I see him staring. I try to ignore his gaze as I begin my next set of front squats. I want to focus on remaining unflappable with a heavy weight pressing on me.
But, alas, I am flapped.
All I can focus on is averting my gaze so I don’t have to see this strange man watching me.
The Strange Man Staring phenomenon is not uncommon — and, frankly, not as bad as it gets. Women and nonbinary “folx” (a gender-neutral term used in the LGBTQ community) are typically the recipients of these stares, as well as unwanted chatting-up, form fixes, touching, invasion of space, appropriated equipment, and aggressive language.
I’ve lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard from people who’ve had unsettling experiences while working out due to people claiming to mean well.
Because I like to assume best intentions, I’d like to offer some tips.
These are not tips for deflecting attention, nor is this advice on how to avoid eye contact or be unfazed.
Instead, I want to help each and every one of us avoid being the strange staring person. For your consideration:
1. Keep your eyes on your own barbell. Or dumbbell. Or treadmill. Or body. As one of my coaches says oh-so often: “Don’t worry about what I’m doing.”
2. Know that nothing that anyone is doing or wearing is an invitation for your commentary. My leggings don’t mean I’m looking for a date. My oversized joggers don’t mean you should tell me I’d look better in leggings.
3. Accept that even best intentions can make someone uncomfortable. If you are genuinely concerned about someone’s form and safety, relay your concern to a coach or personal trainer who is qualified and empowered to intervene.
4. Ask people near a piece of equipment if they are using it before starting to use it. When in doubt, check in.
5. Don’t put anyone down. This includes backhanded compliments like, “You’re stronger than you look.”
6. Do not make assumptions about others’ goals. I was recently asked what to do when you see an overweight person exercising: “What should be said to encourage them?” My rage over this has quieted enough to tell all of you, don’t say anything. You are not anyone’s cheerleader, and you don’t know what brought that person into the gym that day.
7. If someone has headphones on or earbuds in, assume they don’t want to talk. Enough said.
8. Never touch people you don’t know (or even people you do know) without their consent.
9. Notice someone’s reaction. Finally, if you do engage with others — and I sincerely hope you can find ways to engage kindly and respectfully — be mindful of how they are responding to you. Be open to apologizing if you’ve made someone uncomfortable, and give people their space. Pay attention to cues.
Gyms and health clubs are public–private spaces. Part of the beauty of going to them is the community that comes from sharing space with others who are doing something to feel good and improve their lives.
What I am asking is that you remember that everyone has a right to be there; that they deserve to be treated with respect; that your intentions and desires do not supersede anyone else’s. What I am asking is for us all to have a little awareness around our words and actions and to take ownership when they don’t land as we have intended. When those words and actions might unintentionally hurt.
My Strange Staring Man could have made it better. It would have been as simple as recognizing that he was being weird and stopping staring. He could have apologized or explained that he was staring because he finds front squats challenging and wanted to see how I do them — anything that might connect us as two humans.
Instead, he just averted his eyes when he realized I could see him watching me. Too little, too late to spare either of us the discomfort.
We can do better.