I am not now, nor have I ever been, Pamela Anderson
Jayde Atchison (she/her) // Columnist
When I was hired to be a lifeguard at my local pool at 17, I was excited to get paid more than minimum wage in a fun environment. What I envisioned for myself was afternoons of saving lives and having a blast teaching swim lessons. The reality turned out to be pretty accurate, but with an added bonus of being made to feel like an object, knowing when it was time to protect myself, and discovering my boundaries.
Television, movies, and general media have a tendency to sexualize or romanticize lifeguarding — it’s all beautifully tanned people half naked, performing mouth to mouth and flirting with the locals. I hate to break it to you, and I know this might be a kick in the teeth for some, but that is not what real lifeguarding is like. More often than not, I am wearing my baggiest sweatpants and a hoodie, paired with socks and sandals. Instead of having dreamy, Zac Efron-looking guys coming up to me when I started out, I was constantly approached by older men that ignored basic social cues.
Being a timid female lifeguard brought a lot of unwanted attention along with it. It was a welcoming environment for this type of man, because I was new and didn’t know the rules. I had to endure unsolicited comments about my body, my bathing suit, and the way I walked. Through years of customer service training, I was taught that “the customer is always right” and the importance of remaining polite to the people paying to be there. It was so ingrained in my brain, I stayed quiet and mastered the awkward laugh that people do when they don’t know what else to say.
It took an incident that left me crying and hiding in the back room that forced me to reevaluate the way things were going. One of my supervisors came up to me and asked, “what would you say to him if you were on the street downtown?” I told her that I would use several expletives and tell him to shove something…somewhere. She advised me to take five deep breaths, think of a way to say those things in a professional manner and approach the man and repeat it to him.
She was the first person in over two years that told me that it was okay to stick up for myself. She said the company would never reprimand me for standing up for myself against verbal or physical harassment. My shoulders creep up to my ears in discomfort when I think about all the things I let slide as a teenager. However, all my experiences have shaped me into the supervisor I am today — anytime I see one of my coworkers looking uncomfortable I approach them and ask for the story. A pattern I have noticed is an automatic, “oh yeah, this happened, but it’s okay.”
To this, I give a resounding: screw that. It is never okay for someone to grab you without your permission, make unwanted sexually-driven comments or demand personal information — especially when you’re trapped in your place of work. I make a point of educating all the new guards that they should be reporting anything to management and if they’re comfortable, to address the issue as soon as they can. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bureaucracy in a workplace like this, and if there is no documentation saying that a guard didn’t request the actions to stop, there isn’t much that can be done behind the scenes.
My job as a lifeguard is to ensure the safety of everyone in the building, not to be a mode of perverse entertainment. When I was 17, I thought if I was polite and smiled through it all, people would leave me alone. Twelve years later, and my work persona has hardened and shaped itself into a protective barrier. What started off as a job where I was simply guarding the lives of others — ended up being one where I am guarding myself too.