Harassment is not a compliment (Guest post)

A few weeks ago, inspired by my blog post here about the challenges of using my male-dominated gym, I was explaining to the male math teacher in the classroom next to mine what it’s like for me there. His response was something along the lines of, “but doesn’t that just mean you have a kickin’ body?” I was floored, and as usual with me, my best response wasn’t formulated until hours after the conversation. Here is what I wished I’d said:

I want to make it clear, when I am explaining to you about the persistent harassment I receive, I am not tacitly bragging about my sexual appeal. I am not proud of the amount of attention my body gets, and I am usually not flattered when that attention is given. It isn’t fun, cute, or flirtatious to be stared-at, cat-called, leered-at, or followed.

At best, it’s annoying. At worst, it’s threatening and scary. When I am given this unwanted attention, I am immediately put on guard. The person doing it invariably has more power than me, is usually bigger than me, and often has a friend with them. If they are willing to cross one boundary of socially acceptable behavior, what other boundaries are they willing to cross?

So, when I’m explaining to you about how I have stopped running in my neighborhood after a couple of guys followed me for nearly a block in their pick-up truck, don’t think I’m really trying to bring attention to my ass. When I say I have changed my lifting routine so I don’t have to use the cable machine in the center of the room where I get stared at, don’t think I’m pointing out the curve of my cleavage.

It isn’t an accident that women who have faced sexual trauma are much more likely to have significantly higher body fat. (The last data I saw was something like 60-80% of those with “morbid obesity” were predicted to be sexual assault survivors.) It is a real and challenging downside to being a smaller size that I was not prepared for–it is hard to explain how often I feel less safe as a result of the increased attention. It is a near-daily pressure that I must navigate. I am not convinced it is always worth it.

It isn’t fun to be afraid. It isn’t flattering to be harassed. I have a right to move through the world and be safe, feel safe, and to go about my business without being treated like I’m an object on display.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

clothing · fashion · gear · Guest Post

Attention Barbell Apparel: I am your target market

I lift weights. I am cis-female. I buy jeans.

When I go to the mall to buy jeans, I can literally try on every style in Macy’s or Nordstroms and walk away without a single pair that fits me well. I have a narrower-than-average waist (28-29 inches) and wider-than-average thighs (each about 24 inches around). So, I often have to choose between fitting my legs into pants and then having enormous gapping at the waist, or squeezing my legs in tight enough that I’m at risk of losing circulation when I sit down so that it fits around my middle.

Needless to say, I was THRILLED therefore to discover Barbell Apparel, who markets their jeans to lifters–with sizing not just for the waist measurement but with a THIGH measurement too! I enthusiastically became their customer and signed up for their email list to keep up on marketing. These pants are not cheap, and I knew I’d want to restock when they were on sale.

And for the last 2 years, EVERY email I’ve gotten from them since, minus perhaps one at Christmas, has been targeted exclusively to men and their men’s line.

Some weeks ago, I sent them feedback–are they aware that they only market their men’s line? It might be good to have two types of emails–one targeted to the folks buying women’s clothes and one for those buying men’s. Alternately, maybe include images from both lines in each email? It would help me feel valued and part of the club! After all, women lifters already are a minority within a minority (I’ve written about my own experiences with this previously). Any company that helps me feel like I’m in the club will win my appreciation and loyalty!

The response I got back suggested they didn’t get it. “We are excited to announce we will be adding to our women’s line very soon!” Ok, but do you hear me saying that you are excluding me by marketing only the men’s products?

It is frustrating. And I now feel more ambivalent about their products. I love the idea of celebrating my proportions–my big, strong thighs are NOT typically treated as admirable, but here is a clothing line with proud tank tops declaring “Thunder Thighs!” I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they show that pride in their marketing materials, too.

