I kind of hesitate to post this story, because it might seem like I’m asking for a cookie, and that isn’t my goal here.
At the local LA Fitness, I attend the “swim fit” classes fairly regularly, because it’s good exercise for someone with an iffy knee. (It’s also nice because a lot of the folks in that class are, like myself, fat.)
One of the instructors is a conventionally attractive young woman who leads the class wearing a swimsuit (of course), and alternates between leading us from the side of the pool, where we can see her clearly and where she can control the boom box, and jumping in and leading us from within the pool.
At one recent class, there was a new student exercising next to me, a large middle-aged guy with a thick mustache. Noticing that I wear glasses in the pool, he said something like “next time I’m going to wear my glasses, too – she’s really worth looking at,” indicating the instructor. I deflected by saying “it really helps to be able to see what the exercise is.”
This sort of thing really doesn’t happen to me often. Significantly less often than once a year. 1 For a while it was a feminist cliche to tell men that one way we can help is to object to sexist comments in the locker room, and the cliche has always bugged me a little, because no one ever says stuff like that to me. But now this guy had, and my reflex, shamefully, had been to blow it off.
A few minutes later, he and I again wound up next to each other. The instructor jumped in the pool to lead us in the next exercise, and he leaned to me and whispered “oh, no, stay out of the pool, where we can see you better!” I grunted and moved away.
For the rest of that swim fit class, my mind was occupied with the dude, criticizing myself for not arguing with him, wondering what I should have said. (“Hey, she’s my sister!”). I mentally made excuses: I’m a very shy person; I’m not comfortable talking to strangers; this was my exercise time, and I can’t exercise and criticize simultaneously. And I kept on imagining bad scenarios if I criticized the guy’s behavior. Would people think that I’m a humorless killjoy? Would the guy get hostile and yell at me? Would he begin a relentless campaign of nasty comments to me that would eventually force me to quit going to swim fit class altogether? Would he get his motorcycle gang together and beat me up after class? 2
After the class was over, I pulled him aside and told him “hey, I know a lot of women feel bad about going to health clubs because they’re worried guys will make remarks about their bodies.”
He immediately became abashed and said “I know, but I wasn’t talking about any of the students. I was talking about her,” indicating the instructor by nodding in her direction.
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t matter. It’s just completely inappropriate to talk like that about anyone here, including the instructor.”
He became very apologetic, and promised he wouldn’t do it again. I said “thanks,’ and that was the end of the encounter.
The only reason I mention this is because, despite what I was imagining beforehand, confronting him about his behavior and asking him to stop it was easy. It had no bad consequences for me whatsoever; it was actually only a slight bit awkward. And maybe telling this completely unnotable story will encourage some other guy who reads it, if he’s in a similar situation someday, to overcome his fears and speak up.
P.S. A preemptive response: Yes, obviously, there are situations where it might actually be physically unsafe to speak up. But this wasn’t that sort of situation at all.