True Story: I Got Catcalled At the Gym And I Got All Upset… Because I Thought They Were Making Fun of Me

by Charlotte on January 20, 2014 · 28 comments

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Late for Zumba the other day, I sprinted into the gym with my shoes in one hand, my hair tie in my teeth (hair tornado-ing around my head) and checking my e-mail one last time on my phone with my other hand. I looked up just in time to miss colliding with a group of high-school boys coming out of their hockey practice. As I ran through the middle of them like a game of human Plinko, I was surprised to hear: “This one’s fine!” And then: “Yeeeah baby, can I run too?”

It took me halfway down the hall to realize that since I was the only other person in the area besides the middle-aged guy manning the burrito booth, that they were probably talking to me. I flushed bright pink. What had just happened?

Catcalling – or “street harassment” – seems to be a right of passage for most women. But while I’d nod my head sympathetically while my pretty college roommate complained about not being able to walk down the street without somebody hollering at her, the truth was I could not relate. Nobody ever wolf-whistled, hooted or came up with creatively vulgar descriptions of my anatomy. Unless you count the one time I heard yelling from a nearby window and when I looked over, there was some guy’s butt hanging out of it. (My entire thought process at the time: What is that? Is that a butt? I think it is? But I didn’t know butts could be so hairy? That’s a lot of hair… And scene.) Even though I knew in my feminist heart it was wrong, I was a little jealous. I mean, I wore long pants in the summer, stomped around like I hated the world and hid behind my Daria glasses – how is that not worthy of at least a mild innuendo?

My friends told me I was lucky to be able to be a girl in public without attracting attention; it was like my own special super power! But I just felt ugly and invisible – a feeling that was not totally in my head, as evidenced by the time at a party when a guy chatting up my friend set down his plate of food on my lap. He hadn’t noticed I was even sitting there on the couch until he reached for a chip and hit my leg instead. His plate spilled all over me and when he brushed the food off my thigh he said, “You like that? It’s the most action you’ll be getting all night.” He laughed. My friend thankfully did not.

I was the poster girl for low self-esteem. Which led to a host of many other problems – any time any guy looked my way I lit up like a birthday cake for Joan Rivers. I put myself in a lot of risky situations because I felt like I should just be grateful for any attention. This vulnerability is a big part, I think, of how I ended up in an abusive relationship.  I have often wondered what those fraught years in high school and college would have been like if I’d had even a modicum of confidence and self-respect.

When I got older and my cohorts got out of the mooning-strangers-for-thrills phase of life, the catcalling of my lady friends mostly moved from the streets or the clubs to the gym. And for years I’ve nodded sympathetically while my pretty gym buddies complained about not being able to do a weighted hip thrust without some guy hip thrusting back at them but I still couldn’t relate. Not trying to minimize the very real pain and intimidation many women feel when this happens to them at the gym – it’s still a major reason I hear from girls for not wanting to venture onto the weight floor alone – but that kind of thing just never happens to me. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve stopped being jealous and have mostly been grateful – apparently I’m just one of those women that men automatically treat with respect (or ignore)? Plus I’m really not a confrontational person and I have no idea how I’d react.

But then the other day with the hockey players happened. And it turns out I was upset – but not for the reasons you’d think. I wasn’t particularly insulted or worried or threatened. I didn’t feel like a piece of meat or whatever. No, it was just the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the boys were just making fun of me. “This one’s fine” became a question in my mind - This one’s fine? Really?? And the Yeah Baby just felt mocking. I mean, why would a bunch of high school hockey players be checking a mom-of-5 out? All I could hear was their laughter echoing in my head. (That and the little dude on The Princess Bride spluttering inconceivable! Vizzini makes everything better.)

By the time I was done Zumba-ing – with a class full of adorable little old ladies, thank you gym in the daytime – I was almost in tears over it. The public mockery was one of the main reasons I hated high school when I was in it and I did not want to relive that. But as I walked out to my car, it occurred to me I’d taken a fairly ambiguous situation and turned it into something that was threatening to ruin my whole day! And why? Because I didn’t feel worthy of being catcalled?