What say you? Do you feel included and celebrated by the manufacturers of products you are loyal to? What types of inclusivity do you value in advertising?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

Guest Post · weight lifting

Doin’ My Part to Keep the Gym a Safe Space for Men (Guest Post)

I strength train in a small community center gym. It is filled with the full range of humanity who live in my diverse community. When I started working out there four or five years ago, as far as I could tell I was the only woman who regularly lifted weights. Only in the last year or so have I begun to see a shift where there are other women who lift, at least a little bit, with some regularity. Nevertheless, it is still very much a man’s domain. And perhaps because weightlifting is so deeply connected in our psyches with manliness, machoness, and physical dominance, I find that I encounter a larger-than-usual population of the toxically masculine. From aging athletes who feel that it is their rightful territory, to arrogant and ignorant newbies puffing up to attempt to appear competent, I must interact with men who at best don’t seem to recognize that I may belong there, too, and at worst, those who seem to resent my presence.

I have no idea what this woman is doing (pilates?), but it’s the only photo I could find of a woman working out NOT in only a sports bra and short shorts.  🙂

I am not proud to acknowledge it, but I have adjusted to this reality in dozens of subtle ways that allow the status quo to remain in place. The gym at my rec center remains a man’s space. All of these adjustments are done to keep the men there at ease and to avoid conflict. I would like to think that I’m just being considerate, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s really about not entirely feeling like I belong–that I’m still imposing on a space that isn’t equally mine.

Here’s a sampling of what I do:

–I work hard to be efficient with whatever equipment I’m using. Old-school gym culture suggests that folks can “cut in” and share equipment, but this is not something I see at my gym. Instead, folks stay where they are until all their sets are done and then the next person takes over. If I’m doing several long sets, I am always aware of who is around me who might be waiting for whatever I’m using. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable if I can tell that they’re waiting for me, although I do not usually see the same consideration in reverse.

–I make it very clear which equipment I’m using. I put my workout log onto the bench before I get up to get a drink of water from the fountain. Or, sometimes when it’s really busy, I don’t get up at all. This avoids the awkward “I’m still using that” conversation. I’ve had men start to roll away a bench I had put a barbell or dumbbells next to as I was setting up a lift, and I had to ask them to please leave it there. Two-thirds of the guys just don’t seem to have processed that I was using it. Perhaps the other third of the time, they shoot me a look that suggests their needs are greater than mine.

A guy staring at his phone, leaning on a bar and bench

–When I’m doing lifts like rows in which my decolletage might show, I do them towards the wall. For that matter, any exercise that might seem “risqué” is done with as little audience as possible. I’ve caught the eyes of men who were noticing me, and it can become uncomfortable quickly. For about a year, there was a guy who I found myself making sure always left before I did, so there wasn’t any chance that he’d follow me out. He stared at me with unabashed focus every time we were both in the gym. It scared me, and I never confronted him about it.

–I wear earbuds to listen to music and to signal I don’t want to have a conversation. On a related note, I don’t make eye contact except to check on if someone is done with a piece of equipment. I rarely smile, so I won’t be misunderstood to be flirting, and I avoid looking too stern (RBF), so I don’t look too mean. I aim to be neutral.

–I wear a t-shirt or loose tank top over my sports bra all year long, even when it’s blazing hot and the AC goes out at the community center. I wear no-show panties to avoid any pantyline and high-rise leggings that keep my backside covered. I don’t want my appearance to be misconstrued as attention-seeking. The handful of times I’ve felt it necessary to inform someone that I was married, the responses I got back were less-than-respectful. As a result of these, I have also started wearing a silicone “wedding” ring when I lift.

–I avoid correcting or giving feedback to someone, even if their gym faux-pas are problematic for me. If they are sitting for half an hour on a bench I need, I don’t ask them how long they’ll be. If they’re staring at their phone next to where I need to go, I wait patiently for them to move along. If they walk between me and the mirror, I keep my annoyance to myself, even if I need to spot my form on that lift.

