Catcalled in the gym?

I was in between sets of rope pulls and barbell rows at the gym when a man approached me last week. I wear headband earbuds and earplugs when I work out, but that didn’t stop him from beckoning to me before launching into speech. Confused, I pulled out my earplugs and paused my music.

This muscular man looked me up and down with a strange, hungry look before saying, “My goal is to look half as good as you. Thanks for the motivation.” Then he winked.

Annoyed, I muttered a noncommittal, “ok.” The rest of my workout, I watched over my shoulder to see if he was around.

This incident made me angry. On the surface, it’s flattering that someone would think of my hard work as motivation. But approaching me and interrupting my workout in a space I consider sacred, is crossing a line. And it’s not the first time it’s happened.

I’m writing this post because it’s happened to me, but I know I’m not the only one. Women (and men too) are often the subject of comments and unwanted conversations in the gym. It’s intimidating to be a newbie in the gym, but if a stranger approaches a woman and makes her feel uncomfortable, it can be a factor in choosing not to return.

For me, the gym is a place I go to recharge. If I’m working out alone, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I put on my music as a sign that I’m not to be approached, as I focus on my workout, my movements and the beat of the song. It’s my own form of therapy, a way to unwind and focus on strengthening my body and mind. When someone interrupts that focus out of a selfish desire to share their thoughts or reactions to what I’m doing, it breaks my focus. It’s rude and thoughtless.

An unspoken rule of thumb is to never approach someone in the gym when they have their headphones on (unless it’s an emergency or they are failing on a set). But if they aren’t listening to music, there are times it’s appropriate to approach a stranger in the gym. Compliment hard work and effort, not body. Ask about the exercise they’re doing or for tips. But don’t stare at them as if they’re a piece of meat, and don’t keep bothering them if they look uncomfortable. Be courteous.

Some people probably think I’m being too sensitive. Yes, I am a sensitive human being, and I won’t apologize for that. But I’m also tough as hell. I don’t let experiences that anger me defeat me. I find a way around them, and you can too.

So what can you do if someone gestures to you at the gym or tries to talk to you when you’re in your zone?

If you want, you can listen and respond accordingly. “Thanks, but I’m trying to focus on my workout,” is a good response if someone won’t leave you alone. Or, “That makes me uncomfortable.” Be honest, be polite, be firm. Don’t leave any room for them to continue bothering you. But you don’t owe it to a stranger to listen to them.

The day after the first incident last week, an overly tan, middle-aged man approached me as I moved from one set to another. I saw his lips move and saw the specific look in his eye that tells me something I don’t care to hear is coming next.

Instead of pausing my music, I gestured towards my earplugs, gently shook my head, “no,” and walked past him to begin my next exercise.

xx, Brooke

The Long and Winding Road That is My Fitness Journey

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would write about my interest in fitness and health. While how I eat and exercise are a huge part of my life, I’ve always been hesitant to talk about my habits or share anything related to this aspect of my life on social media. This is partly because I’ve rarely been confident in my appearance. Recently, I’ve become more comfortable in my skin, but I’ve still been hesitant to share my thoughts because I don’t want to seem like I’m “showing off.” I’m aware my progress isn’t visually astonishing. But I think I’ve finally hit the spot where I’m comfortable speaking openly about my health. After years of struggling not to hate my body, I want other people to feel at home in their skin like I now do. While I’ve certainly never been overweight, I’ve tipped the scales up to 20 pounds more than I am now. But my fitness journey was never necessarily weight-focused: it was centered around how I felt about my physique.

The first time I went on a diet, I was 13. I was flying to Oklahoma for my first travel swim meet, and I wanted to lose 5 pounds. So I successfully dieted my way down from 110 to 105 pounds in about a month. At the time, I was training with a group of mainly 14-16 year olds. These girls were more aware of their bodies and how they affected performance than I was, so I tried to emulate what I perceived as the best way to be a better athlete.

