Living in New York I’ve grown a thick skin when it comes to being harassed by men who are unaware (or unabashed) by their misogynist, threatening behavior. I’ve maintained my composure (if not my walking pace) while a man followed behind me screaming “bitch” over and over because I walked past him without giving him any money. I’ve managed to read several pages of a novel while trapped alone on a subway car with two men who refused to stop taunting me “until I gave them a smile.” I’ve side-eyed an ambulance driver who turned on his siren just to get my attention and then laughed when I jumped out of the way because I was so silly as to think there might be an actual emergency.
Despite all of these maddening incidents (which sadly I’ve come to think of as part of the everyday inconveniences of living in this city) I’ve never been so disturbed as I am by the times I’ve been hit on at the gym.
When I first moved into my apartment in the East Village I joined an affordable neighborhood gym instead of one of the pricier chains. Was it small and over-crowded? Yes. But for one-third of the price of a typical NYC gym it had what I needed and I was happy to put up with all of the hassle to keep in shape.
In general, at the gym I try my best not to come off as rude while I do the bare minimum when it comes to interacting with those around me like a brisk “hey” and a smile to the person manning the front desk, a thank you when someone steps aside. Combine my silence with the fact that I have a mild to moderate case of Permanent Resting Bitch Face (I’ve learned to accept this after years of friends telling me so), especially when there’s a lot on my mind, and I don’t exactly give off a friendly or welcoming persona.
So I was somewhat surprised when a man I didn’t recognize approached me when I got off the treadmill at the gym and asked, “Did you go to Howard?” I gave my usual bare minimum and said, “No, sorry,” and tried to make a gesture of stepping around. I was trapped between the row of treadmills and the row of elipticals with the wall to my back (like I mentioned before this gym was tiny). It became clear about 5 minutes into the man’s monologue about how much I look like a “beautiful girl” he knew at Howard that ran track that he had used the seemingly benign question as a segue into learning further information about me. The rest of the conversation went something like this.
“So if you didn’t go to Howard where did you go to college?”
“I went to Princeton.”
“Oh really? Nice. I know someone who went to Harvard, his name is [some random name], do you know him?”
“No, I don’t know him.”
“Oh ok, he graduated in 2004. Are you sure you don’t know him? What year are you?”
“So are you from New Jersey?”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh really? I used to play for the Falcons. So you like to run and stay in shape, huh?”
The question and answer session went on longer, but I started tuning him out when he claimed that Chris Brown attends his workout class. I’ll admit, the first interaction was at best amusing at worst uncomfortably awkward. I managed to avoid him by being extra careful about going to the gym on Saturdays.
That is until it happened again.
Turns out the cornering wasn’t just a one time accident. It was this guy’s strategy. He somehow caught me again in between machines so that I had to be subjected to his talking and random questions. Even when I said I had to go he’d find a way to talk more, he’d begin every conversation with “Why do you look so mad all the time?” I also watched in the mirrored reflection as he used the same tactic on other women at the gym. It happened to me two or three times more when I had a hectic week and Saturday was my only chance to work out. Then one time I was there on a Tuesday night and he was there, which was out of sync with his usual schedule. He was training someone across the gym, so I thought if I just got off the machine and high-tail it to get out I could easily avoid him before he even knew I was there. But, somehow he had an instinct for making me feel as uncomfortable as possible because this time he got me on my way out of the locker room, a darkened abandoned corner of the small gym. I was so flustered by his accosting me (his reasons for doing so were only getting more tenuous) that when I finally got away from him I realized that I’d left my bag, with my wallet, phone, keys clothes, everything behind.
That was it. I stopped going to my gym. I just didn’t want the hassle of putting up with him and warmer weather made the gym less necessary for my running routine. I felt a sense of failure at backing down. I knew that as a paying customer I should have gone to the management, but I figured since I’d paid for the year upfront and I was already seven months in I didn’t have much leverage (that’s the excuse I still tell myself). I also didn’t know how to explain how normal questions could make me feel so vulnerable. It’s not like he said anything explicit or suggestive, but his stance felt threatening, his questions felt intrusive, his persistence felt and I know the interpretation of it as such mike make me seem overly-sensitive.
When I go into the gym my mindset is to get in and get out. I’m not there to make friends or start up a conversation with anyone (I’ll buy a Groupon for off-brand Soul Cycle if I want camraderie) I’m there for my workout and nothing else. When I go to the gym it’s either been a long day at work, it’s an early morning, or it’s weekend hangover recovery. It’s one of the few places you can abandon most social norms and ignore everything around you and make it about you. Without that it’s a place where you can feel vulnerable, there’s mirrors everywhere, you’re wearing spandex and everything on your body is jiggling and being reminded that you’re in a room full of interested people makes you self-conscious.
Now I’m a member of a new gym (I upgraded to something a bit fancier) and on my second or third time there a man approached me. I froze, panicked and tried to ignore that he was talking to me. Turns out he just wanted to ask if I had any interest in doing a trail run with a group he put together. He extended the invitation and then walked away. But the incident reminded me that my gym harasser had taken away my ability to fully relax, put my headphones on and tune out the world.
Photo by Abbie Redmon