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muscled out: I quit my gym to avoid unwanted male attention

Image: Greg Westfall via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Image: Greg Westfall via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

It is a wintry August evening and I have my window open to let in the crisp city air. I am chilled to the bone, but my room smells the way car tyres do after a burnout and I hate it.

It smells this way because I have my own home gym.

When I think back to why I bought it, I remember feeling frustrated that the only affordable gym in my area – other than the one I’d just quit –was always closed when I wanted to workout. I remember people coming up to me to praise me for my squat form, explaining how impressed they were that a girl could squat 80kg. I’d say thanks, and smile, but then quickly avert my eyes in an attempt to prevent myself from reproducing the conditions of my previous gym.

I’d left the other gym because men had started interfering with my training.

The men at the gym (whether they worked there or just worked out) were friendly, well-intentioned, and bloody annoying. I am not sure how to express that I was both warmed and frustrated by the approaches. Unwanted and often misinformed tips on how to bench press, suggestions for accessory exercises I had no time or inclination to perform, general chitchat during a rest between reps – perhaps a little condescending, but nothing sinister (if unexamined condescension isn’t sinister?). I knew that they were trying to help, but were they trying for something more as well? My boyfriend thought so, but I dismissed it with ‘they’re just being nice’.

Eventually, the compliments and suggestions started to nag on me. I had been observing other people at the gym and it seemed that if you were a guy, no one bothered you. If you were a girl on the cross-trainer, that seemed OK too. But if you were a girl lifting heavy free weights “like a man”, for some reason it seemed to solicit attention.

One man posed the question, ‘You have a great body, why do you go to the gym?’ It was as though looking good were the only reason to lift weights, and as though an assessment of my body – however approving – were somehow welcome.

Once, when a woman was taking too long on the squat rack she’d said she’d only borrow for a minute, the two men working at the gym offered to be my squat rack for me. That is, the staff were offering to hold my 20kg bar, laden with plates of a combined total of 60kg, just so that I wouldn’t have to wait another three minutes for the rack. I was touched – but embarrassed too. Why the special treatment? Would they do that for anyone? I politely waved them away, saying I was happy to wait my turn.

Then there was the time I was playfully whipped with a sweaty gym towel.

Another man claimed to have written an article on steroids, and was ‘there for me’ if I ever I ‘needed help’; just another friendly gymgoer, there to aid me on my journey to health and wellbeing. He asked for my number, and of course the dreaded “I like you” text came not long after. I quickly nipped it in the bud.

But that was my tipping point. I terminated my gym membership and moved on to the next fitness centre. When I signed up, I told myself I wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, man or woman, and I wouldn’t talk to anybody except out of absolute necessity. After all, I was there to let off steam, to be alone, to get stronger. But the compliments came, inexorably, and in the panopticon that is every gym, with mirrors wall to wall, eyes could follow me from water bubbler to weight stand.

Eventually, I invested in a home gym to be away from it all.

Perhaps shutting myself away was an immature response to unwanted attention. I could have asked to be left alone. No more compliments, no more tips, no more offers to spot me while I bench-pressed. But I hadn’t. I didn’t want to be rude, or to close down what I felt to be a male tendency to want to help and support me in what has traditionally been their territory. I didn’t want or need their support, but does that make the offer of it any less generous? On many levels, their encouragement and enthusiasm for my rigour were motivating – heartwarming, even. The man who had asked me out had admired my technique and tenacity, not just (I hope) my body. If women had approached me too, would I have thought anything of the attention?

And perhaps the male enthusiasm was a celebration of a woman muscling up and lifting heavy like the other male gym members. (Many women lift heavy – see Hattie Boydle and Dinny J on Instagram, who can lift more than any guy I know – it’s just that group fitness classes and cardio still seem to be the favoured pursuits of women.) Is it too much to read the playful whip of a gym towel as acceptance into the male fold? Somehow, I didn’t read it that way at the time.

While I hate the smell of the rubber, and the mean looking steel in my otherwise attractive bedroom, a home gym is far more cost effective than a gym membership, and I can workout whenever I want. I am reflecting on my rationale for working out at home and whether my decision was based on economic, practical, or fear-based reasoning. Can I complain about attention I could have extinguished with a curt ‘please, leave me alone’?

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