I wasn’t wearing makeup, my hair was crazy, my gym clothes were frumpy. Plus there are way hotter girls at the gym. Then I realized that a big part of it was because I’m currently at my highest adult weight I’ve ever been and in my mind me=fat=ugly*. Yeah, there are at least 17 different things wrong with that equation, the first being that I’m not only insulting myself but basically women in general. (I’m sorry, truly I don’t generalize my self-hate to anyone else.) Despite my husband’s many reassurances to the contrary – and the fact that many men prefer women a little softer and curvier – I simply could not believe that anyone would find me attractive the way I look now. I couldn’t imagine them saying anything complimentary of me because I can’t say anything complimentary of me. It reminded me of that Shhhut down fat talk video by Special K that’s been making the rounds. (The irony of a diet company telling women to stop with the fat talk adds a whole other layer of sad to this conversation.)
I am my own worst bully.

Were those boys catcalling me? Who knows. Maybe they were talking about someone else. Maybe they were just being silly. Heck, maybe they did have a thing for the Burrito Bro. Or maybe they were making fun of me – but in the end it doesn’t matter because nothing they said or did could have been worse than what I did to myself. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  And it’s about time I stop giving people permission. Being the invisible woman is not a super power, in fact it’s no power at all.

Have you ever been catcalled at the gym? What did you do? Anyone else ever turned a neutral phrase into a negative and used it to eviscerate themselves??

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 I’m sorry. I think this is hilarious. It’s the look on the donkey’s face.

*Body dysmorphia duly noted. I’m not using this as an excuse but just an explanation. I know I don’t have an accurate perception of myself. I never have.

**In other news: I’m really liking my new gym! It’s a community center so the fitness facilities aren’t that great but the people more than make up for that. Tons of nice, helpful, fun folks!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

T January 20, 2014 at 2:09 am

I have no experiences of being catcalled, either at the gym or anywhere else, but I can relate to soooo much of this. That’s very likely how I would have reacted, too. (My twisted brain tells me it’s the only way I could have reacted.) I so get this. I have a flatmate who regularly brings me tales of unwanted approaches from guys on the bus, in queues, at parties, and I try to be empathetic, I really do, but I have no idea what she’s talking about.

I think this is less constructive commenting, more “me too! me too!” so I’ll leave it at that. But know that you are lovely, and high-schoolers’ group behaviour patterns have nothing to do with it.

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Darwin January 20, 2014 at 2:50 am

As a guy…it may surprise you that I have also been cat-called (but by women).

The last time was this past October, and I was running. At an intersection I was crossing, a vehicle that I ran directly in front of honked at me. It was at a stop sign, so I knew I was not in the way.

My first thought was: “I must have rudely ignored someone I knew!”

I stopped and turned.

Nope. Two ladies I had never seen before. The driver had her window rolled down.

“Nice butt!” She said.

“Beg pardon?” I asked. Looking around for someone ELSE they MUST have been talking about other than me.

Her friend gave me a thumbs up.

“…Oh…”

“Thanks.”

I kind of waved and continued running.

They kind of looked surprised when I left.

I looked surprised that they noted me at all.

A couple of months earlier, I was in a store and a woman was looking through her purchases and dropped her receipt. I picked it up and said quietly…”I believe you dropped this…”

She smiled huge. “Yes. I did. Thank-you” And then pointedly, she added. “That would actually be a great way for a girl to meet a guy that she wanted to go out with.”

I smiled and laughed and said: “Yes! You’re right! That would be a great way!”

Then I turned and walked away.

It did not dawn on me until later that she MAY have been talking about me.

I do not think…in either event…that I was in the frame of mind or heart to believe they were interested in me.

I tend to think of myself as being neither “here” nor “there” looks-wise…and mostly ninja-level invisible when I want to be…which is most of the time.

My ex got cat-called all the time. It got to the point where she put on weight in order to protect herself from it. Then she was convinced she was hideous.

I asked…”Have I treated you like you were hideous? Or have I treated you like you get me hot and bothered?”

Her reply: “Well…okay. But you do that because you’re weird.”

She was also bothered by her stretch marks.

I was fascinated by them.

