Screw your locker room talk: How the YWCA makes exercising comfortable


The midtown YWCA on Lake st. The YWCA has continuously validated, supported and helped people who have reported harassment they’ve experienced. Photo: Soline Van de Moortele

Working out at the YWCA has become a crucial part of my life. It keeps me active, increases my happiness and helps me release my cooped up anger by running hard on the treadmill. It is one of the most important parts of my week, and I always dedicate time to make sure I’m staying active. I should be able to feel comfortable busting out my Shakira on the elliptical without being judged, discouraged or even watched.

Almost inevitably, choosing to work out at a public fitness facility is subjecting myself to constant staring, winking and stalking by someone hoping to see me run or stretch. This constant exploitation continuously discourages me from going to the gym, especially at night, when less staff are around.

But at the YWCA Midtown, I feel that my experiences are validated and taken seriously by the staff. This past week I met with the general manager Alex Aguilar. He gave me insight into the measures the facility has taken in order to prevent and deal with harassment: “We take actions, number one typically when someone feels like they’re being harassed [and] they let us know. At that point in time we observe the situation, we try to see what’s going on, and if we need to approach the person we’ll approach the person in a general manner, and try to tell them explain the situation of what’s going on.”

Now even at the YWCA, I experience causal harassment that I would never deem fit to report because it seems normal. But this normality, in itself, is an issue: I should not feel that my experience is invalidated due to societal norms that O.K. this behavior such as victim shaming, calling victims “oversensitive” and the blatant sexism in health and fitness media.

But Aguilar made it clear the YWCA takes into account the sexism and misogyny in the health and fitness industry, and that its impact is still present at the gym: “We really kind of hawk any of that behavior, and try to address it immediately instead of dismissing it as ‘oh that’s gym behavior’, which is unfortunately out there is the attitude of a lot of gyms,” he explained.

What is sometimes most worrying in reporting an incident of harassment is the response by administration. Not being taken seriously is not only embarrassing, it’s humiliating. But the YWCA has proven to take action on harassment, as they did for Lindsay Morris, a senior at South who is a staff member of the YWCA.

Morris started working at the YWCA about a year and a half ago, and has experienced stalking, harassing and staring all too much. Last year, a 23-24 year old man asked to walk around the track with her. “I shouldn’t have said sure,” Morris said. “He was telling me that he’s been watching me here for years (meaning Morris, at the time, was 15 or 16), and that he’s always wanted to talk to me and that I was so beautiful and that he wished he could take me out.”

At the time, Morris was only seventeen. “When he found out my age he was like ‘oh we can be friends, could we still go out,’” she explained. She had to report him at work, and the gym  threatened to ban him from using the facility if he didn’t stop following her.

Morris went on to say some of what the administration was doing to try and reduce the harassment: “When they had the zumba class in the gym, guys used to tape the women in there ,” she said. “They don’t let people stand and look out the window [anymore]…I think they have been trying, and I know that they tell us ‘if you feel unsafe or whatever, you can tell an MOD [manager] and they can handle it from there’.”

The YWCA took care of this very quickly and efficiently, as the harasser has not since bothered Morris. This immediate response is why I trust the facility,

But I do believe bigger measures could be taken, even at the YWCA, to achieve a safer environment – it should offer free self-defense classes, regular required seminars on sexual harassment, and should publicize the importance of safety in the gym’s community. Efforts taken as simple as hanging posters and handing out pamphlets on gym safety and reminding people to keep their eyes, hands and comments to themselves would not only make everyone working out feel safer, but would create more of a sense of accountability within the gym.

Aguilar made it clear that the YWCA does not have a problem with losing members if it means making someone feel safer. “People want to just work out and feel comfortable and when they don’t get it, there’s no other thing that I can do but say ‘we need to part ways and this may not be the place for you,’” he explained. “But we’re okay with that, and we’re okay with losing members because they just can’t adhere to a policy.”

There is a reason part of the YWCA’s mission is “empowering women”, and rightly so: it takes pride in ensuring the safety, comfort and support of people’s bodies and more specifically women in the gym space. As Aguilar said, “We want a level of comfort where you can come in and feel like this is your second home.”