For some of us, sport isn’t something that comes naturally. It takes a bit of time. Throughout my teenage years I avoided PE lessons like the plague. Haunted by memories of coming last in the mini-marathon in the last year of primary school, I just decided exercise wasn’t for me. It wasn’t something I did.
It all changed when I was 19, and I tentatively started trying out circuits classes. It was a slow process, but eventually exercise became enjoyable. Now, I can walk into a gym and confidently pick up a kettlebell and just get on with it. It doesn’t feel like such an alien place anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel uncomfortable sometimes.
I recently joined a new gym and left just one month later. The reason? Every time I went I could feel myself being stared at by men.
Of course it’s not the case in all gyms. I’ve been a member of gyms where men and women exercise alongside each other in perfect harmony. But I’ve been in others where the moment a female-shaped human enters the room heads spin round and eyeballs protrude.
And the harassment doesn’t stop with staring. I’ve had men approaching me to tell me I’m lifting weights wrong. On another occasion I lay on the floor to do some sit-ups and a man came and laid his mat right next to mine before striking up a conversation with me – his head was so close to mine it felt like we were in bed together.
Last week I watched from the cross trainer in despair as another woman was subjected to the same thing while she did some stretches. A man hovered around her exercise mat and started talking to her, leaving her with no option but to smile politely and engage in a moment of awkward conversation before getting up and heading to the changing rooms.
In 2015 Sport England launched its This Girl Can campaign after research found 40 per cent of women aged 16 and over are not active enough to get the full health benefits of sport and physical activity. Encouraging women to take up exercise is a step in the right direction, but they have to feel comfortable at the same time.
Avon and Somerset Police recently launched a campaign to keep women safe while out running. The advice was for women to run in groups or join a running club to avoid being sexually harassed.
As positive as it is to see a police force putting women’s safety high up on its list of priorities, a more worthwhile campaign might have placed the emphasis on the people who catcall women instead.
I’d say general advice in these situations would be as follows: if you see a woman exercising and she is quite happily minding her own business and giving no indication that she wants you to talk to her, leave her alone. If you see a woman doing a deadlift and you think she could be doing it a bit better, don’t take it upon yourself to tell her she is doing it wrong. Just leave her alone. If you see a woman out running and you feel an overwhelming urge to wolf whistle at her or beep your car horn, the chances are she doesn’t want you to do that, so just don’t. It really is that simple.