Despite these considerations, I have had equipment picked up and walked away without being asked if I was using it. I am yelled at about once a year. Last year, a guy started screaming at me for “wasting time” while I was resting between sets. Only last month, another guy started yelling at me (“Don’t YOU tell me what to do!”), aggressively leaning in, when I asked him if he could “please walk around” so I could do an overhead press without him directly in front of me. I’ve had benches taken over while I was standing next to them. Backhanded compliments like “I know it seems weird to be asking you, but could you show me that lift,” are common. I act flattered instead of wondering aloud why they shouldn’t ask me.

I am ok with the idea that the way I lift weights it outside of normative femininity. However, I question the “rules” I have set out for myself to share space at the gym. I’m conflicted about it–I genuinely don’t want to be in conflict with guys while I’m there; however, there’s been frequent enough issues that my rules have been adapted in response to them. Many of those conflicts were due to the man in question seemingly having his own sets of rules that aren’t based on any mutual community mindset but rather things that work best for himself as an individual. His individual needs take precedence over mine. And how do I speak up for myself, when the act of saying anything at all is often met with aggression, intimidation, and posturing? Or on the flip side of things, when they are attempting to be accommodating, they are actually condescending and belittling–how do I say, thank you but no, I don’t need you to rack my weights for me or carry that dumbbell back? I can lift it myself, and that’s the whole point of being there.

And so I’m stuck. Do I go about standing up for myself and my needs and thereby continue to have conflicts, or do I adjust my behaviors to reduce conflict so I can have as pleasant a session as possible, but perpetuate and enable a gym culture that is not accommodating to women?

Someone in pink wrist wraps, shoes and socks moving a collar for a bar with weight plates on it.

What say you? Do you stand up for your needs and risk conflict and confrontation? Are you open to feedback at the gym or does it feel like an imposition while you’re “in the zone?”

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
Guest Post

My Cat is Fat. So What?! (Guest Post)

Opie “helping” me cook

So some research came out years back that identified that larger-bodied people tend to have larger-bodied pets, too. This study has been often quoted as strong evidence that having more body fat is primarily environmental, as of course, our pets are not genetically related to us.

Ok, sure. My cat is not technically my child, and many people love their pets like their children, including loving them with food. And we are the providers for our pets, putting much of the responsibility upon us for what and how much of it that they eat.

Opie at his most abundant (playing with his favorite toy).

On the other hand, as with humans, pets are shaped by formative experiences, and these are not entirely in our control. If a kitten is denied plentiful food, it is likely to have a larger, more insatiable appetite. If a puppy’s mother was underfed, the puppy is born into a state of scarcity, and this can be seen as food anxiety even when it’s a full grown dog.

I bring this up, in part, to explain why I have a cat that has weighed as much as 22 pounds. Opie is a big boy with a hanging belly and deep-seeded belief that he is starving. I am not in the habit of feeding him human food. I also do not regularly give him cat treats, not even the kinds that supposedly brush his teeth or provide hairball relief or sundry other feline nutraceuticals. So how do I make sense of his obesity?

When I adopted Opie, he was already an adult. I’m not sure of his exact age, but I’d guess he was about two years old. He weighed 15 pounds, which was a little chunky, but mostly made him feel like a cuddly kitty. I wasn’t worried about it, and I giggled at the instructions from the Humane Society suggesting that I put him on a restricted calorie diet, since he was already “overweight.”

And thus began years of fat-shaming for Opie, and thereby for me, by veterinarians “only concerned about his health.” You see, I think this is the downside of the previously-discussed research. It placed the notion firmly in the public’s mind that fat pets equals flawed owners. (This is the first law of fat bias: fat equals flawed.) While I have been close to “normal” weight for most of the time I’ve owned Opie, I’m not a small person, and I could feel the implied judgement as I was asked what I feed him, how much do I feed him, and how often do I play with him so he gets some exercise? And all these questions place the responsibility firmly on me.

