Today, I read the story of the personal trainer in New Zealand who asked a seventeen-year-old girl if she was “sexually active” during a routine health questionnaire.
At first, she didn’t report the incident, unsure if the question was normal protocol.
For me, the experiences of this young girl rang especially true. I, too, was harassed at a gym at a young age, unsure whether the behaviour I experienced was “normal” or inappropriate.
I, too, was seventeen when I joined my first gym – a small local setup with only a few machines. I’d never used any of the exercise equipment before, so I jumped at the offer of a free personal training session.
When I turned up for my training session, Matt* was waiting. He was about ten years older than me and seemed like a nice guy, pointing out the change rooms, showers and cold water taps. But when we started “working out”, it was a different story.
While "showing" me how to use the machines, his hands wandered dangerously close to my bum. When he grabbed my upper arm to steer me towards another corner of the empty gym, he got an "accidental" handful of boob, too. As he watched me go through the motions of each exercise, he commented on my body:
"This will really help accentuate that nice ass of yours."
"Your thighs are great already, but this will make them even better."
"You're hot, but you could be skinnier."
"I bet you like to show off those legs in high heels."
At seventeen, I had no idea how to react. It didn't occur to me - and, in truth, perhaps it still wouldn't - that I was just allowed to leave. He was a gym employee, after all. I had agreed to this session. I was invested now, and if I left he'd know something was wrong.
It says a lot about how we're taught to act as women that I was more worried about offending the person who was making me so uncomfortable than about my own wellbeing.
Watch The Mamamia Team confess to their most embarrassing gym moments.
Instead of running out the door, I stayed for the full half hour. Matt physically manoeuvred my limbs from one position to another, hands often veering a little too far off course. He asked me a lot of questions - did I live nearby? Did I have a boyfriend? What school did I go to? Was I already drinking? (He bet I was). Young girls these days, he told me with a wink, were absolutely wild. He saw them all the time, drunk near the local beach.
"I would say I've probably seen you," he said, "but I would have remembered you."
At the end of the session, he gave me his card. He was a masseuse, he said, and he'd be happy to give me a free session after a workout some time.
"You'll have to be naked, though," he joked - or was he joking? - as I hurried out the door.
I didn't tell anyone. I let the rest of my gym membership, a whole six months on my measly budget, elapse without a single visit, choosing to run along the beach with my dad instead.
In the last few years, I rejoined a gym. This time, I chose an all-female one, and declined the free personal training session.
Today, I was reminded that my story is just one in a long line of men making women feel uncomfortable in spaces where they should feel safe. Stripped of the nonsense of selfies and protein shakes, a gym is a place where people go to feel good - to connect with their bodies and enjoy what they can do. People make themselves and their body vulnerable to others on the unspoken agreement that everyone else has got their back.
Since I was seventeen, I've started to embrace everything my lovely gym has to offer. I love working out fast to loud music, pushing my body to its limits. I love my Saturday morning yoga class, filled with women I know. I love watching TV while I stroll along on the treadmill.
But if young women don't feel safe at gyms, they just won't go.
And that's a real shame.