She asked me why, and I told her that they were badges of honor…symbols of the efforts she made to bring life into the world.

And to be honest, they were kind of a turn on.

As it turned out…she was tired of me and WANTED me to find her hideous so she could drive me away…and was frustrated that it was not working. So she left.

*sighs*

As to the hockey players you encountered Charlotte…I refer you to your post entitled “Love It or Hate It, Why We Can’t Keep Treating Gym Like a Throwaway Class” for my thoughts about hockey players and general sense of entitlement.

In THAT context, no doubt they did assess you as “hot”, but their egos did not allow them to realize that you are so far out of their league…and that they are unworthy.

And anybody that would tease you in that manner…would also be unworthy…especially of you giving any substance or consideration to their efforts.

Eleanor Roosevelt was wise.

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Terri January 20, 2014 at 5:38 am

I’m going to have Darwin’s last 3 paragraphs printed ! You should too :)

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Darwin January 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm

This is new!

People most often only quote the stupid things I say in order to reinforce their original opinion of me. *grins*

I like it better when I am useful, though…and I am happy if these words were useful to you.

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Janet January 20, 2014 at 5:42 am

I can relate to so much of this. At the same time, I think that you are totally beautiful and look slim — for goodness sakes, you were an unofficial fitness model for so long, and the magazine only stopped because of a policy to only use official models.

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Megan @ Meg Go Run January 20, 2014 at 7:21 am

Your gym sounds interesting… a BURRITO bar??? Hehehe

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Shannon January 20, 2014 at 7:32 am

When I was in my 20s I experience this all of the time and quite honestly I did not care for it then all I wanted to do was basically hide to make myself a unnoticeable. Now that I’m in my 40s I have a fan club of 70-year-old men that I absolutely adore that make me feel like I’m 20 again. Charlotte I am sure you are aware of the group of 70+-year-old man at the YMCA that I am referring to. They are the sweetest and dearest and do not mean anything gross when they tell you that you are a beautiful young woman even though I’m #43. Charlotte I’m sure you’ve been told this before but I wish you could see yourself how other see you. You are a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman despite your outward appearance which is also strikingly beautiful.
You know, there are women out there who cannot function without the attention of a man. That is truly sad. I know a few of them and they let their outward beauty dictate their daily lives. As we grow older our beauty will fade but it’s how we are on the inside that matters. I am a realist and I know that I am not a beautiful woman, but I have an amazing heart and amazing love for humanity.

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Naomi/Dragonmamma January 20, 2014 at 7:37 am

You ARE fine, Charlotte; they were not mocking you.
Skipping to the end: How long have you been at a new gym? I missed that story.

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Kammie @ Sensual Appeal January 20, 2014 at 7:52 am

Oh honey – you ARE fine, of course they were not mocking you. But I can definitely relate to how you feel in terms of worthiness and inadequacy, I’ve always wanted to be the girl others noticed. Seemed like each time I’d love weight, I’d get more attention from men. Which also made me wanna stay smaller and you can imagine my subconscious having a field day now that I’m at my highest weight. But then I realized that it really doesn’t matter because regardless you make what you get of it. You have a great husband who loves you, you look beautiful and YES men do love curves more (I know this now haha), and catcalling or not, just take it in and let their attention turn into a positive thing that can only lift you higher :) You deserve the best! xoxo

PS. Zumba rocks. I need to go again asap. Thanks for the reminder ;)

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Dog-geek January 20, 2014 at 8:10 am

Never been catcalled at the gym, but plenty of times while I’ve been out running, (er, especially when I was a decade or two younger!) Murphy’s Law for having someone honk their horn at you while you are running: if you wave, it will turn out to be some disgusting pervy old man, but if you flip them the bird, it will turn out to be one of your mom’s bridge club friends. Now I just ignore completely.

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Joemama January 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm

He-he! Classic.