And what do I feed him? He gets carefully measured and portioned servings of kibble. It comes from an automated pet feeding machine, because otherwise he begs for food at three in the morning. Food for the other cats is locked away behind feeders with chip-readers, so only those cats can eat from them. If I left the food out, Opie would eat it all immediately. Apparently, Opie does not live with the reassurance that if he leaves it for later, it will be there.

I also give him one sixth of a can of canned cat food in the evening. He ends up eating about half that much again, because he wolfs down his own portion and then bullies my other cats to leave before they’ve finished their own. Sometimes, I put them in separate rooms, in which case Opie runs around frantically, searching for the extra food he knows is there somewhere.

So, Opie eats too much, but it isn’t because I’m soft-hearted, or simply repeating the same “gluttonous” patterns that I have in my own life. He’s desperately certain that he is hungry. All. The. Time. And while I agree that having a 22 pound cat isn’t good for him, I’m not willing to restrict him to the point of such anxiety that he’s endlessly panicked and “explaining” to me how hungry he is. It is ok with me if he stays a little chunky, if that means he’s mostly content. Slow reductions over the years means he’s dropped down to about 17 pounds. He begs for canned food in the evenings, and it’s annoying, but otherwise, he mostly acts like a happy kitty.

So, he’s a work in progress. And I wish the veterinarians could see it that way, too. But I think they’re too blinded by their own fat biases. This is how I imagine their thinking: right now, Opie is fat. Fat is bad. I am a bad cat owner because I’ve let him be fat.

Which reminds me of another study that came out not so long ago in which something like 30% of new PE teachers said that the worst thing that could happen to a kid is that they be fat. The worst thing. And there was another study that said that a lot of former fat people agreed with that sentiment—most of them said that they would rather lose a limb than go back to being fat. It is no wonder that folks are deeply concerned that I’m letting my cat be so fat, when fatness is so deeply undesirable.

But it does surprise me that fat bias extends to my cat in this manner. After all, he’s just a cat. He doesn’t know he’s fat. He’s not aware if he’s being treated differently because of his size. He doesn’t have to go through the shame of bathing suit shopping or being repeatedly rejected on an online dating site.

Which really puts a hole in the argument that people with fat bias are just concerned about “educating” fat people, that it is a measure of their concern that gives them permission to shame, judge and ridicule. I know Opie would be healthier if he were smaller, but he does not. My cat is actually, genuinely, ignorant and will remain so. Because Opie doesn’t care that he is fat, and it doesn’t phase him. He has no ability to perceive cause and effect. And in the short term, there are very few meaningful consequences to him being fat. He’s still young enough to get around fairly easily. He likes lazing about and watching the world go by. As long as his needs are being met, it truly does not impact his life. And I do not value personifying his needs in the form of overly-restrictive dietary control.

All this energy towards reduction in cat fatness seems deeply out of proportion to the severity of the problem. In my experience, if I avoid feeding a pet human food and other treats, most of them will regulate their appetites acceptably. Occasionally, I encounter an animal who doesn’t seem able to do this. Usually, after a little time in food abundance, s/he finds a contented level of consumption, and they slow down. Maybe they’re fatter than “ideal,” but they don’t endlessly pack on the pounds. Opie is my first pet who hasn’t done this, and I feel completely ok with the solutions and balance we found to help him manage. Will it shorten his life if I don’t get him to be svelte? Maybe. But it isn’t worth it to me to worry about it. I want him to be a happy kitty. If I manage to help reduce his size to something considered more medically appropriate, great, but if not, he’s got a good life in the meantime. I’m not going to let fat bias define how I care for him, or define what kind of pet owner I am. He and I are good just the way we are.

Opie and his little brother, Diego, snuggling.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

Guest Post · running

Maybe I’m a runner (Guest post)

Something incredible happens after about a mile of running. It stops feeling hard. This is a revelation to me! Ancient memories of elementary school gym class, running the mile, feeling winded, sore in my ankles, knees, and hips, a stitch in my side, and gasping for air, had me convinced that running is a form of elective torture. But maybe it doesn’t have to be?

