“What should I wear?”: It wasn’t the most common refrain I heard when I started as a Membership Advisor at the gym where I now train (That was, bizarrely, “The whirlpool’s cold again. Can you fix it?” I learned a fair amount about plumbing in those days. Practical life skills, really.), but it came up often enough.
Usually, the person posing the question would be a woman in her forties or fifties, entirely new to gyms or only having belonged to co-ed facilities by technicality, never entering the centers after signing the initial membership contract. Occasionally a younger girl would ask, if she hadn’t frequented a school gym or her family hadn’t belonged to the Y when she was growing up. Sometimes the question regarded sports bras, or types of sneakers, but many times it was simply whether wearing a t-shirt from a recent trip to Hawaii would be okay instead of seeking out the latest in designer fitness tank tops.
I never thought about gym fashion much before working at our club. My favorite exercise attire is some form of men’s basketball shorts and Fruit of the Loom ribbed a-line tanks (the kind you buy in bags of four). I’m a classy broad.
So at first, when I heard my coworkers talking about Lulu Lemon versus Lucy versus Athleta, it was just another manner of girls being girls. Sex and the City meets the fitness industry and what have you. Some would couch it in terms of practicality—one group exercise instructor would soliloquize on how her Lulu pants from five years ago had the same elasticity and color as those she purchased recently. Others just liked how certain pants make their asses look. One of the most recent ongoing discussions between the trainers and the corporate office has been whether we can incorporate legwarmers into our uniforms (Verdict: Yes, if they’re black, and not in the summer.)
Truth be told, though, attire is an integral part of gym experience, and not just in the sense of keeping up with the Jones’s. And there’s something to be said that, particularly for women, clothing inadvertently impacts our health—for many, it affects how we feel when we workout, and thereby how well and how often we perform.
Perhaps the best way I can explain it is with this anecdote: a year and a half ago, we got a new trainer, a strikingly beautiful woman whom we lovingly nicknamed “our Polish Barbie.” When around her, men have this compulsive need to stare or even talk to her—she’ll walk through a bar and you’ll see a line of heads turn as she passes, or men who normally keep their game face on and don’t greet others will shout hello to her or tell her she has nice glasses when they pass her in a hallway (side note: She’s also an extremely talented coach and possibly a marketing genius. That thing adults tell you as a kid about people who are good looking being able to get by on their looks so they don’t have to be smart or try hard? Lies. Damn lies.)
Anyway, point is, girl is pretty. When she started working at our gym, she often talked about how freeing working at our club was—in part, because she didn’t have to worry if she made her clients deadlift with their butts facing a room full of guys, but also because she knew she could wear the clothes she wanted to wear. As one of the people who lobbied for the ability to wear legwarmers to work, she’s someone who enjoys dressing up, even if her “business attire” is workout gear. At the coed gym where she used to work, however, anything besides baggy t-shirts and sweats were viewed as an invitation by the male clientele to flirt with her. She couldn’t wear her favorite clothes and be taken seriously as an athlete training in the gym.
Something similar holds true for the women I mentioned in the opening, on a more basic level—knowing what to wear at the gym makes them feel less like an outsider, more like they belong. These same women often say, “I’m just not a gym person,” and regularly going someplace that you feel clashes with who you are is near impossible. You wouldn’t expect a person who feels out of place drinking and dancing to go to a club to meet their significant other; when you aren’t a “gym-person,” you end up with the workout equivalent of sipping a vodka tonic in a corner while watching twenty-somethings grind their crotches on one another—you lazily ellipticize and watch Kardashians. Walking into a classroom full of LuluLemon pants and tops when you’ve got your hubby’s old shirt on can make you feel like leaving before the warm-up starts. Knowing what to wear can make you feel like you at least fit in partially.
Plus, others argue, the right workout gear can create motivation in and of itself. Rachel Cosgrove, one of the fitness gurus who regularly designs routines for health and fitness magazines, tells her readers to stop wearing baggy sweats to the gym so they can more closely gauge how their bodies transform—both in how their clothes fit and what they see in the mirror. Think of it as “dress for success” in the fitness arena.
Ultimately, clothes become representative of the larger question of how one becomes comfortable in the gym environment. But then we run into a follow-up question: do the latest in fitness fashions further the rift of those who belong and don’t? Fitted pants and revealing tanks can make someone with body image issues more self-conscious, setting her up in between a rock and a hard place: wear clothes that make her feel uncomfortable, or feel like an outsider when she wears something that doesn’t feel too showy? And even for those without body image issues, the hefty price tag of most designer togs may be prohibitive, creating a conflict of class.
If something as simple as getting dressed can raise so many issues, what else is affecting women’s ability to make a place for themselves in the gym?