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Rachael January 20, 2014 at 8:17 am

Cat called at the gym?? This is a thing? I have been cat called, chatted up, hit on, etc. everywhere except the gym. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never needed to seek out a big box gym or Y. My previous gym was at my graduate school, which was a medical / professional school. So the only people at the gym were graduate, medical, nursing, and PT students as well as faculty. It kept things pretty polite. I was friends with one of the trainers who also worked the front desk, and he informed me one time that several of gym-goers had inquired with him about me. My trainer friend flat out told them that I wouldn’t appreciate being asked out at the gym, which I greatly appreciated. Now I just use the gym in our apartment building, which is kind of lame but super convenient. It’s quiet and respectful, which is nice.

I guess I have gotten hollared at while running on enough occasions. If it’s not rude, I’ll usually just give the passing car a thumbs up or something. When I was younger I was pretty confident that the hollars were in earnest, but lately I have found myself wondering if they are making fun of me. I still go with the thumbs up response, and take it as positive.

But that also brings me to the first thought I had when I read your encounter with the high school boys. It happens with them, they do these inexplicable things like cat call women who are much told old for them. I really don’t think they honestly believe they have a shot, or that they would want to take a shot if they had the opportunity. I think it’s more that they haven’t learned how to behave properly, especially with women, and when in groups their immaturity really shines. And sometimes they appreciate the prettiness of an adult women, it just comes out wrong. They probably weren’t making fun of you. And you thought you looked like a hot mess? My friends and have discussed this phenomenon where on your worst days, greasiest hair, most disheveled of days some guy will legitimately check you out or hoot at you. We think we look terrible at times but who knows, maybe your eyes were bright and shining with your multitasking and your cheeks were flushed from running and rushing, maybe you actually looked pretty good.

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Smac-a-roo January 20, 2014 at 8:26 am

That was a description of me minus the plate in the thigh lol. When I bought my first car, a convertible miata, the lady who sold it to me said “just he prepared for the catcalls (as she got a couple as we were test driving)”. Lol. Never got one ! Admittedly I was a little jealous too.

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crabby mcslacker January 20, 2014 at 9:07 am

The only time I’ve EVER gotten any male attention, even the subtly flirtatious kind, is at the gym in my mother-in-laws retirement community. Apparently to the 80 year old dudes there, I am a hottie.

But otherwise, nada. Even before I was middle-aged and wrinkly.

I put it down to being pretty butch and projecting an “I ain’t playing for your team” vibe. Maybe guys think flirting we me would make THEM gay? Or something.

And I’m sure those players DID think you were cute!

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Heather C January 20, 2014 at 9:09 am

Glad you found a new gym. I don’t belong to a gym but I have heard of friends getting hit on at the gym most people in my area frequent. I find that whole thing strange considering I live in a very suburban, almost everyone is married with 2.5 children, area. Seems grossly inappropriate. I got yelled at by some teenagers a few years back when I was outside walking for exercise. They came in a car from behind me and yelled “why don’t you get your butt moving a little faster!” I then spent several hours trying to decide if I looked fat from the behind and worrying that I was pathetic. The ridiculous thing though is I was 6 months pregnant, with twins, good reason to not be zipping down the sidewalk and I still spent a better part of the day feeling bad about myself until I snapped out of it and remembered that I was busy growing two humans and those teenagers could bite me.

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Abby January 20, 2014 at 9:32 am

I’ve definitely gotten vocalized, unwanted attention at places other than the gym. I always attributed it to the red hair. Especially since there’s a lot of it and it’s wild and curly. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been called “red” by random guys. But never at the gym! I guess maybe I’ve gotten a couple of mildly suggestive looks? But I think the braided hair and sweaty, sweaty, sweaty, super red face is enough to ward off any unwanted attention.

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Jess January 20, 2014 at 9:36 am

Ooh, I had the invisible super power too! Literally had that as a nickname for a while in college.
As for the cat calls… never a big problem for me. I could probably count them on my fingers and it was always walking somewhere. In the gym I never got bothered. I would get a random check out, but having visible headphones in tends to reject comments.
As for feeling ugly… You totally rocked your outfit yesterday and if you were thinner, it wouldn’t have been quite so fabulous.

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lisa January 20, 2014 at 9:36 am

As usual, I am a bobblehead while reading your post. Fwi, I wish that I looked like you!

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Susan Helene Gottfried January 20, 2014 at 10:58 am

So here’s how I’d take it: I was a flustered mess and they found THAT attractive? Holy hell, I gotta be doing something right for them to have looked past all that!

