This morning I asked the staff member at my local YMCA’s front desk about whether the facility had a policy on wearing clothing with sexist messages.
I didn’t expect to find myself there, asking that question.
It started out as a normal day at the Y. I lifted some weights and then walked to the drinking fountain. And there, in front of me, was a man. All I could see was the back of his shirt. I wish I had taken a picture, but I didn’t have my iPhone on me and besides, I didn’t want to upset him. I’ve tried to find a picture of the shirt on the internet, but I can’t. I did find the shirt’s message though.
All it took was one shirt to ruin a perfectly good trip to the Y. Oh I know I know, I could have just laughed it off! But I shouldn’t have to laugh things like that off. And besides, laughing it off wouldn’t have undone the core message of the shirt. The shirt was offensive through and through, and it rankled. It hurt. It made me feel lesser and unwelcome. It felt as though that shirt was trying to single-handedly put me in my place—a distinctly inferior and foreign place. I never even saw the man’s face. Wearing that shirt was all he had to do to broadcast all of those messages to me.
I walked around the track to cool down after my workout as usual, but I couldn’t get what I’d seen—or my reaction to it—out of my head. As I finished, I decided that I couldn’t just let this slide. That’s what led me to the front desk.
The woman at the front desk told me that the facility did not have a policy on clothing with sexist messages, but immediately followed that up by saying that she would look into policies elsewhere and see about possibly developing one. She clearly thought that there should be a policy of some sort and seemed pleased that I had brought the lack of such a policy to her attention. I told her about the shirt I had seen and how uncomfortable it had made me feel, and she agreed and was completely understanding. She took down my contact information and will be getting back with me. The conversation couldn’t have gone better.
I came away from that conversation feeling encouraged, and with my faith in humanity restored. When I went to the desk to ask, after all, I braced myself for being told that a shirt like that was just a joke, and that I was overreacting.
And there are many who would say that. I’ve read comments on the internet, usually by men, insisting that women like me are just uptight and that we need to chill. I’ve read comments insisting that we have a double standard if we ask both to be equal and for an external force to protect us from messages of this sort. I’ve read it all, believe me, and I’m sick of it.
My local YMCA is not the internet, or a public street. It is a private facility that has every right to set its own rules. If the facility bans sexist messaging on clothing, as I hope it will, it will be violating no one’s freedom of speech. Furthermore, I should be able to be free from harassment and humiliating messaging even on the internet or a public street, not because I am a woman but because I am a person. There is such a thing as basic human decency. I fully understand that not everything that is offensive can or should be banned from public avenues, but that does not make these things okay or right and it sure as hell does not mean we have to accept them.
And then I think of my daughter, Sally, who will be heading off to kindergarten next fall. She is ignorant of this world in so many ways, and sexism is one of them. What will she think, someday, when she receives these messages? How will they make her feel? What about the boys her age who receive these same messages? How will this sort of thing teach them to treat my daughter? These is no laughing matter. I wish I could fix it—that I could make it go away—but I can’t.
But maybe, just maybe, I can change the policies at my local YMCA.