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Jan 18 2013

Fashion Friday: Workout Clothes

Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter what I wear to the gym?

I was buying gym pants at Ross the other day, and I started pondering this question.

Greta in workout clothesTo a great extent, I don’t care all that much what I wear to the gym. I have a very small wardrobe of workout clothes, and when I get dressed for the gym, I spend about fifteen seconds picking an outfit. And yet, when I was looking for gym pants at Ross, I wasn’t just grabbing the first three pairs off the rack and calling it a day. I wasn’t even grabbing the first three pairs in a fabric I liked (breathable stretch cotton, please, no Spandex!). I wasn’t being anywhere near as finicky as I usually am when I shop for clothes… but I was flipping through their entire selection in my size, and picking out maybe one out of every ten or fifteen. I was paying attention to color, and shape, and fit. I was trying them on, not just grabbing them off the rack and heading to the register. And I was keeping some while rejecting others, at least partly, because of how they looked on me.

And I started thinking: Why is that? Why do I care?

If you don’t have a blue-collar job, workout clothes are about the most utilitarian clothes there are. They exist to maintain basic standards of modesty, to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and to be comfortable and durable during vigorous exercise. If you’re hard-core you might care about things like fabrics that wick sweat away, and obviously some sports and forms of exercise have specific sartorial demands (bicycling shorts, running shoes, football helmets). And if you’re someone who cruises at the gym (as many gay men do, for instance), that’s obviously a consideration. But if you’re just doing weights and jogging on a treadmill, and you’re not looking to flirt or hook up… why should you care how your workout clothes look?

And yet, I do care, at least somewhat, about how my workout clothes look. I am somewhat selective about them. And I started wondering: Why?

I tend to wear workout clothes that are fairly body-hugging: not revealing, exactly, but ones that let me see the shape of my body. I don’t wear T-shirts, or loose sweatpants. I wear ribbed racerback tank tops, and snug leggings or bike-style shorts. And I don’t want a lot of distractions. I don’t want bright colors, or even a stripe down the side of my legs. My leggings and bike shorts are plain black or grey; my ribbed racerback tanks are black, with nothing more than a red Rosin Coven logo, or a Longboard Winery surfboard slicing down between my breasts, or the words “San Francisco Dyke March” with “DYKE” in hot pink capital letters stamped on my chest.

Part of this is just so I can clearly see my form, make sure I have the correct angles when I’m doing my weight training. But most of it, honestly, is so I can enjoy the sight of myself, and my body, when I work out.

Here’s the thing. If the experience of looking at myself in the mirror when I work out is enjoyable… that reinforces my desire to go to the gym in the first place. It adds to the pleasure of the experience, makes it more appealing — which makes me more likely to go back, and to keep going back. And gym clothes that let me clearly see my body, and let me see it in a flattering way, add to that pleasure.

Greta in workout clothes making a muscleI like looking at my body when it’s getting strong, and staying strong. I like reinforcing in myself the idea that beauty is strength, and strength, beauty. If I’ve been hitting the gym regularly, I enjoy seeing how ripped and powerful I look. If I’ve had to take a break (like I did when I had surgery), I enjoy watching my definition gradually returning, watching my muscles start to pop back out through the softness.

And I want to be able to see my body clearly — and see it framed by clothes that look good, or at least that don’t look like crap — when I do.

Ingrid once said that she loves seeing me at the gym, because I stride into the weight room like I own it. I think part of why I stride into the weight room like I own it, why I feel entirely comfortable and joyful and at home in the weight room, why I feel with no question like I belong there even though often I’m one of only a couple of women in it, is that I look like I belong there. I stride into the weight room, and I pick out my weights, and I start my set… and I see my image in the mirror, reflecting the message back to me, “This is you. You are a fucking powerhouse. Look at your biceps, your shoulders, your thighs, your calves. You are strong, and getting stronger. You treasure your health, and your body. You value your body’s ability to give you pleasure. You love yourself.”

And the sharper and more pleasurable that image is, the more clearly that message gets through.

I love my body. I especially love my body when I’m at the gym. Going to the gym is an act of loving my body. And wearing gym clothes that let me appreciate my body is a sign of that love… and helps that love to flourish.

You may also enjoy:
The Eroticism of Exercise
A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory in Seattle

    You’re spending money again?! Pardon a moment, I need to get my pearls and clutch them.

    Aside from that, YES. It has taken me a while to develop a positive body image, and watching myself at the gym sweating to improve that body has done alot to help build a positive image. Clothes that show off what I’ve accomplished help to reinforce why I go to the gym, so yeah, I understand exactly where you are coming from.

  2. 2
    dubocn74

    I want to get an Edwardian exercise outfit made for my trips to the gym. Take THAT, Lululemon empire.