By high school, I was solidly uncomfortable with my body. I wanted breasts, and dreamed of having surgery in the future. I remember reading that soy products can increase estrogen, so I began drinking soy milk like it was water. Eventually, I hit puberty and gained fat on my breasts and hips, as well as on my thighs and stomach. Again, I wasn’t fat, but I felt fat. I quickly started to hate my body. Numerous attempts to diet didn’t result in anything other than my development of what the National Eating Disorders Association now recognizes as Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

Through high school, and up until the beginning of this year, I was constantly cycling between dieting and bingeing. I’ve completely cut out sugar, bread, dairy and meat at various points in an attempt to drop weight. While none of those diets lasted, they did result in intense cravings and the strong mental urge to indulge in fatty, greasy, high sugar foods. My favorite binge foods were jars of peanut butter, cartons of Oreos, pints of ice cream, sheets of cookie dough, blocks of cheese and slices of bread. I would usually combine several of these, withdraw to my room, and keep on eating until I felt sick to my stomach. I’d eat thousands of calories in one sitting, then repeat the process multiple times a week. The shame I felt from these episodes made me promise myself I’d be even more restrictive the next day. It usually worked for a few days or weeks, but I always ended up back in the junk food aisle.

During this time, I went from being a club to a collegiate swimmer, to then quitting the sport at the end of my sophomore year. This transition only made me more determined to regulate my diet more. But again, I only cycled back and forth between eating a “clean” diet and bingeing. Going out in the summer was hard; in my mind, crop tops were unflattering, shorts were too revealing and bikinis were the enemy. If you’re wondering why this post doesn’t contain more photos of me when I was thicker, it’s because I couldn’t find any; I deleted photos I deemed unflattering from my Facebook page.

What made me finally stop? A few things. Last summer, I began seeing a therapist for my issues with eating. I didn’t think it was helping because I continued my binges into the fall and winter. But they became less frequent. At the beginning of this year, for the first time since I can remember, my New Year’s resolution didn’t include plans to lose weight or get in better shape. It was simply to express gratitude more often, especially when I find myself thinking negative thoughts. I changed my focus from my body and weight to my mind and how I could rearrange my thoughts about my body.

I started dating a man who thought I was beautiful, who didn’t think I needed to change anything. He made me feel comfortable, and in turn, I began feeling more comfortable with my body. We indulged in delicious foods, but also cooked balanced meals together. And I found my body shedding weight as I trained harder and let myself enjoy my previous binge foods in moderation. I could keep a jar of peanut butter or a pint of ice cream around without devouring the whole thing in one sitting.

When we broke up, I took my emotions and used them as motivation to train harder in the gym. I began focusing more on weight training, and loved the results I was seeing. I followed bikini competitors and “fitness girls” on Instagram and Youtube. While I’m not interested in competing, the motivation and tips I’ve picked up from their content has been key in changing my mindset about my body.

I always hated my thighs, so thick that they rub together when I walk or run. Now I appreciate them for the strength they contain. My wide shoulders? They made me bigger and less feminine. Now I like them; I wear tank tops with pride, not self-consciousness. Though there’s still a layer of fat cocooning my abdomen, my stomach is flatter than it has ever been. I’m proud of how my hard work has paid off, but I’m more proud of how my attitude towards my body has changed. Even if I gain weight, which I’m almost certain to do in my lifetime, I hope I can embrace my body for all the wonderful things it can do.

What does my diet look like now? I’m not going to lie: years of bingeing took a toll on my system. I am sensitive to dairy, gluten and sugar-free sweeteners. It’s a struggle I’m still learning from. As a result, I eat a lot of vegetables and lean proteins, and limit my sugar and gluten intake. People tell me I eat weird all the time because of my penchant for cauliflower mashed potatoes and veggie stir frys. But while I eat very clean most days of the week, I also allow myself to eat what I’m craving. Ice cream, peanut butter and pancakes are definitely a part of my diet. Since I eat well most of the time, I no longer feel guilty or ashamed of eating these foods. I realized that a healthy diet needs to have balance. I eat a lot of vegetables because I LIKE them! If you don’t, find what works for you to feel your best and fuel your activities.

When I think back to all the things I’ve avoided doing, all the tank tops and shorts I wouldn’t wear because I convinced myself I was too fat, it strikes me now that it was all in my mind. I was never “too fat” to wear a tank top; I just believed I was. Every time I binged on foods, it was to comfort myself from the thought that I wasn’t good enough.

Today I worked out at the gym in shorts and a sports bra. I noticed the fat on my thighs and stomach jiggling in the mirror as I ran, and it bothered me a little. Then I realized: no one cared but me. The thighs with the extra fat? Those propelled me forward as I ran faster than anyone else on the track.

About two years ago, I sat in a Barnes and Noble reading a fitness magazine when the thought hit me: Will there ever be a time when I don’t hate my body? At that time, it felt impossible. Today, I can finally say that time is now.