What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Two years ago, I started working out every morning at my gym, mixing up Olympic lifting and endurance training with the free weights and pull-up bar available in the weight room, where I am almost always the only woman.
Since the beginning of this new regime, I have transformed my body, strength and fitness, but my weight room experience has not always been pleasant.
I have been verbally confronted countless times by men – not trainers – who said things to me that ranged from patronizing to downright sexist and insulting.
At first, when I was still struggling with my new strength exercises, I was self-conscious in the weight room and felt rightly scrutinized by the men there for being an obvious beginner.
I would look to make sure there was a secluded space I could hide in, and I would stop short in whatever I was doing when a man came close – to save myself the embarrassment of being offered “advice.”
But when men kept trying to approach me with different nonsense as I started doing well – back squatting similar weights or doing more pull-ups than many of them, even – I realized their behavior toward me had nothing to do with whether I knew what I was doing, and everything to do with me being a woman.
I learned the hard way that I had to break out of my usual non-confrontational mode and be verbally defensive – without wanting to – just to be left alone in the weight room.
I haven’t kept track of how many times men have approached me with unwelcome comments, but a few incidents are particularly memorable.
My husband first encouraged me to do strength training. With plenty of experience himself as a former athlete, he taught me the essential movements of Olympic lifting and helped me with my first pull-ups. At the beginning, my thinking was that his male presence in the weight room legitimized whatever I was doing and shielded me from the intense scrutiny I faced. So I would only go to the gym if he went with me.
One day, a few months into my new regime, at a point when I had already made visible progress, I was doing a set of 70kg dead lifts with my husband next to me. After finishing, I went out to get water.
While I was out of the room, a man said to him rudely, “Can you tell her not to make so much noise?” and pointed vaguely at the pile of weights I had been lifting.
This was wrong on so many levels. First, I was not making “so much noise.” I was simply picking the bar off the ground and lowering it – not dropping it – as the motion requires. Of course the plates made sounds when touching the floor, but that was the weight room, and lifting was literally what the room is for. Second, the collective grunts of the men in the room, including the man who confronted my husband, were much louder than any “noise” I made.
By far the most infuriating thing, though, was how this particular "mansplainer" talked to my husband when I was out of the room, as if he had to appeal to the man in charge to stop my annoying behavior. Instead of talking to me face to face like an adult, he talked to the man who was supposed to vouch for me, like I was a child.
I was so indignant when I found out what happened, but wasn’t even present during the confrontation to say anything back (though my husband certainly did). I didn’t know then that I would have plenty more chances to confront men in the weight room on my own.
I started going to the gym without my husband after a few months. One time, a middle-aged man stared at me from behind when I was doing pull-ups. I could see what he was doing from the giant mirror in front of the pull-up bar. He looked like he wanted to use the bar, so I let him have his go. He casually did a series of chin-ups, as if it was so easy for him, without acknowledging that I moved aside for him out of politeness.
He came down and kept eyeing me without moving, even though I was standing right there and ready to take my turn. When I walked closer and gestured toward the bar, he asked with a quizzical expression, “Why are you doing this?”
I didn’t want to respond, but he was in my way. There was nothing remotely polite I could have said to that. “What do you mean? Why are you doing this?”
He couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. “This is not a good exercise for you. You can get big shoulders.” He looked me up and down before adding, “You won’t look good.”
I snapped, “I will judge that by myself, please move,” and pushed right into his space under the bar. When I started my next set, he backed away looking clueless as to why his good-natured advice led to that unpleasant exchange.
After that, I was always on guard in the weight room to prepare for this kind of stuff — these sudden assaults on my right to use the weight room.
A tall guy approached me another time when I was doing clean and jerks. Before my third set, he came up and stood so close in front of me that I couldn’t lift my bar without hitting him.
He said in a condescendingly urgent tone, “Hey hey hey! You should be doing this, and this, and this,” and started doing what looked like air cleans with both arms. “You should be resting more too,” he added and wagged a finger at me (really).
With my experience at that point, I said brusquely, “Thanks. I know exactly what I’m doing.” He didn’t move, so I ignored him, stepped back and continued with my cleans. He was awkwardly towering over me with folded arms.
The guy somehow thought I was following his instructions and showing him what I “learnt” after his little air “demonstration.”
“Yes that’s better, that’s better,” he said. I was doing the exact same thing and ignoring him at that point. I couldn't understand how he could misread all the verbal and body cues I gave off to suggest I wanted to be left alone.
He kept blabbering on, so I finally dropped the weight and yelled, “Would you have come over here if I were a man doing the exact same thing?” I looked at him with as much contempt as I could muster as a sweaty, exhausted mess, then brushed past him to get water. When I returned, he was gone.
My spontaneous responses came more and more naturally with practice. The most recent confrontation happened when an overweight guy kept ogling me from behind while I was doing kettle bell swings and burpees. He kept walking past my tiny space to get my attention. In my naiveté, I assumed he would approach me with a lame pick-up line that I could easily fend off.
In reality, because he was a man in the weight room, his comment was, “Wow, you keep scaring me with that heavy weight above your head. I keep worrying you’d drop it on me!” Then he added a smirk. That cockiness was so sexy.
I didn’t expect what he said but turned my back on him and continued with my workout. “I’m swinging this heavy thing called a kettle bell from between my thighs to above my head. You should try it sometime. If you are scared I would hit you, which I won’t, just don’t walk into my space.”
He hesitated and walked away. Whenever I saw him again, he would avoid eye contact and hurry to the other side of the room.
After two years of similar experiences, I now go to the weight room with my head held high. So much for me “earning my right” to be there, but it still bothers me that I have to be confrontational without wanting to just to work out in peace as a woman in a co-ed gym. It bothers me even more that there is no way of explaining to men why their casual comments toward me could be oppressive.
I guess I’ll just have to keep confronting "mansplainers" in the weight room to show them the bottom line: If you don’t feel comfortable saying something to a man for fear of being punched in the face, please don’t say it to a woman either.