I'M MIDDLE-AGED and middle-class and have no history of violence. In fact, the only thing I do with any physical force at all is exercise, and I do that in a fancy health club in the Valley. So I surprised myself a few weeks ago when I nearly came to blows with a half-naked man in my aerobics class.
The man had planted himself front and center in a fast-paced class and refused to budge when the class began moving back and forth across the room. He just stood there, doing his own little duck paddle. When I crossed what he considered to be his territory, he pushed me--hard. This was no warning nudge. This was an outright mean shove.
I turned on him like a kid in a schoolyard fight. The music stopped; luckily, no fists flew. We stood toe to toe, eyes blazing. "Don't you ever push me again!" I said, teeth clenched. "You'd better watch out!" he lashed back, jaw jutting.
Never mind that I felt foolish. What matters to me now is why I was so angry with this otherwise unprepossessing middle-aged man. At the time, I just felt that he was an intruder, an intolerably male and self-important intruder.
The truth is--and I'm fully aware I'll be called a reverse sexist, but I've lived with direct sexism a long time, and now it's my turn--I'm highly annoyed by men in aerobics classes. This is simply because, in my experience, men--with the exception of professional athletes and the Chippendales dancers--are not good at aerobics. Their movements are too big, too lumbering, too uncoordinated. No aerobics teacher will admit this publicly because men are paying customers, and fitness people tend to be evangelical. Instead, teachers offer special (meaning "slow") classes to introduce men to aerobics. (I even read somewhere that a gym was using martial music for men's classes, the theory being that they respond to it better.)
But men seem to like aerobics, and more and more of them are showing up at my health club's crowded advanced workout at 5:15 p.m., wearing their gym shorts and tank tops, swinging their arms and perspiring heavily. They don't notice the women around them edging a few extra inches away. And it doesn't occur to them that they are annoying, maybe even, well, unwelcome.
I hasten to say I'm not suggesting that men be banned from aerobics classes--not now anyway, when the Jonathan Club and the California Club have finally admitted a few women. I just wish men would understand that they are entering a woman's domain and learn how to behave acceptably.
After all, women have always struggled to live in a man's world. As children, we were tossed out of games for "throwing like a girl," or even worse, "running like a girl." As adults, some of us wear suits and neckties to enter business and politics and straight-hipped pants to join the police and fire departments. We labor valiantly to act like men, to be more competitive, to hide our tears, to hold our liquor. We spend a good part of our lives trying one way or another to be one of the boys.
But men never have to be one of the girls. When they enter what they consider female territory--the produce section of the supermarket, for instance--they turn adorably bumbling. "What are baking potatoes?" they ask aloud, clutching a list prepared by a woman, until a clerk or a female shopper comes forward to help them. It's a subtle form of slumming, a way of saying, "I don't need to know this."
I got angry in that exercise class because I realized that men are so comfortably at home in the world that it never dawns on them to act like women. For instance, women are self-conscious, a little self-effacing, about their physical abilities. A woman who couldn't keep up with the class would tuck herself discreetly in the back or to the side of the room. Men don't seem to mind not keeping pace with their companions, at least not in aerobics. They blithely stand up front, blocking everyone else's view of the instructor, and step to music only they hear. One man does odd yogalike stretches while the rest of us are following the warm-up routine. Another jogs monotonously from side to side.
Women also use space humbly. Notice the way men and women sit. He sprawls over both armrests in the movies; she keeps her knees together and elbows close to her side. In the gym, women mentally cordon off enough territory to raise their arms and keep repositioning to make room for others. Men stand where they please and expect others to watch out for them.