  3. 3
    naathcousins

    As a very sweaty runner I’m more concerned about the sweat-whicking ability of work out clothes (personally I hate cotton – chafes horribly) and also as a sometimes *outdoor* runner their warmth (or their coolness; if it even stops being freezing).

    But even with all that happy fun “thinking about the practical usefulness” aspects… I’ll still prefer anything that comes in PURPLE :-p Because if it makes me happy to look at it that’s good.

  4. 4
    maddog1129

    I’ve just gotten a new set of workout clothes myself. I like pockets in the shorts and sweat/track pants. I prefer some of the shirts to be the modern fabrics (non-cotton) for warmth in winter. I’ve gotten a bunch with military themes, to give myself some focus and inspiration while I am working out.

  5. 5
    jenniferphillips

    Greta, this post really spoke to me. The transformative power of strength–and strengthening– is a wonderful thing indeed. So glad you are feeling healthy.

    I’m with naathcousins on the running gear–material paramount; style also a factor. I logged in with facebook for a change on the off chance that my profile pic will show up here, featuring my favorite new crazypants running tights.

  6. 6
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    The stripe down the leg, though, is actually quite helpful for form checking. Have you read Rippetoe’s Starting Strength? The pics of the squats with the stripe pants clearly illustrate where is parallel (or other angles).

  7. 7
    l. nicolcabe

    There’s an interesting, similar culture around people who bike commute, at least in Seattle. There’s a group of people who clearly buy all their bike clothes to safety spec and at REI or a similar megastore – bright orange or yellow rain jackets, bike-specific shoes. Then there’s those of us who cobble together outfits that are comfortable and come close to safety, but are also kinda hipster-cool – worn-out skinny jeans, wool coats, hats with brims, fingered gloves under fingerless bike gloves, sneakers.

    I also do a lot of yoga, and I finally landed at a studio I liked with a group of people that I like, and I realized part of the reason for that is that most of the regulars at this studio do NOT wear the classic “yoga uniform” of ultra-hip and sculpted-flattering yoga gear that looks like it just came off the shelf. These people might wear ancient yoga pants, but are equally likely to just wear shorts or sweatpants, and tshirts from their high school gym classes (or their alma mater), or something else old and worn. Totally unpretentious. While I own yoga pants myself, I do have the habit of wearing them EVERYWHERE, including on my bike, because 1) they are so damn comfortable, and 2) they make my butt look great. Otherwise, I do not have yoga-specific clothes – just a sports bra and a ratty old tank top that I never could layer under anything properly, so it may as well get used like this.

    The interesting thing about specific exercise clothing is that you can tell which people fit into what group – it is a very clear, but voluntary, uniform. The men and women who dress up in nice workout clothes to be seen, well, you can really see them. The unpretentious people who are there to work out – like you, they tend to wear more muted colors, more personalized shirts and shoes. But there are a lot of workout “uniforms” out there, and it’s interesting that we adopt certain styles, at the beginning anyway, as if to cheer ourselves on and create the image of ourselves we want so that we can reach our fitness goal more easily.

    Dress for success, I suppose?

  8. 8
    ellien

    I just think it’s great you actually go to the gym. It’s more than I can say. But I do walk a couple miles every other day in the morning and I buy new yoga pants or a hoody often (maybe too often). It does make the whole experience more pleasurable and seems to give me more motivation. Yay new clothes! And it helps when I pass store windows and see my reflection I don’t look like a complete bum. I think anything that puts us in a positive frame of mind and helps to get us moving is a good thing.

  9. 9
    nonnie

    I never thought about it, but I definitely try to look good when I’m exercising, too. Of course I always prefer to wear clothes that compliment my body, but particularly at the gym while surrounded by fit, attractive people. I’m already publicly doing something difficult and awkward with my body; wearing good clothes helps me feel/look less foolish. (Plus I always see people I know at the gym.) But I’d agree it’s less about fashion, per se, and more about clothes that fit especially well.

  10. 10
    trinebm

    Coming late to this post. I’m a runner, and I have several factors that I have to think of when buying running-clothes. I live in Scandinavia where it can be VERY cold in the winter – I need at least three sets of longsleeved. woollen underwear for running. It can be quite warm in the summer – I need a few tank tops and a couple of shorter running pants. I’m big-breasted – need quite a few good sports bras. I need caps, gloves, socks (winter and summer), earwarmers and shoes. AND I need a neon-coloured vest with reflexes so I can be seen in the dark. Phew! oh, and jackets, t-shirts, etcetcetc.
    BUT I must say, that I do not enjoy my body all the time. Some days are fine, and putting on very slim running gear is OK – other days I just do it, because I can’t really give a damn about what people think of a middleaged, slightly overweight woman in a too tight outfit. I just want to RUN!

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