The Major Problems in Women’s Athletic Attire.

Fitness culture is a broad term that affects a varied range of fields involving physical activity. This term typically generates negative connotations involving a certain set of societal expectations for physical appearances in men and women. These expectations differ across all physical activities, but generally suggest an expectation of a strong and chiseled physique for men, and a well-endowed yet slender physique for women. Fitness culture has been prevalent in our society for decades, and while many have come to understand its shallow agenda of empty weight-loss promises and narrow focus on fast results with minimal effort, they may not be aware of the industry’s biggest hold on the average person: the clothing they wear. Whether you consider yourself to be an athlete, only workout for fun, or even if you are not very active as an individual, there is a high chance that you own at least one piece of athletic clothing.

Although fitness culture has been prevalent in our society since the 1920s, athletic wear has become a staple in American fashion from as early as the 2000’s (Kim, 2020). The popular athletic brand LuluLemon helped to coin the term “athleisure” meaning a style of clothing that was meant for athletic purposes, but could be worn in any situation for any activity. This versatile style of fashion soon became popularized by cultural icons of the 2000’s, gaining traction with the Juicy Couture tracksuit trend. These infamous monochromatic tracksuits were worn by cultural icons such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, as well as many other notable female celebrities of this era and the style became extremely popular with young women during this period in history (Kim, 2020). When the trend of velour tracksuits died out towards the late 2000s, the athleisure style still remained prevalent as the main choice of clothing for many people. Along with the rise of the UGG boot and all over mustache print, leggings and yoga pants became exponentially popular. These styles of pants are typically form fitting to the lower body and as of recently, have been made to accentuate the female form and provide the illusion of bigger hips and a larger bottom. Leggings and yoga pants are staples for women’s athletic wear and have transformed the way the fitness industry manufactures fitness clothing for women.

The cultural obsession with the female form is something that dates back to the beginning of human history. Every culture across all countries has a preferred way for the women of that culture to look. The expectations for each gender often changes with time as the ideal body type for both genders, and today is mainly directed by popular culture. These expectations for the ideal body type in men and women is not something that has been inherently brought forth by fitness culture (although it is largely derived from this source today), but as something that has been prevalent throughout human history (Van Edwards, 2020). The social pressure to adhere to the ideal body type in order to be socially accepted and therefore desirable, has always been more prevalent for women than for men. Every culture throughout all of human history has highlighted how a woman should look and this pressure has dictated how the clothing of this period has been designed. Whether the desired shape was to look thin or plump, curvy or boyish, or even just to accent the natural form, the clothing worn throughout history (as well as today) spoke to the value that a particular culture placed onto an individual and their space in society (Guild, Unemployed Philosophers, et al., 2017). The clothing we wear today meets these same standards and the clothing we wear while doing physical activities speaks to broader societal expectations for ourselves and our genders.

All women have the freedom to wear whatever they please while they workout, and some find empowerment and happiness in wearing more form fitting attire while they workout, and that is perfectly acceptable. Some may even wear more form-fitting attire to show that they are comfortable with their bodies, and refuse to hide what society wants them to be ashamed of (i.e. excess body fat, the length of body hair, skin imperfections, the size of their breasts, etcetera), however many may not know the history of these types of form-fitting athletic clothing, and how they have shaped the sports that women are expected to participate in, as well as the ones they are conditioned to not participate in.

Since the 18th century in the west, upper class women were recorded to have participated in a number of sports including horseback riding, archery, golf, tennis, skiing and skating. Although there have been a handful of recorded sporting events that women have participated in since the 18th century, it wasn’t until the 1900 Olympic Games that women were able to compete professionally as athletes. During these Olympic Games, only 12 women participated out of 1066 athletes from 19 countries. These women were only allowed to compete in two events: golf and tennis. During this time, only men were allowed to compete in rigorous physical activities for recreational purposes as for a woman to do the same would be to question her femininity (V is for Vintage, 2012). Although tennis and golf are two sports require a lot of skill and technique, however photos from the event suggest that the women participating were still required to wear attire appropriate for the female sex during the time, which consisted of a long white dresses and large elaborate hairstyles. Images of these women participating in these sports in their elaborate attire are a stark reminder of the strong sexist standards these women had to adhere to in order to play their sport. As time progressed, so did the acceptable athletic activities for women to participate in as well as the attire they wore to do these activities. Women were no longer expected to participate in these sports while wearing dresses, the introduction of short trousers made it easier for them to participate in more vigorous athletic activities such as track and field events and swimming. As time progressed women’s sports became almost as equal to men’s sports and the attire they wore while competing gradually became less restrictive and more focused on functionally, while still maintaining the social expectation for a woman to maintain her femininity while competing. But why must a woman honor her femininity, a construct that is meant to draw attention to oneself in a desirable way, and why should a woman be mindful of her self image in relation to her perceived desirability from others while she is participating in athletic competitions? These types of athletic clothing (including those worn in competition today) are meant to remind the wearer of their gender’s place in society and the activities they are allowed to participate in while wearing it.