Hang in there. Yes, it’s a strange feeling of exposure. But it’s also a sign that you are worth more than you realize (and I use “you” in the general sense here and am also talking about myself) and gosh darn it, but it’s always nice to know we’re turning heads. Maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s our special charisma. Who knows, who cares? People notice us, and for good reasons. Not because our hair is a tornado, because we’re so heavy our workout capris are see-through, or because we’re running down the hallway holding our running shoes. All that mess got overlooked. They saw the good.

Hugs, babe. Rock that charisma and the heck with the rest of it!

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Rebecca January 20, 2014 at 1:39 pm

They were being silly high school boys–and they were complimenting you.
Seriously, you’re one sexy mama!

Being street harassed is *incredibly* rare for me.
(As in, I take public transportation in Los Angeles, and can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve been catcalled, even though I’m short, and have pink hair.)

Apparently, I have a very solid “f!@# off” face that does wonders for stopping unwanted attention in its tracks, and I refuse to shrink myself in public spaces–I stand with wide legs, sit with wide legs, and stride down streets.

I would actually love to do an experiment recording incidences of street harassment for a woman wearing the same clothes but with a different attitude and posture, and see what the results would be.

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Shannon January 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I have to say it MILF

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Joemama January 20, 2014 at 2:51 pm

I agree with Rachael up there. They’re high school boys, thought you were cute, but
haven’t really gotten past the whole “pull her pigtails and call her stupid” way of relating to women so anything they say sort of comes across with a touch of stupid. Please don’t let it make you feel bad. You’re a smokin’, fit mom of 5! Let yourself feel flattered. I know it’s hard, but try. I react exactly the same way: blush, second guess, get down on myself, figure it was a joke, feel depressed. Life’s too short, though, isn’t it? I think we either need to just accept the ‘compliment’ or go full-on Tina Fey who, when catcalled for the first time by a dude who yelled “Nice t*ts”, yelled back, “Suck my d*ck!” Hahahaha! It makes no sense, but at least it’s a committed response! I guess, either way, don’t let yourself be a victim of either someone else’s words or your own insecurity. I’ll try harder if you will.

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Joemama January 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Oh, and if I had a dollar for every time someone I’ve met before says, “Hi. I’m so and so. I don’t believe we’ve met…” I went to a restaurant with two of my friends who happen to be smokin’ hot.The male server was flirting so hard with them that he forgot to take my order. Invisi-girl would be my super hero name…NO CAPES!

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kfg January 20, 2014 at 4:28 pm

I stay away from gyms, but I’ve been cat called while cycling. I’ve got legs, and I know how to use them.

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Angela Mager January 20, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I can remember hearing catcalls, years ago, and believing they couldn’t possibly mean me. I felt much like you described. The times I was pretty sure it was me, the catcaller was not impressive in a way to make me feel flattered. As I recall it was men (I don’t believe they do it when they are alone, always one of a group) who were at least 20 years older than my own teenage years. That is just a pervert.

BTW: The picture with the donkey is too funny!!

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grizz January 20, 2014 at 11:38 pm

This doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but I’m a guy who went to high school with you, and I always thought you were cute. I had plenty self-esteem issues of my own, though, so I never really got to know you.

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Andrea January 21, 2014 at 5:23 am

Charlotte, you are a beautiful woman. Lots of women have doubts about their appearance, but never doubt that you are beautiful inside and out. As for catcalling, it’s not a compliment. It’s a rude, sexist reduction of a woman to her various parts. If the catcallsr was truly interested in the woman as a person, they would make the effort to get to know her. Maybe those boys don’t know better, maybe they were taught by their families, friends, or society that catcalling is an acceptable behavior. It is not. You have a right to go out in public without being told that you are a walking conglomeration of body parts that they would like to put their hands on. It’s okay to be angry – be angry at them for not having enough respect for a fellow human being to let her pass by unharrassed.

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Andrea January 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Replying to my own comment to add this article I just came across:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariannarebolini/reasons-a-catcall-is-not-a-compliment?s=mobile

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