There are quite a few advantages to having grown up with a body outside the norm and to having lots of comfort with the size and shape one is.
One of the times it really hits me is when considering some sporting activity that requires tight fitting, shape revealing clothing.
“But it makes me look so fat,” shrieks the thin to normal size woman on seeing herself in a fitted bike jersey and cycling shorts. (Don’t get me started on the reaction of said person to a skinsuit worn in time trials in both road and track cycling.)
“I’m not wearing a unisuit until I absolutely have to,” said one of the women I do Masters’ indoor rowing with. No one looks good in those things, she went on to explain. Another rower, former university athlete, said the unisuits explained the lack of sexual tension/romantic attraction between rowers. I laughed.
When I joined a Masters’ swim team and went to order a team swimming suit for racing, the coach automatically ordered a size down. It’s your race suit, she said. They’re supposed to be very tight. You don’t want any excess fabric. It will slow you down.
The worst of all might be the bikini tri suit, a two piece affair you’re supposed to swim, bike, and run in. I’ve never worn one of those but not for modesty or body shame, more worries about thigh rubbing and discomfort. Okay, and the belly jiggling while running might be distracting! 🙂
But I don’t really worry about being seen as fat in sports specific clothing because lots of people think I’m fat no matter what I wear. If you’ve been seen as fat in regular clothing, sports clothing is less worrisome, more life as usual.
I wasn’t aware of what a barrier fear of ridicule and feeling fat is to women’s participation in sports and outdoor activities until I read the results of a study on the reasons why women choose not to exercise. The whole story is quoted below but here’s the one number that got me and that counts against both cycling and rowing: “67% of women say they wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure.”
If that’s right then unisuits and cycling shorts (tight fitted, worn alone, no underwear underneath them) might rule out rowing and cycling.
Mountain bike shorts and baggy bike jerseys have their place, I think, and that place is a nice stretch of single track, when riding a mountain bike.
On a road bike it’s much more aerodynamic not having excess fabric flapping in the breeze.
I guess there are two very different responses one could have to this clash between women’s body self consciousness and sporting attire.
One is to encourage women to adopt athletic as opposed to aesthetic values. (See my earlier post on the difference between athletic and aesthetic values.) This is a case where having athletic values makes a huge difference.
But the other response, and I admit I’m not that comfortable with it is to see what we might do to make performance oriented athletic clothing more attractive on a wider range of women’s bodies.
Looking good isn’t the prime purpose of sports performance wear and that is likely much more of an issue for women than for men. I think gender and the need to look good while working out is a topic for a later post. Happily, for me I actually like the way I look in cycling clothes. I feel most like me and that makes me smile.
Of course, if you do suffer from extreme body anxiety or you are modest for religious and/or cultural reasons, let me recommend Aikido! We wear very baggy white pajamas that cover skin from ankle to wrist and reveal next to no details of our shape.
Nine in ten women over 30 scared to take part in outdoor exercise, says mental health charity Mind
Low self-esteem among barriers to getting active as charity highlights benefits of walking, cycling and other pursuits
The charity Mind says that lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem causes nine in ten women aged over 30 to avoid taking part in outdoor physical exercise such as cycling, and has launched a campaign to encourage females to overcome barriers that are potentially harmful to both their spiritual and mental wellbeing.The study, based on a survey of 1,450 women, was carried out as part of the ‘Feel better outside, feel better inside’ campaign from the £7.5 million Ecomind initiative, run by the mental health charity on behalf of the Big Lottery Fund.
While initiatives such as the Cycletta series of sportives, endorsed by Victoria Pendleton, and British Cycling’s £1 million National Women’s Cycling Network, launched last year, both aim to get more females on two wheels, the findings of Mind’s research suggest that for the vast majority of women there are huge barriers to doing any kind of outdoor physical activity, let alone cycling.
According to the survey, nearly all respondents – 98 per cent – were aware of messages telling them that getting involved in exercise would help their mental and physical health, however Mind said that low confidence in their bodies, low self-esteem and other barriers to exercise prevented many from getting active.
Its research found that eating comfort food or finding a way to be alone, both at 71 per cent, going to bed, at 66 per cent, or spending time social networking with a response level of 57 per cent, all ranked higher than taking part in physical exercise.
