Well Being

I Don’t Want Comments On My Arms At Work–And I Shouldn’t Have To ‘Cover Up’

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should women cover up buff arms

A bizarrely inappropriate comment in a business setting went even more pearshaped when I took my venting to Facebook. Here’s the tale.

In a business meeting with a male consultant, two male colleagues and another female colleague, the consultant (I’ll call him Bob) interrupted my introduction to say this:

“Wow, you’ve got some big guns there, don’t you?”

I stopped my description of my professional experience and background to gape at him. Did he really just say that?

“My wife does CrossFit,” he said. “She’s all ripped up like that too. You must do something!”

I finally stammered, “Yes. I lift weights,” and returned to the topic of conversation at hand.

But I was flustered and flabbergasted. When did it become ok for a man to remark on a woman’s physical appearance the first time they meet, in a business setting? Oh, that’s right – never! This is not an episode of Mad Men. It’s 2012. My work in editing and writing stands for itself. My “guns,” such as they are, are completely irrelevant.

I headed for Facebook to commiserate, mainly on how poor I am at thinking of replies on the fly to inappropriate comments. Friends offered sage advice and feedback. Then a male, former co-worker (let’s call him J) weighed in. “Take it as a compliment.”

I bristled, but kept it civil, and replied, “From a friend or someone in a gym it would totally be a compliment. In this setting it was just bizarre and inappropriate.”

Following some sensible feedback from others, J jumped in again.

“Think about it….in this day with the majority of the population being sedentary and overweight, you are the .1% of females that have both muscle mass & low body fat. Expect people to notice and make comments (although sometimes inappropriate) or avoid the possibility altogether….wear something with long sleeves (this goes for guys too)”

My response, biting my tongue: “hellz no. Should I cover my hair while I'm at it?”

“Your prerogative…but accept people will surely notice followed by some making comments,” he replied.

I won’t leave this alone so I answered, “No thanks, not at work I don't have to accept it.”

While I was ranting to my friends about this man who probably also thinks women wearing skimpy clothes are asking to be assaulted, he was likely complaining about what a hypocrite I am. After all, if you visit my blog or facebook page, or see many of the articles I’ve written, you’ll find photos of me proudly displaying my muscles. Damn right! Those muscles represent so much more than just physical appearance.

dana mcmahan powerflifting

On a road trip to train at Flint Barbell Club.

I started my fitness journey as a weakling — an anxious, dependent woman who couldn’t do a single push-up. My transformation into a physically strong athlete brought with it an unleashing of my inner power, self-confidence, and a sense of worth I’d never had. Not just because I was strong now, but through the alchemy of proving to myself what I could do, setting and achieving spectacular goals, and learning that inside me was a fearless woman.

Then after I was injured and my muscles atrophied as I prepared for and recovered from spinal surgery, I had to start again. I cried the first time I attempted a chin-up post-surgery. I’d been able to do 10 before, and now a single one was excruciatingly difficult. A competitive–and record-breaking–powerlifter before I was hurt, I was no longer allowed to squat or deadlift. But I worked around my injury and found ways to continue training, ultimately becoming even stronger.

So these muscles now also represent a mental toughness I never knew I had. It was one thing to work out when nothing was stopping me. To accept a new reality, and limiting factors, lose my workout partners and coach in a falling out with my old gym, and still get to the gym and bust my arse was rewarding in a whole new way.

So yeah, I’m proud of these muscles, proud–I’ll say it for the world to hear. I’ll post pictures and write stories and so help me, if I want to wear a short sleeved shirt to a meeting, I will wear one. But that does not mean anyone has the right to interrupt a business conversation to comment on my body. He doesn’t know my story. He doesn’t know what my muscles mean to me. He may as well be commenting on the length of my skirt or my cup size.

A friend who commented in the Facebook thread put it better than I could:

I think there is an accepted idea that women's bodies are public space and not private and we should just put up with it. A meeting is a professional setting when a comment like that is made, it takes the focus of your co-workers and colleagues away from your ideas and instead to your body–which isn't on the agenda.

J will probably never change. His behavior is just how I remember he acted when he sat across the hall from me. But thankfully, I have changed. I know now that I don’t have to accept his behavior, or that of the guy who made the inappropriate comment to begin with — and I will absolutely stand up for myself in saying so. Hopefully the next time this happens in a business setting I’ll think of a suitable response then and there – any suggestions? (And yes, I have unfriended J.)

Photos: Dana McMahan