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Twelve years of deadlifts and unwanted attention for a woman working out

I’m 16 years old, and I hate the way my body looks.

Looking back, I suppose wide-eyed naïveté is radiating off me. Any compliment is a good one, right?

A trainer at my hometown gym must have sensed this vulnerability. While I can’t remember the exact circumstances of our acquaintance, he zeroes in immediately, and starts talking with me after my training sessions. Soon he finds and friends me on then-new Facebook. My profile picture is gold-painted lips blowing hearts with the remark, “Oh, if only my lips looked like this …”

He sends me a message: “Are those your lips?”

I tell him they aren’t. “Well, your lips are sexy, anyway,” he writes.

An older, fairly attractive man paying attention to shy, awkward little me? This is so exciting! I don’t pause to wonder why he’s sending these messages in private, rather than posting a comment on the picture.

He tells me he likes the way I look, that I am sexy. At some point, I do start to consider if this is okay. After all, he’s got a girlfriend. He says she’s nothing special. Not like me.

In the coming weeks, he buzzes over to say hello when I’m working out with my own trainer. It feels exhilarating, like we have this fun, flirtatious secret.

I am fortunate that my trainer is an observant woman. One day, as I’m doing sit-ups, this man comes over to talk with me. I can’t remember what’s said, but it’s clear he’s crossed a line. My trainer looks at him—glares, really—and says, “She’s 16 years old.”

He doesn’t talk to me after that. Instead of being upset, I’m relieved. I don’t understand why.

 

I’m 25 years old, and I’ve been bopping around the dating pool.

I’m squatting when I notice a cute trainer coaching a fellow gym-goer. I smile at him; he smiles back. Later, when I’m leaving the gym, out of the corner of my eye, I see him run out of the weight room to watch me leave. I’m a little weirded out, but also flattered.

A few days later, I give him my number and we go on a date. Nothing terribly exciting happens, and we certainly aren’t in a relationship by the end of it. Somehow though, he’s convinced he now has a say in whom I see and what I do. He doesn’t like that I’m dating more than one person, and definitely doesn’t like that I go out to clubs alone. He doesn’t like the outfits I wear to these clubs, either:

“If you were my girlfriend, I wouldn’t let you go out alone, and I certainly wouldn’t let you dress like that. You shouldn’t dress like that, anyway.”

I stop talking to him and deliberately schedule my gym time around when I know he won’t be there, but he doesn’t stop trying to talk to me.

They all chuckle. I don’t laugh, so Ted takes it upon himself to reassure me: “We were only kidding, honey.” Mike watches my ass as I squat.

Instead, he becomes obsessed. He calls and leaves long, angry messages on my voicemail. He makes me a mixtape. He even writes a children’s book about me, transforming me into a cat with gray eyes. I’m not sure if it’s ever published.

Even after he leaves the state, I can’t go to that gym any longer without some level of stress.

 

I’m 26, and just got my first full-time reporting job.

I start talking with a few older men at the gym, all of whom have significant others. We’re lifting buddies, and they treat me like just another person.

One day, “Ted” starts to call me “honey.” He’s older, and I like him. I want to keep liking him, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. He probably means it in a fatherly way.

Another day, Ted, the two others (whom we’ll call “Carl” and “Mike”) and I are chatting around the squat rack, while I squat. The conversation turns to my deadlifts, and how strong I am.

“I wouldn’t want to get trapped in a dark alley with her!” Carl says.

“… Or maybe you would. I would,” says Mike. “There are some things I wouldn’t mind doing with her in that alley.”

They all chuckle. I don’t laugh, so Ted takes it upon himself to reassure me: “We were only kidding, honey.” Mike watches my ass as I squat.

There’s also another man who always stares at me. I never learned his name, but after months of feeling his eyes on me, I complain to a male trainer friend. I don’t want to engage with this man. I don’t want to open the door to conversation. I just want it to stop.

His response: “He’s probably just impressed that you can lift so much. Don’t worry about it.”

A few weeks later, I’m working out on a machine when I feel a series of violent taps on my shoulder. It hurts and frightens me. I let go of the machine, and as the weight slams down behind me I spin around. It’s the man I complained about. He’s too close and starts to say something, but I cut him off: “I was working out and could have gotten hurt. Don’t touch me again.”

I don’t wait for a reply. I just go straight to the bathroom, where I burst into tears. For the rest of the time I go to that gym, he doesn’t stop watching me.

 

I’m 28, and have been going to a new gym for about a year.

There’s a new guy at the gym. He strikes up a conversation one day and seems nice enough, so I greet him every time I see him. I don’t ask his name. Our interactions are friendly, and brief.

They don’t stay that way for long. He starts to follow me around and comment on everything I do. I try to avoid him and keep conversations short, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint. He keeps following me.

I figure it’s not fair to expect him to read my mind, so one day I say it explicitly: “I really don’t want to chat. Please just let me lift.”

He shuffles off, and I think that’s the end of it. A few days later, I am in the squat rack, wearing a powerlifting team sweatshirt with my last name on the back. He walks up and bellows something I can’t quite hear over my music.

“Excuse me?”

He says it again: “That’s not spelled right. It should say, ‘Bitch.’”

But that’s not the end of it. Later he sees me in the grocery store. I don’t see him until he deliberately runs his cart into the basket hanging off my arm. “Oh, sorry,” he says and walks off, as I glare.

•••

While I didn’t endure physical violence or sexual assault, these are just the highlights of how I’ve experienced rape culture at the gym.

Rape culture is the normalization of sexual abuse and assault, perpetuated by objectification, victim-blaming, misogynistic speech and sexual harassment. Rape culture springs from a society that views people who aren’t men as less deserving of a voice and independence. Cisgender, heterosexual men are taught that they’re privileged to a woman’s space, attention and body, above the wishes and objections of women themselves. Women are things to be claimed, tangible goods to be picked up and cast aside at one’s leisure.

In my experiences at the gym, men believed they had a right to my space and attention. They looked at me as an object to be desired, manipulated and used. And when I didn’t take the attention as a compliment, I became the punching bag on which they took out their damaged feelings.

In response, I’ve developed a strong enough resting bitch face to keep most men at bay. And even though it goes against all my feminist values, I’ve started to tailor what I wear to the gym. No form-fitting tops; no powerlifting sweatshirt. I don’t often talk to new people, and I sure as hell don’t talk with men I don’t know.

But I won’t stop going to the gym, because I refuse to be pushed out of a space I otherwise love. I will continue to lift, continue to grow stronger and continue to fight for myself and others. If you need me, I’ll be at the gym, deadlifting more than most of the men.