This is a story about gender equity.
There are too many watchful eyes in the gym. I find myself watching my shoes while they watch me.
It’s the men. Sizing me up. Controlling who gets to look, and who gets looked at.
There are three types of men who watch.
There’s the I’m exercising all my self-control not to look at you man. The glances come at me sideways. I turn my head and they look away.
There’s the get out of my space, women don’t belong here man. Their stare is hostile. Challenging me to retreat.
And then there’s the worst sort of man. The how can I initiate a sexual interaction man. They keep me on my toes, wondering if, or really when, they will sidle up next to me, throw a comment my way.
I fold myself into the corner of the weight room. Hoping I will take up as little space as possible so they cannot see me. Of course, this is futile. Their eyes always manage to find me.
I pick up a kettlebell and concentrate on the stained spot on the floor as I swing the weight back and forth.
But the worst watchers are not the men.
And as I turn my back and begin to lunge across the floor, I can’t help but glance towards the rack of tired, outdated magazines. Glossy eyes stare back at me.
It is always the same woman. I don’t know if they ever bother to replace the magazines, or if the woman merely looks identical to all the women who came before. Perhaps they have different hair or maybe different colored eyes, but even then, I’m not so sure. It is always the same body. Toned. But never strong.
I lunge towards her, and yet with every step the distance between us widens. With every step I take towards being a better runner, a better thrower, and a better player, I take a step further away from this woman.
We stare each other down from across the weight room. She smiles knowingly back at me as if to say, “you will never look like me.”
But the worst watchers are not the men. Or the models.
The worst, of course, is always myself.
I square up in front of the squat rack and stare myself down in the mirror.
My hair is out of place. My face is too red. The sweat soaking through my shirt is gross. My thighs are disproportionate to the rest of my body. There is black dirt under my fingernails. My shorts do not match my shoes.
The mirror reflects my watchful eyes. I curl my hands around the cool metal of the bar. It is heavier then I imagined. Burdened with the weight of society’s expectations. I bend my knees.
On my last and final squat, the sweat running down my temples and pooling along my cheekbones renders me temporarily blind. The only noise is the sound of my heart, pounding in my head. My muscles quiver under the weight of the bar as my mind conquers the weakness in my body. My whole world narrows to this one, single task. And I finally see myself. For a brief and fleeting moment, I am something much greater than a woman defined by her physical body.
I am an athlete.
I re-rack the weights, and I cannot help but feel the absence in the weight room. Of all the girls who never made it. Of all the women who hit their breaking point.
One can hardly blame them.