MacKenzie Parsons was resting between exercises at the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre on Nov. 22 when she was told by a male employee the outfit she was wearing was distracting. He gave her a warning in lieu of a new policy and dress code that he said would be implemented in January 2019.
Parsons was wearing light grey high-waisted Lululemon leggings and a black St. Thomas University T-shirt she cropped. An inch of skin above her belly button was exposed. She was told crop tops would be prohibited under the new policy as some people complained they’re distracting.
“[STU claims] to be a progressive, liberal arts university where they’re very accepting, but with what I experienced, that’s not the case,” said Parsons, a fourth-year St. Thomas student. “You’d think if they’re all about that, they’d let women workout in crop tops. I don’t think we live in the 1950s anymore.”
A few hours after the incident, she posted about it on Facebook along with a photo of herself wearing the outfit deemed “distracting.” As of Dec. 2, the post has received 1,166 shares and over 1,400 likes and reactions.
Parsons said she’s received some negative comments.
“People [have said] ‘if you dress like that, you deserve to have this happen to you. You’re dressed too provocatively for the gym,'” she said.
However, some people have messaged her offering support.
Aranyam Bora, a second-year psychology and sociology major, was one of the students who reached out to her on Facebook.
“I told her, ‘I’m sorry for whatever happened. That shouldn’t have happened, that’s real disappointing.’ [The] gym is supposed to be a judgement-free zone,” he said.
Bora feels that men shouldn’t pay attention to or be concerned about females’ attire. He said people should focus on themselves when they’re in the gym.
“To all the men, next time you want to judge a woman on what they wear to the gym, please keep your judgement at home. Honestly, no one gives a damn about what you think,” he said.
Bora has since switched to GoodLife Fitness because he doesn’t approve of the situation.
Students, like Bora, who choose not to use the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre, are still paying for it. Gym memberships are included in STU students’ tuition.
Put on a shirt or leave
This was not the first time Parsons has been approached by staff at the gym regarding her clothing. In August, she was working out in a sports bra and high-waisted leggings. She forgot to pack a fitness top, so she went without.
She was told she either had to put on a shirt or leave the gym. She chose to leave.
She looked around the gym, in the lobby, on their website and on their Facebook page for a dress code, but couldn’t find one.
“I emailed them [about it], and I never heard a response,” she said.
Parsons said she’s been at the gym with other female students wearing similar outfits to hers but didn’t see them get a warning. She said she’s seen males wearing shirts cut to expose their pecs and abs and she’s even seen some shirtless in the gym. She thinks that’s more distracting than her crop top.
“If a man can’t control himself, that’s his problem. If he can’t control himself in a gym where people are there to work out, he shouldn’t be going to the gym.”
Madison Lucas, a third-year communications and journalism student, thinks this situation is an example of sexualizing female bodies.
“What do you want me to wear, do you want me to go in wearing a goddamn turtleneck to work out? That doesn’t make any sense. I’m going to sweat. I need to not wear as much clothes,” she said.
The university’s response
Jeffrey Carleton, associate vice-president communications, said Parsons shouldn’t have been spoken to about her gym wear.
“The incident does not reflect STU’s values or our commitment to students. We take full responsibility and believe Ms. Parsons did the right thing speaking out about her experience. We are committed to ensuring this does not happen again,” he said in an email.
Parsons received a face-to-face apology and letter from Mike Eagles, the director of athletics, and Ashlen Henry, the director of communications, on Nov. 27, five days after the incident.
Parsons hadn’t been back to the gym since the incident, but since she’s received an apology and was told she could wear her crop top, she plans on getting back into her routine this week.
The same day Parsons got her apology, the university released a statement on Facebook. However, it was taken down shortly after.
“We had committed to a public apology which we did after the personal meeting and letter. After it had been posted and circulated to the media, we took it down so that it would not be distracting,” said Carleton in an email.
Katie Corlett, a fourth-year sociology and English student, thinks STU is being selective with what they apologize for.
In early November, the university faced backlash for not apologizing to Keyaira Gruben, a student in the Mi’kmaq/Maliseet Bachelor of Social Work program, after threatening to expel her if she continued to bring her child to class. This situation was brought up in the comments of STU’s apology to Parsons – comparing the two circumstances.
“I feel like St. Thomas … [is] being too careful in the public issues that have been raised as of late. They’re choosing which issue they would like to publicly address, when there are other issues that are important to other groups that are being [oppressed],” Corlett said.
The Aquinian asked Carleton about the university’s reasoning behind apologizing to Parsons but not Gruben.
“I am not sure that I understand the connection between the two issues,” he said in an email.
The gym tweeted on Nov. 27 that crop tops and sports bras are acceptable at the gym. It’s unclear if this will still be the case once the policy is finalized in December.
As of now, there is no dress code or policy in place at the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre.
Carleton told CBC News STU’s policy will revolve around health concerns.
“There will be some dress exclusions based on safety issues related to perspiration and germs and cleaning equipment and overexposure,” he said in an interview with CBC.
The basis for the new policy has come into question, as there are several sanitizer bottles with cloths placed throughout the gym for users to wipe down equipment after use.
Eagles, the director of athletics, would not give specifics regarding what rules the policy will include.
“At this time, I could not commit to a proposed policy or timeline. Our main focus is to put in place policies that provide a safe, healthy environment and that are inclusive,” he said. Carleton said he won’t comment on the details until it’s developed.
The Aquinian asked Carleton if the university would consult students, faculty and staff before finalizing the policy. We did not receive a response in time for publication.
‘It’s an institutional problem, not just an isolated incident’
Corlett had a similar experience to Parsons’ first incident in August, just a month later.
She was at the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre for about an hour before she hopped onto some cardio equipment. She worked up a sweat, so she took her sweater off, wearing a sports bra underneath. She tied her sweater high up around her waist. About 15 minutes later, she was approached by staff.
“I saw the athletics director was talking to the student worker out front, and the student worker had to come tell me that I couldn’t wear that. It was embarrassing and made me angry,” she said.
After the incident, Corlett didn’t feel comfortable going to that gym.
She said she’s been to Naturally Fit, GoodLife Fitness, Fit4Less and Full Body Fitness, where she goes now. She said she hasn’t been approached about her clothing at any of these other facilities.
Corlett believes policies that say what women can and can’t wear contribute to rape culture.
“It is really more an issue of policing women’s bodies and women having to orient themselves towards what is deemed acceptable for the male gaze. And I really do think that issues like that contribute to rape culture where women have to constantly be aware of how they’re portraying themselves,” she said.
“It’s an institutional problem, not just an isolated incident.”