latter included statements like, “I like what you’re doing with your body,” and “You’re sexy. I like women built like you.”


Oftentimes these men would follow me around the gym. I was always on the lookout, scanning the room to see which creep du jour I would be avoiding today. If I saw them come in, I would workout as far away from them as I could. Sometimes I would even rearrange my day to go at a different time so I wouldn’t see them.


It didn’t dawn on me that something was very wrong about this arrangement. I’d think things like: That’s just the way it is. Women are supposed to receive inappropriate comments from men. Isn’t it a compliment? This is simply the price I pay to be a girl in a boy’s playground. What do you expect?


At the time, not much, apparently. The burden was on me to deal with it. Working out was so important to me that I was willing to experience being uncomfortable for it. And not uncomfortable in the sweaty, sore sense that normally comes with exercise. The kind of uncomfortable that makes you look over your shoulder. That makes your skin crawl. That makes you want to be invisible.


The comments weren’t always sexual or aimed at my appearance. I was also used to my knowledge being challenged on a regular basis. My squat was a topic of hot debate as guys would approach me to warn me that I’m squatting too deep and would mess up my knees (*eyeroll*) or that I should put a plate under my heels (my ankle mobility is fine, thanks). I was either an object meant to soak up their compliments or a silly girl playing with big boy toys.


Experiences like this are part of the reason why people–both men and women–avoid the gym. They don’t want to be looked at, judged, sized up.


It’s only natural to conclude that a place that emphasizes appearance would be hypercritical of it. And there may be some truth to that notion, but I like to think that we’re all being held to a higher standard now. Slowly but surely folks are coming around to the idea that your opinions don’t always need to be shared. Just because you’re working on your appearance doesn’t make it okay to go up to someone and express your opinion about theirs.


I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse. I’m sure someone will read this and think, Wow, you’re complaining about guys commenting on your body. Get over it. It’s not like you got raped.


But that line of thinking and the experiences I mentioned perpetuate harassment in the gym (and everywhere, really). It’s the idea that anyone’s body exists for someone else to admire, and that their admiration, however perverse or forceful, is a gift. And sure, I like to be admired. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring. But there’s a difference between being paid a compliment and being objectified.


It’s one thing to tell someone they look good, it’s another to say that their body turns you on or is your preference.


In the situations that made me uncomfortable, I felt imposed upon with unsolicited attention. It was the other party’s assumption that because their attention was “positive” (implying that I’m attractive), that I wanted it or that it was okay.


These were also repeated experiences with the same people. Never did it occur to them that commenting on someone else’s appearance could make that person feel uncomfortable. It was all about what they thought and their opinions on what was attractive. And for whatever reason they felt compelled to share this with me, over and over again. As I was in my late teens and early 20s, I hadn’t yet developed the confidence to set boundaries.


So how is a person supposed to know when they’re pushing boundaries? After all, striking up a conversation with a stranger is giving them unsolicited attention–and it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. I’ve had plenty of positive conversations at the gym. They happen with people who compliment me for being strong. There are people who just ask me how I am or if I can record them doing a lift. They’re the types of conversations that you’d have with someone at a grocery store.


But there are a few guidelines for when a conversation becomes inappropriate:


When it’s anything sexual.

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.


When you challenge someone stepping outside of a gender norm.

You don’t know what a stranger’s goal is, and to warn them that they’re not following the prescribed gender norms is rude and ignorant. These days it’s pretty common for women to want to get stronger and put on muscle, and we really don’t need to hear about the dangers of bulking. Furthermore, why is the type of exercise a person does any of your business?


Being pushy.

If someone tells you no thanks or not interested, just leave it at that. Persistence in this area does not pay off. Out of the times I felt harassed or uncomfortable at the gym, half of them were due to a man repeatedly pushing a request or undesired conversation on me. The guy who asked me on a date and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The dad who, despite seeing me at the gym with my boyfriend, wouldn’t stop telling me to call his son. The guy who’d always compliment my skin. (Um…can we say Buffalo Bill?)


Commenting on someone’s appearance.

This is a touchy topic. It’s obvious that criticizing someone’s looks is rude, but what about complimenting them? While it might seem like we should be flattered and grateful, women don’t always want to hear about how hot you find them. It can make us feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes from a stranger. Things to consider:

  • Relationship: Do you know this person or have a rapport? Making a personal compliment assumes a kind of intimacy that isn’t there with a stranger. Yes, sometimes it can make someone feel good. Other times it will put them on guard. For example, coming up to a stranger to tell them they’re beautiful/attractive just because you want to say it, and then walking away, probably won’t set off any alarms. But if you tell someone that they’re beautiful and then linger, trying to start conversation, it can feel intrusive. Because your “in” was a compliment to lead to conversation or to try to get a number, and that can make it seem less sincere.
  • Objectification: Are you implying that their appearance is what gives them value? Take the over-enthusiastic dad who tried to hook me up with his son. The main reason was because he thought I was pretty. There was no consideration for my personality or hobbies–you know, things that would actually determine if we’d be a good match.
  • De-valuing: Are you implying that they look better now than they did before or vice versa? I can’t help but think of all the before and after photos on Instagram where people leave comments like, “You looked better before,” or “Huge improvement.” Again, this ties worth with appearance and is another form of objectification. It’s demeaning for a person to feel like they were in any way not as good before (or after) having a physical transformation.
  • Entitlement: Why does your opinion even matter? Telling someone they’re sexy isn’t always the gift you think it is. Especially if you think you’re owed something for saying it. I can assure you that my day would’ve gone on just fine if any of the randos who told me they liked my body would’ve kept their comments to themselves.


Fortunately it’s been awhile since I’ve experienced uncomfortable situations at the gym. It’s becoming more normalized for women to lift heavy. And with the rise of feminism and social issues, people are becoming more aware of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.


But a part of me wonders if the reason I’m not often approached is the scowl I’ve learned to wear. It’s the one I put on when walking past a construction site or any group where I feel leering eyes on me. I twist my face into a stone grimace, daggers shooting from my eyes. Active bitch face, if you will. My energy shifts from relaxed to hostile. It’s my way of shielding any feminine, inviting qualities with an armor of aggression. Anything to give off the impression that I don’t want to be looked at, talked to, or cat called. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.


Perhaps as our awareness of social issues evolves, I’ll eventually drop my guard. Truth be told, I’m less combative than I used to be. And while a part of me is still hardened and defensive, my better half is hopeful.

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