Growing up I never considered myself to be athletic (in fact, I recoiled in utter disgust at anything that required minor physical activity). I was mainly a stationary child who much preferred the solitary comfort of video games, cartoons, and junk food, rather than moving my body for recreational purposes. This lifestyle (paired with a myriad of stressors in my youth) caused me to gain a lot of weight, and turn to food for comfort. At no point in my life, was I ever considered to be obese, however my body type at the time combined with my short stature (slightly over 5 feet tall, and weighing over 150 pounds), caused me to become insecure about my weight around other girls my age. I became acutely aware of my body at all times and chose clothing that would best hide it. For me, this type of clothing mainly consisted of men’s t-shirts, sweatpants, and hoodies. These types of clothing provided the most coverage for my body and created a tent-like affect around my midsection that I felt more comfortable operating in. Although I was unhappy with my appearance, I never committed to losing weight until college. It was at this point in my life that I joined a gym, and began to understand the world of fitness and gym culture.

Fitness culture pushes the notion that women need to achieve a physique that accentuates the reproductive sections of the body, while also maintaining their femininity. It is difficult to do this in a gym as the activities that are geared toward women involve mainly cardio, weighted leg exercises, fitness classes and abdominal routines, contradicting the agenda of fitness culture. A recurring conversation that I had often when I told my friends and family that I had joined a gym, was that I should enjoy the experience, but avoid lifting too heavy of weights because then I will get too bulky and not be as attractive. This notion was quite common, but never made sense to me, as I never understood why a woman wouldn’t want to be perceived as strong. After spending some time in the gym, I began to see that this line of thinking was mainly motivated by an older generation’s perception of gender in athletics, as the women that lifted heavier weights were not bulky, but seemed to achieve the ideal body that was idolized by fitness culture. These women were able to achieve amazing things through their hard work and dedication to the gym and to lifting, and I knew I wanted to be one of them.

I began to start lifting regularly at the gym, pushing myself and my limits with each session, but the more I went, the more I began to realize how out of place I was in my baggy t-shirt and sweatpants, as almost all the women that lifted in the gym wore tight fitting clothes. Every session I went I began to realize how much I stuck out by not wearing candy colored skin tight attire and I began to feel a pressure to adhere to the “dress-code” while in the gym. Despite losing over 30 pounds in the gym, I still did not feel comfortable wearing tight fitting clothes in a space that inherently sexualized women. Although some may feel comfortable doing so, I was not ready to lift in a sports bra and yoga pants, however I wanted to fit into the lifestyle, and began going to the gym in more tight fitting clothing. While lifting in these clothes, I noticed a shift in the male gaze around me. I had become more of a spectacle in these clothes than as someone that was simply lifting in the gym alone. I began to notice that men felt more comfortable approaching and talking to me in these clothes than when I was wearing the baggier, more shapeless option. As an extreme introvert and a dedicated lifter, I was made very uncomfortable by these situations and soon returned to my usual gym attire in order to ward off any unwanted attention while lifting.
Many women feel more confident while working out in these types of tight fitting athletic clothes and that is perfectly fine, however it is important to understand why these clothes exist and how they are meant to remind us that we are allowed to participate in these activities but we must be aware of ourselves and the perception of our femininity while doing them.

Work Cited

  1. Coady, Serena. “The Wild History of Workout Clothes.” ELLE, 13 May 2018,

www.elle.com.au/health-fitness/workout-clothes-throughout-history-12669.

2. Guild, Unemployed Philosophers, et al. “Illustrated Timeline Presents Women’s Fashion Every Year from 1784–1970.” My Modern Met, 31 July 2017, mymodernmet.com/womens-fashion-history/.

3. Japanese Center for Research on Women in Sports. Women’s Sport History, Japanese Center for Research on Women in Sports, 17 May 2020, www.juntendo.ac.jp/athletes/en/history/.

4. Kim, Irene Anna. “The Rise and Fall of Juicy Couture.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 Oct. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/rise-and-fall-of-juicy-couture-tracksuits-2019-11.

5. Norris, Colby. “Gender Discrepancy in the Weight Room” Bryant University, April 2019, https://digitalcommons.bryant.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=honors_appliedpsychology#:~:text=uneven%20gender%20divide%20still%20exists,the%20weight%20areas%20of%20gyms.

6. Van Edwards, Vanessa. “Beauty Standards: See How Body Types Change Through History.” Science of People, 21 Apr. 2020, www.scienceofpeople.com/beauty-standards/.

7. V is for Vintage. “Olympic Sportswear: a Complete History.” V Is for Vintage, V Is for Vintage, 3 Aug. 2012, visforvintage.net/2012/08/03/olympics-sportswear-a-complete-history/.

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