FRAGILE: A word I would not choose to call myself
I can squat 95kg. I can hold a plank, do a straight-leg forward bend and voluntarily rip my muscles apart to put them back together. I am
I work hard. I have a career in a team where I am known, trusted and respected to provide answers. I am
I have two degrees. I had fun and put in the hours to be torn apart and put back together by some of the best minds at a university ranked globally in the top of its field. I am
I make lasting friendships. People from all aspects of my small corner of the world seek me out for love, laughter and advice. I am
Today at my corporate gym, I was stunned to silence. Part way through my work out a previously unknown colleague laid bare all variations of aggression: Open, passive and micro. Temporarily rendered inarticulate, I cried in a fit of frustration at my inability to express my emotions to the trainer at reception and stranger who followed me out after he witnessed the interaction. Then, thinking me out of earshot the man in question launched a defence hinging on the premise that I was ‘clearly fragile’.
I am not sure a more ill-advised insult could have been attempted - in lighting the touch paper my anger was enough to return and respond. Of course, hours later, I am far more eloquent and while glad I did go back, this is the defence I wish I had offered but should not have needed.
We have all sadly heard the rumour that men offer unsolicited – if theoretically well meaning – advice to women in the gym. Or perhaps striking up a conversation when all we want to do is exercise. Until today this was all hearsay to me; I had hopes of immunity in an office gym. My false sense of security was heightened by the limited eye contact and lack of conversation over the last 4 years, I felt protected by the mutual understanding that fellow professionals would be unwilling to risk awkward exchanges with a Lycra clad stranger now, but a potential suited and booted peer in a cold, grey meeting tomorrow.
So how exactly, did I come to be listening to a random man’s justification to interrupt his super sets and question me mid yoga flow if “you are allowed to not wear socks in this gym”?
If it wasn’t abnormal enough to pointedly break both our separate routines, the choice of phrase to ask if I was allowed to not do something felt off.
I appreciate there are two sides to this story. (1) A misunderstanding of social cues and a man asking a harmless question, from an interest in taking his socks off when stretching. (2) A man attempting to assert his preference and (incorrect) belief of acceptable gym etiquette. Either way, I was left feeling shocked, vulnerable and embarrassed.
I am not fragile.
If I could have untied my tongue from the shock that a stranger in the firm thought it appropriate to address me this way I would have said so much more than what I pieced together in that moment.
I would have responded to his protest of not invading my personal space as untrue. Regardless of whether he was 2 metres away or not - unlikely from pure practicalities - intentionally disturbing a stranger’s exercise routine is an invasion of their space, be it physical or mental. Not to mention, the decision of whether the space has been invaded is upon me after being approached and feeling uncomfortable, those terms are not dictated by the accused.
That if he were ‘new and genuinely interested’ in knowing whether you can go barefoot on the stretch mats, he could have asked one of the multiple trainers. Or asked me politely when we were both finished. Since I fail to see the urgency that would prevent such niceties including feigning interest rather than responding with a stare, ‘oh’ and then walking away to continue the sets after receiving an answer.
I wish I had retained the confidence to contend that yes, his body language to stand over me while I was sat on the floor was intimidating and that his choice of barbed verbal communication in phrasing the query as a negative, disregarding the social norms of ‘excuse me’, ‘please’ and / or ‘thank you’ and culminating in the label ‘fragile’ were at worst aggressive and at best ignorant.
And finally, in his declaration that he wasn’t stopping me doing anything following my plea that the gym was my safe space, where I went to improve my day, that this was not an interaction I expected and that I was truly shocked to encounter it. I would have expressed that quite clearly you are stopping me and you did, because the HIIT and the yoga have been abandoned and I am now addressing you and two others.
So please, do not excuse your behaviour and concoct an explanation. Please do not twist this to be about my emotional fragility and suggest you meant no harm. You did. You had intent, you hoped I would change my behaviour to meet your expectations.
I am strong;
I am professional;
I am intelligent;
I am empathetic; and
I will not let you take my voice.