So there I was at the gym, minding my business and doing tricep pulldowns at the cable pulley machine, when a guy I don't know approached me.
A bit more scene-setting detail: My earbuds were firmly in my ears, and I was mid-pulldown with the weight plate in the air when a man who is a total stranger to me and also not employed by the gym in any way walked over to where I was from where he had been standing across the floor. He planted himself a few inches from me, and did an exaggerated arm-wave-across-my-field-of-vision thing that would have been obnoxious anyway but was rendered even more so by the fact that he stood so close to me that I was uncomfortable continuing the exercise for safety reasons.
I let the weight down, turned to him, and said at a volume meant to emphasize that I was clearly listening to music and would not be removing my earbuds, "EXCUSE ME." My inflection put a period at the end of the two words, but it seems that he heard a question mark because he carried on.
Making a curving motion with his hands, he said, "You want to bend forward on that." In another life, I might have immediately come back with "And you want to back the fuck up." But in this life, though I’m just as black and female as I wanna be, I admit to considering the Angry Black Woman trope far more than I would like to, and adjusting public behavior because of it.
This guy was white, though I want to be clear that I feel he approached me out of purely gender-based fuckery. I can admit when I am the one “bringing race into it,” and, although his white privilege might have been at play on a cellular level, I felt him flexing his patriarchy muscles as opposed to identifiably racist disdain.
I’ve been told what to do by white male strangers who say basic things with a snarl as though they wish they could personally repeal the Emancipation Proclamation right there and then, but this was not that. I say that to clarify that my suppression of my natural response here is all on me.
Also, I'm very good at advocating for others who are being bothered or harassed, but I sometimes break out the back stock of Benefit of the Doubt when it comes to myself. He wasn't wearing a uniform, but there was the possibility that he was still a trainer and technically doing his job of trying to sell training sessions, albeit in a piss poor way.
I was about to skip down that lane of self-doubt, but then I actually considered what he had said. Bend forward? Doing tricep pulldowns? Surely you jest! I'm not a professional trainer, but I've had enough of them to know that one ought to maintain upright posture with slightly bent knees for maximum safety and benefit, and that's what I was doing.
There is a version of a cable pulley tricep pulldown that’s done in a modified squat with the upper body pitched toward the machine at a slight angle, complimented by the deeper bend at the knees, but this guy’s helpful gesticulation told me that’s not what he meant at all. Had he made a legitimate critique I might have offered a "Bad form/I'm tired/You have a point"-type of response and kept it moving. But this? LOL.
The only thing better than unsolicited mansplaining is when they're wrong and strong, so I decided to let this play out further in the interest of morphing my anger into amusement.
I took out one earbud, the universal symbol of "I'm not pausing my music so you'd better make this quick, buddy" and said, "Bend forward? What do you mean?"
He enthusiastically scooted into my position and tried to demonstrate. Tried. He couldn’t move the weight stack, which is probably for the best since his form was so bad — curved forward right at his lower back — that he might have hurt his back if he had.
He lowered the amount of weight and admonished me for using "way too much weight" before ask-shouting "You don't want your arms to look muscle-y, do you?!?" in about the same tone of voice that one might use to ask, "You're not gonna barbecue that kitten, are you???!?"
Not only had he doubled-down on his ickiness, but I didn't want to give him the impression that approaching female strangers with misinformation leads to them stepping aside as you demonstrate, even though I wasn't taking him seriously.
I was wearing two layers of baggy, long sleeved shirts, as I usually do at public gyms, both because I prefer to stay warm and sweat more, and also to cover up, to be honest. In that other life I mentioned before I might dress without a single thought toward avoiding the male gaze, but in this life, I work out almost every day and if I can cut down on staring/harassment/being approached even a little, I will.
So this guy couldn't see that my arms are, in fact, already kinda "muscle-y," and he definitely couldn't see that I don't think that's a bad thing or that everything about his interaction was unwanted. But he was about to learn.
I told him that I'm fine looking "muscle-y" and that he had unsafe form and he might want to be careful in the future, and ended with a firm, “If you’ll pardon me, I’m going to get back to my workout now.” He walked away with a perplexed look on his face, possibly considering being careful not only with the weights, but with interrupting other people's workouts in the future.
By the way, this guy was about six inches shorter than I am and though he was thick with what appeared to be muscle, he also had a paunch and the aforementioned poor lifting form. He’s free to exist in whatever body he pleases, of course, but since he saw fit to mention my body, I’m mentioning his. It’s dangerous to assume someone else’s state of mind, but I admit that the possibility of his having something to prove was a thought I entertained.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard the ol’ chestnut that visible muscle tone on women is undesirable, and it’s so foolish that I can’t even debate it. Sadly, the view remains and this type of thing happens every day, all over the place. What struck me afterwards was the personal reinforcement of just how teensy the parameters are for “acceptable” female bodies as set by that type of mentality.
If we took a swath of mainstream opinions, my body was undesirable when I was significantly overweight, and my thinner arms are undesirable now because of some visible muscle tone. So, congratulations to this guy and his ilk on upholding gender-based stereotypical beauty norms so narrow they could thread a needle, and now excuse me while I completely ignore you and snap your little needle in half.
I just had an impulse to write “and my arms aren’t even very muscular at all,” just to make it clear that I don’t labor under the illusion that I’m toting around the formidable “guns” of a Schwarzenegger in his prime. But I don’t want my need to neg myself to accidentally reinforce the bullshit because hey, what if they were “very muscular?”
What if we accept that these things are all relative anyway and you may think my arms are very muscular or even too muscular and that’s fine, because of ALLLLLLLL the body insecurities I have and I’m working on, I’m actually kind of cool with my arms thankyouverymuch.
What if we accept that one person’s “fat” may be another person’s “happy” and one person’s “skinny” may be another person’s “healthy?” What if we could all rock our muscles and our rolls and our flatness and our curviness and all of it?
And what if a stranger could mind his fucking business about my body?