The charity highlighted some of the specific barriers that prevented women from taking part in exercise:
- 2 out of 3 feel conscious about their body shape when they exercise in public
- Many doubt their own ability compared to others; 65% think it’s unlikely they’ll be able to keep up in an exercise group and almost a half feel they will look silly in front of others as a result of being uncoordinated
- 60% are nervous about how their body reacts to exercise – their wobbly bits, sweating, passing wind or going red
- 2/3 feel that if they joined an exercise group, other women would be unwelcoming and cliquey, with only 6% feeling they would be very likely to make new friends.
It also highlighted some of the ways in which women who did participate in exercise sought to overcome what it described as “the risk of embarrassment”:
- Over 50% said they exercised very early in the morning or late at night solely to avoid being seen by others
- Almost 2/3 of women choose to exercise in a location where they’re unlikely to bump into anyone they know
- Over 50% don’t leave the home when exercising, so as not to be seen in public – even though exercising outside is more effective for lifting mood then inside
- 67% wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure.
Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, commented: “We all know that walking, cycling, even gardening are good for our mental health, however for many of us exercising in the great outdoors can be incredibly daunting, especially if already feeling low and self-confidence is at rock bottom.
“At these times you can feel like the only person in the world experiencing this, but Mind’s research highlights that far from being alone, 90% of women are in exactly the same boat,” she continued.
“It’s time we start talking about how exercise makes us feel. We urge women to take the first step, invite a friend on a nature date and begin to support each other in taking care of our mental wellbeing.”
Mind cited the positive impact that taking up outdoor exercise had brought to the life of one 37-year-old woman, who said: “I have been taking anti-depressants since last February, but honestly feel that exercise has a more noticeable effect than the drugs.
“I can’t believe I am saying this, but discovering outdoor exercise changed everything. I was petrified, I knew I would sweat, go red, have trouble keeping up and that everyone else in the group would be super fit. I was so incredibly scared and thought I’d be humiliated.
“However – the other people in the group were all normal – all different shapes and sizes – and no one cared what you looked like or did.
It was the most liberating experience ever. My initial reason for exercising was to lose some weight, but from that first session I realised just how good it could be for my state of mind. From there my confidence grew,” she concluded.
The Ecominds section of the Mind website contains a variety of hints, tips and online tools aimed at encouraging women to become active by helping the overcome some of the issues discouraging them from taking part in outdoor exercise.
11 thoughts on “No way am I wearing that! Body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women’s sports”
This is something I’m struggling with at the moment. I’ve entered my first powerlifting competition, but I’m horrified because
a) I’ll have to be weighed in public and have my weight published on the internet
and b) I have to wear a short-legged leotard (not unlike the one you’ve shown above, but unisex and without the flattering panelling) and KNEESOCKS.
It is like an anxiety dream come true.
In general getting in to weight training (and the resulting shift from aesthetic to athletic values) has been a huge boost for my relationship with my body, but this is a challenge!
Ho-hum. As my husband so charmingly reassured me “you’re a forty year old woman, no one’s expecting perfection”.
I love the knee socks! Some women who powerlift wear them to Crossfit and I think they look cute. But easy for me to say, I’m not wearing them.
Your husband’s comment is funny. I often have a thought like that. It can be oddly reassuring.
Best of luck with your competition!
My trick to getting over this was to run at 5am. There was no one else on the roads, no one to see me in unflattering gear, no one to see me get sweaty and “gross”, no one to see me wipe snot on my sleeve because my nose was running and I forgot a hankie. I did that often enough and eventually stopped giving a shit – call it an informal desensitisation therapy. I tend to wear quite tight clothes when I run (tights + form-fitting singlet or t) because I find anything flapping around super distracting and annoying – if that means everything’s on display, so be it, because hell I’m breaking a sweat and anyone judging me is probably doing it from the comfort of the seat of their air-conditioned vehicle.
Actually, it is a pretty massive upside to doing yoga – yoga pants are hella comforting, often flattering, and completely activity-appropriate. 🙂
I guess I’d like to see other women – particularly those who feel uncomfortable in workout gear – to be more vocal about what they want. Companies will respond to demand, if you demand loudly and often enough. I am not beyond emailing a company’s HO and saying “Look, I really like your tights, but is there any chance you could make a pair that don’t rest below the hipbones? Thanks!”. Instead of refusing to exercise because you think you look fat, refuse to wear clothes that make you feel fat.
Men wear baggy clothing while exercising, are they hiding their figure?
I think that women wear baggy clothing bc its easier to wear, and they get told they are hiding their body in it because we live in a society where everyone expects the female form to be a visible object.
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