Yesterday provided a sad and ironic addendum to my earlier observations about feminism in Portugal. Working theory: it is not live and well. At all.

We spent the afternoon working in a cafe again, with plans to go to the gym later on. I needed to ask them to put my membership on hold while we’re home next month anyway, and I thought I could use a swim to get out the last dregs of a difficult week. So down we went, and dealt with the bureaucracy of putting my membership on hold.

Now, a word of context about our gym here in Lisbon. We chose this one solely because it’s convenient — less than five minutes’ walk from our house. But we knew at the time that it was a big, impersonal chain, like the McDonald’s of gyms: you always get the same experience, wherever you go. It’s a big change compared to my small, funky, community-oriented gym at home, but for less than a year, it’s OK.

Increasingly though, this gym has been working hard to lose my allegiance. They are all about bureaucracy and rules — and using them to nickel and dime their members. Don’t have a lock for your locker? We’ll sell you one for 13 euros. Want a big towel so you can shower? OK, but it’ll be 6 euros a month, on top of the 80 you’re already paying. Forgot your swim cap, which oh by the way, you are required to wear in the pool or hot tub? No problem! We’ll sell you one for 5 euros.

Oh and PS, you can’t wear indoor shoes in the gym or pool areas, and have to put on lame little plastic booties like you’re in a hospital. (At least they don’t charge for those!) And you’re required to have two “wellness checks” with a trainer during your first year here, the second of which will cost you 30 euros.

The list of rules and requirements go on and on, but after a month, I thought I had most of them covered. Wrong.

After changing for my swim, I went to the bathroom prior to entering the pool area. Now, keep in mind here that I only own bikinis, and do not own a one-piece swimsuit. My torso is freakishly long, so I find them uncomfortable to swim in. In the month I’ve been a member at this gym, I have been wearing my two perfectly adequate bikinis in the pool or hot tub at least 3 or 4 times a week. So far this has never been a problem.

This time though, there was a staff member in the bathroom area, getting ready for work. When I came out, she stopped me and asked if I was going in the pool. Although I understood her perfectly well, I gave her my patented blank “I’m an American, I don’t understand” look to hide my real thoughts, which ran along the lines of, “Are you a moron?! I’m wearing a swimsuit, of course I’m going in the pool!”

Switching to English, she said, “You can’t wear this in the pool, you must have a…” She didn’t know the word for one-piece swimsuit, but I understood full well what she meant by her pantomiming in the area of her stomach.

I said, “OK, well I haven’t seen anything that said that, but I will get one for next time. I promise. OK?” I took her lack of reaction as assent, and even though I was angry and upset by this treatment, I steeled myself and went out to the pool anyway. Anger always makes for a better workout, and this was no exception. The first 15 minutes of my swim were great, really powerful, fueled by righteous anger and the residue of my hard week.

Just as I was getting tucked into the freestyle portion of my workout, however, I came to the end of the lane to find legs and feet waiting above. I looked up to find another staff person standing there, with lame plastic booties on her feet and an apologetic look on her face. She spoke no English, other than “I’m very sorry,” but I knew what she was about. I told her, “I’ll get one for next time, I promise,” but she wouldn’t budge. I actually had to cut short my workout and get out of the pool, with this woman apologizing at every step of the way.

Now let me get something straight here: the swimsuit I was wearing was by no means revealing. It had string ties, yes, but it was certainly no more revealing than the off-white, paper-thin Speedo I’ve seen one man wearing a couple of times, or the girls who wear nothing but low-cut sport bras and hipster spandex pants to spin class. Do they get their workouts cut short? I don’t think so! Um hello, double standards?!?

Even if I had been wearing a particularly skimpy swimsuit, there were at the time a total of two other people in there with me: a man working with his personal trainer, both of whom were completely absorbed in what they were doing. There are almost no open windows onto the pool, so no one walking by can see in — although you can see down into the pool from the reception area, which must have been how I was busted. But basically there was very little risk of shocking anyone with my scantily clad self.

What’s more, this rule about wearing a one-piece wasn’t posted anywhere that either Gabe or I could see. Nowhere. These people make no bones about posting their rules and regs, either — there are signs saying “You must wear a swimcap!” or “No street shoes allowed in the workout room.” Nothing about bikinis though. This was the first I’d heard of it, and like I said, I’ve been wearing nothing but to swim for a month now.

And the crowning glory, the ultimate irony, of all this: the gym recently added a class called “Made in Brazil,” a workout aimed at your glutes. They plastered posters and fliers for this class all over the place — in the locker rooms, on the cardio machines, everywhere. Every single ad for it has a picture of a girl’s torso and butt (and a very nice one at that), taken from an upward and very revealing angle. Frankly even I was a little shocked when I first saw it.

And what, you might ask, graces this butt that we are all supposed to envy and emulate? A bikini. Of course.

So they will use sex to advertise their classes and guilt-trip women into going to them, but if you happen to actually wear something similar, you are prevented from finishing your workout. Beautiful. Wonderful. Irony. The paradigm of the madonna and the whore is apparently alive and well in Portugal.

This was the last straw for me. For the last ten years of my life, exercise has been my refuge, my safe space, the place I retreat to when the world gets overwhelming. Upset? Go for a run. Tired? Do yoga. Got too much on your mind? Simple: sweat it out. No matter what, no matter how busy or stressed or depressed or angry I’ve been during college, grad school, work, my dad’s illness, our move, whatever — exercise has always been the answer, or at least a way of reframing things so that I could eventually work my way through to the answer. And after a week of feeling isolated, lonely, and dealing with far too much emotional crap, all I needed was a nice powerful swim, my head in the water, no one talking to me in any language, just movement and silence and the water rushing by. Simple.

But no. Because of this gym and their prudish double standards, their petty rules and lame enforcement, I couldn’t get more than a 15-minute workout in. How is this customer service? I pay way too much to be told what to wear when I exercise! Ridiculous.

I quickly showered and changed, told Gabe what had happened, and left as fast as I could, feeling embarrassed and confused, rejected by the one place where I was starting to feel the beginnings of community.

Somehow though, outrage and hurt aside, the absurdity of this episode made for a fitting end to a week that really just needed to be written off anyway. We did so by going up to the same multiplex we’d been to after Gabe’s illness, eating at the same cheap but delicious buffet we’d gone to before, and seeing The Brothers Bloom, a fun, quirky, silly movie that we’d somehow missed at home.

Because really, after being confronted by such blatant absurdity in the real world, what else is there to do but retreat into fiction for a while?

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