I run. I don’t run fast. I can’t run far. But I am improving, running faster, running further. And to my great surprise and delight, I am learning that the discomforts of running are often fleeting and balanced with a healthy dose of delight and enjoyment. In these moments, my body feels like it is flowing, gliding across the ground as my feet spring forward, gazelle-like. It is a lie I tell myself, or at least a happy fantasy, as no one would describe me as fleet-footed if they watched me run by, but this illusion of power and grace is good enough for me.

Is this the mythical “runner’s high” I’ve heard about? Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t feel high, I just feel ok, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable, a weird pressure behind my left knee, is that a blister forming on my right big toe?, hyperaware of each plodding footfall, each huffing breath. In the first mile or so, running is an exercise in optimism, it will get better, I remind myself as I push through it. And it seems absurd, until, suddenly, it does get better. And it is like this Every. Single. Time.

I keep expecting it to feel natural, easy. I am amazed it ever feels easy, but when does it feel right from the beginning? Does it ever feel that way? What does it take to get to feeling at ease from the start? How many miles do I need to put in? How fit do I need to become? Am I simply too large to be at ease in this sport? Runners are typically far leaner than I am, far leaner than I aim to become. Maybe the extra stress on my joints from my larger body means it will never feel like a natural fit. I have chosen weight-training and muscle-building over becoming swift and lean. At least, for now.

How cool is it, though, to realize that I can run and not hate it?! And why didn’t anyone ever tell me it gets better?

I played with running for a while before I figured out what works best for me. I suspect I have more trial and error ahead of me. What I have learned so far is that I need a good walking warm-up before I begin to jog, or my knees and hips yell at me, and I can’t go as far or as fast. Related to this, after a hard effort, I need to walk a while, or I get shaky and lightheaded. Apparently it has something to do with the blood pooling in your legs or something. I dunno. I just make sure to walk half a mile or so at the end. I’ve learned that unless I want to lift less often or less strenuously, I really only have one day a week right now that I can run. I just seem to need the rest time on the other off days.

I have learned that what I eat before I run really matters. No one tells you running starts to stop sucking after a while? Well, no one tells you it upsets your stomach, makes you want to poop, and gives you diarrhea for hours if you have too much fiber before a hard effort. I get it, it’s gross. But a little warning would have been nice. I have to carefully plan meals on my running days. This is another reason I can only fit it in one weekend running day a week. Avoiding fiber all day so I can run in the evenings doesn’t seem like a good long-term strategy.

I am still learning that the sport of running is all about the head-game. This has been a surprise to me as I’ve nerded out, reading Runner’s World articles and such. But there really isn’t a whole lot of talk about technique. There’s a lot of talk about mental strategy. How do you push yourself when you’re tired? How do you get your head ready for a long run? Or a fast run? How do you prepare yourself for the psychology of a race? This is not what lifters are concerned about. All the fitness literature I’ve read that is lifting-focused is on technique and programming. Generally, weightlifting gurus don’t seem all that concerned with your head. But runners are.

I am learning that this make sense. I can run further when I am mentally prepared for the effort. I do better with upbeat, empowering music in an ear, too. Hard-earned knowledge, like the fact that the aches and discomforts will ebb and flow are reassuring when it is difficult. It will get better. I find it reassuring to know that more-experienced runners have to train themselves to remember this fact, too.

So, I guess in that way, I am already a runner. Maybe it’s not a lot, but I’m putting in the miles. Maybe it’s not fast, but I am focusing on the work. I’m going out there and doing it, over and over, and learning along the way. And, honestly, it’s a wonderful, unexpected thing.

person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairsPhoto of person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairs. Photo from Unsplash.

Marjorie Hundtoft works as a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.