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

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

Share This Post:
    • CB

      Couldn’t agree with you more. What that man said was grossly inappropriate. The problem is that people don’t REALIZE that it’s just as inappropriate as commenting on your cup size or skirt length. I have a pair of pale pink jeans and actually had a man at work tell me that I LOOKED NAKED. Like, what the hell am I supposed to reply to that? How does he think that’s appropriate at work?

      I find the best way to deal with situations like these is a bit of improv that deflects the whole thing. The first rule of improv is “yes and”. I have very fair skin and people have constantly commented on it throughout my whole life, making me feel very uncomfortable. At work, if I come back from a warm place, it’s a constant barrage of, “Why aren’t you tan? Didn’t you get any sun? Can you tan at all?” My younger sister, with even fairer skin, gets called “tortilla skin” (because she has large brown freckles). I’ve told her to say to people “really? I would have considered myself the sour cream of a burrito instead” or, to a friend who is really “tan”, “well, then you’re the black beans to my tortilla!” It’s silly and reveals the ridiculousness of the original statement but shows that you’re unflappable as well.

      I can’t think of any good comebacks for your particular situation, but I’m going to ask my boyfriend, who’s brilliant with this sort of thing.

    • L

      baaaah! ridiculous. i hope everyone in the meeting also realized how much he put his foot in his mouth. you can always go with something like “thanks, maybe sometime i’ll show you a few pointers in the weight room.”

    • sdg

      Beautifully written, but I’m sorry you had to experience that. Comments about appearance aren’t appropriate from strangers in the workplace. (I’d like to think in the world at large, but that’s a bigger fish to fry.)
      “He doesn’t know my story” is a great point. Bob wasn’t interested in your story; he just wanted to get out an observation/judgement about where you are in relation to what he thinks women should look like.
      How about responding with “I don’t talk about my body at work. Unless you’re asking if I can move that filing cabinet”?

    • Penelope

      He gave you what I would consider to be a pretty innoculous compliment. It’s not like he leered at your breasts or bottom, did he? Maybe he honestly thought he was being flattering, for the sake of being a nice person. I think we should be less hasty to jump to being offended. He would have had no way of knowing that his remark was offensive to you.

      • http://nonsenseuponstilts.com Nicole

        And that’s another reason why you don’t comment on people’s appearances in a workplace setting. Besides the fact that it isn’t relevant to what is being accomplished, it is intensely personal and may upset the person being commented on.

    • LisaT99

      His remark was definitely inappropriate. However, it depends on your workplace, but bare arms are a hot topic of office dress appropriateness. Personally, I’m not comfortable with it and it doesn’t go well in many offices.

      • ShellsBells

        Sometimes people are so inappropriate and tactless. You dealt with it fine. And you dont need to cover up – they’re send for eff sake! Someone making inappropriate comments – that’s their bad. Be embarrassed for that person!

      • shellsbells

        they’re *ARMS* not send!

    • Comma

      Bare arms in an office are a frequent source of dress code angst. Honestly, cover up if you don’t want your “big guns” to be a distraction.

      • JennyWren

        And ankles too, right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/suzanne.guidry Suzanne Guidry

      Ask after a short and awkward pause . . . “Ok..can we please move back to this brilliant cloud of ideas I had swirling in the air for you a moment ago?”

      I love your courage and strength.

    • sarah

      Sleeveless is against policy at the office I work in so I haven’t had to deal with this. I don’t think I’ve run across an office setting where sleeveless, strapless, shorts or anything above the knee is allowed on the dress code. But I live in a conservative town.

      • sarah

        not saying its inappropriate to wear sleeveless, just saying I’ve never been in a situation where it was an issue. Definitely weird for him to comment on it though.

    • BTWinters

      If someone interrupts you while making an introduction, regardless of what the comment is, just say “may I continue?” If the person persists, suggest you talk after the meeting and then either politely explain that you lift weights or rip him a new one, as you please! I would be curious as to whether or not he would make that comment to a man under the same circumstances.

    • Kellie

      I don’t mean to be rude but just pull the stick from your bum and get over it! I agree that if something makes you uncomfortable, such as your arms, then wear longer sleeves. He was just making conversation. I know that I have a pretty fantastic butt and trust me when I tell you I do not go into work accentuating it!

    • nadiwoo

      No smartarse remark would make this better, just silent shame the shit out of him, making him realise what a dumb dumb he is. Seriously, people like this are better ignored and shamed than trying to react at all. Your response was that of a sane person!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Ryner/1683346139 Joseph Ryner

      I think Dana’s article, and many of the comments, show people to be incredibly thin skinned. Does Dana really strunggle with her body image so much that a comment or two is deserving of this much self-righteous indignation? It is not that I can’t relate to Dana’s situation, I just don’t understand her reaction to it. Here’s why: Up until recently, I was working at the largest employer in an Idaho town where most everyone was mormon, so the men were all clean shaven with short hair. I was the only guy at work with long hair and a goatee (I looked like a biker because I was). Female co-workers would come up to me all the time and say “Wow, I can’t believe how long your hair is” or “Your hair is so pretty”. Some of them would even want to touch my hair (like it might feel different from their hair???). I’ve even had co-workers of both sexes ask if people think I’m gay because I have long hair. From the tone put forward in this article, I should have been offended all the time. My hair had nothing to do with my job or my performance (I was good at my job and got stellar reviews and a promotion from my supervisors). If I would have complained, my boss, co-workers, and friends would have told me if I didn’t like the attention to get a hair cut so I’d blend in, not much different than someone suggesting Dana could cover her arms. I never did complain though. I was never offended. I knew that I looked different in a place where everyone looks the same. I was a bit of an oddity, and people were curious. I cannot control what other people do. I can only control how I react. I choose not to look for reasons to be offended, but instead to have confidence in myself, and be happy with who I am. Most importantly, I choose to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when they say something dumb; I find I have more friends that way.

    • koolchicken

      I think so long as you weren’t wearing a sleeveless top (inappropriate on either sex and against most office dress codes) you shouldn’t have to cover up. I don’t see the problem with a short sleeve blouse though, and don’t think you should be forced into something that hits the wrist. As he was asking what you do and comparing you to his wife it’s possible he didn’t even realize what he was doing. But if he does it again I would simply say “I’m confused, how are my arms (or other body part) work related?” Nothing will get the point across faster, and I’m sure others will refrain from commenting on your body in the future as well.

    • AN

      wow you got a complement and freaked, get over it, and quit being so easily offended. Many people spend hours in the gym and never hear positive comments.

    • kj

      I would be like, “I WILL CRUSH YOU” and leave it at that. But that’s my approach to most everything…….

    • esp

      I agree but disagree that you unfriended a friend over that comment.

    • Cassie

      I think you’re overreacting. He was giving you a compliment on something he could tell you work hard on, something that you put on display when you got dressed that morning. If you had put extra effort into your hair that morning, would you be offended if he told you your hair looks nice? Of course not. It’s a friendly compliment.

      • JennyWren

        A) If he interrupted her in the middle of a meeting to tell her her hair looked nice, it would be just as inappropriate.
        B) Why do we assume a woman dresses to put something “on display” anyway? Maybe it was very hot that day. Maybe all her long-sleeved shirts were in the wash. Maybe she just picked up something she liked the look of without considering what other people would think.

    • blik87

      This man’s comments were inappropriate, but the author is also overreacting. I think it is hyperbole to compare this to making a comment about a woman’s cup size. I would hope that most people can agree that commenting on a sexual aspect of someone’s body is far more offensive than commenting on someones arms, even though both qualify as inappropriate. People say dumb, insensitive, inappropriate and awkward things all the time. Let’s not write an article every time we have an awkward interaction with another person. And come on, one weirdo cannot be used as a representation of everything wrong with gender dynamics in our society.

    • http://www.facebook.com/maija.greenmayne1 Maija Green-Mayne

      Sleeveless tops being appropriate or not, isnt the point. She was in a meeting, and he interrupted with a completely unncessary remark. Hair, boobs, arms, whatever it was he wanted to say, it was not the right time. He could have waited until the end of the meeting to make such a comment.

    • jessieb

      I think its offensive because it almost sounds like he was so surprised and could not believe it possible that a woman could be ripped until he saw it with his own eyes. Also, would he have interrupted the presentation to comment on your arms if you had been a man?