athletes · body image · fashion · fitness

Finding clothes to fit athletic women’s bodies

Physically fit women face a variety of clothing challenges. Tracy has written about the woes of women who’d rather have a choice not to work out in pink.

I’ve written about how I’d rather risk the chance of visible nipples than wear padded bras but that’s a tricky choice these days when it comes to sports bras. (Short version: I don’t like to surround some of the more sensitive bits of my body in foam and it feels weird jogging along with added structure.)

But the indignity doesn’t end with pink or with foamy sports bras.

I had dinner recently with a friend who is in training for a fitness competition. Of course, we chatted about food and about weight training but it wasn’t long before the topic turned to our favourite lament: muscular women’s bodies and finding clothes that fit. Her leather jacket fit nicely around her waist but she was having back and shoulder issues. My fitted black raincoat worked but was obviously straining at the biceps.

We all say, and it’s true, that the standard fear of weightlifting–“But what if I get big?”–isn’t really a worry for women. Our bodies aren’t made, we say, to develop big, bulky muscles. But over time, your proportions do change.

I’ve been shopping for awhile now for jeans, boots, and jackets that fit me without fitting me like academic regalia does, that is, like a tent.

I’m a large woman it’s true but I wear standard sizes of clothes, or at least I would if I could get my biceps, shoulders, and calves into things.

My jeans are a 12 but my black coat is an XL because there is no way to get my arms into a mere large. Or my shoulders actually. I haven’t worn a button up shirt in many years. If they’re fitted, they just don’t fit. And I’m not a fan of tents.

And don’t get me started on cyclists’ legs and skinny jeans. Not a match made in heaven. When Betabrand finally announced they were making their bike to work pants in women’s sizes, many women wrote in and offered helpful feedback–room for calves, please.

Each year I admire friends’ boots and start posting to Facebook about my quest to find boots that fit. It’s almost an annual ritual that ends badly each time. Women cyclists all chime in about how we’re doomed never to wear tall boots.

So my three “problem” areas–a problem for clothing, I quite like these areas otherwise–are shoulders, biceps, and calves.

Do you have muscular bits that don’t fit into standard issue women’s clothing? What’s your strategy?

Bicep Betties Burnout T - Bench hedr Tshirts

54 thoughts on “Finding clothes to fit athletic women’s bodies

  1. I’ve always had a hard time with my calves and tall boots, however last winter I was lucky enough to have been introduced to an incredibly comfy tall boot made by the Canadian company Blondo which actually has a way of adjusting the width at the top of the boot. Not sure if they still make the same model, but perhaps keep them in mind for next year?

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  2. Wide calf boots exist, but unfortunately not in all the styles one might want. Even before working out, I had issues with shoulders and chest, so I usually buy my dresses and jackets on the large side and then take them in at the waist. After a bit of practice, I’ve become relatively adept at waist darts even though I’m fairly mediocre as a seamstress otherwise.

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  3. I also have problems finding tall boots that will fit my calves. I’m a dancer, and though my calves aren’t hyoooog, they are distinct and substantial and apparently “too big for fashion boots”. However, the calf thing totally erased my last vestiges of thinking something was wrong with body instead of the clothes I tried on. As a teen and 20-something, I would despair when a pair of jeans would get stuck at my thighs, but then the skinny jeans thing came around and when I found I couldn’t get the damn things over my *calves*, I concluded that the cut of the pants was ridiculous, not my body. I still have problems finding jeans/pants that fit, but it’s because I am tall (5’10”) and the pants are usually too short in the length and too gappy in the waist, so I get them tailored.

    Because I’m both tall and have a longer torso/generally slim build, I also have problems finding dresses or any one-piece garment because the size that fits my frame usually has a “waist” that ends up floating somewhere between my belly button and my lower ribs…not a waist-waist and not an Empire waist but something awful in between and/or the length is too short for comfort. Therefore, I mostly wear separates when I have to dress up and happily slouch around in workout clothes or dancewear as much as possible (i.e., most of the time). Spending so much of my time in workout or dance clothes has left me with zero patience for constricting clothing or clothing that does not MOVE with me. 🙂

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    1. I really didn’t know 5’10” is considered tall in U.S. 🙂 I’m 6’5″ and am considered “the average” height here in Europe..

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      1. The stats I’ve seen list European women as having the average height of approximately five feet, six inches. I’ve been to Europe exactly once and I can’t recall seeing many – if any – women who were six feet, five inches. Most were closer to the former than the latter. European women I’ve met in North America have all been closer to 5’6″ than even to 6′.

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      2. I’ve been to England (twice, including for an extended period staying with locals), Spain (twice, including two months with locals and a total of one month traveling the country), Italy (all around the country for 2+ weeks), the Netherlands, and France. I also went to an all girls, international boarding school for three years, where many students were European and at their full height. I can think of *one* tall European woman I knew or met, and she was probably under 6′. And being very short myself (5’2″), I’m reasonably sure I would have noticed if all the women walking by in any of those places were extremely tall.

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      3. European measurement would be in centimeters , While the US uses inches. Was there a conversion problem between the 2? 6 feet, 5 inches would be considered extremely tall for either gender world wide.

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    2. Jean leggings are my favorite. I cannot wear proper jeans without feeling bad and these leggings saved me. Calzedonia has really nice ones 😉

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    3. You should check out eshakti.com. They allow you to put in all your measurements as well as the option to pick the neckline, hemline, and sleeve length. Because of my build, I have never been able to buy a dress. But the dress I ordered from them fits me like a glove!

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  4. Can’t get my arms into even a women’s x-large and if I could the waist would be too big. Best fit? Calvin Klein is making men’s dress shirts in a slim fit. Men’s medium fits perfectly.

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  5. It’s good to hear that other active women can’t wear tall boots, either. Ever since high school my calves have been muscular– I was in marching band and played tennis and biked. Now I cycle and play squash. All this means that I end up wearing mid-length boots for the most part. I must say that Merrell makes some tall boots that do fit me. They are not the glam-look that I would like, but (until the real-women’s-body acceptance revolution comes) I can make do.

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  6. Hi

    I had an old pair of boot leg jeans that were a baggier style on me and just filling up space in my wardrobe, one day I felt inspired and attacked them with the sewing machine. I put them flat on the ground, lay a pair of skinny style leggings on top, drew a rough line made some guess work and then sewed the seams in. Wow skinny jeans that fit me, my thighs and my calves! Usually I can’t get them over my calves and then they are too big at the top. #feelingproud

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  7. Well I just found out about this recently, some months after I finally got able to squat ( had a knee problem but guess whatt? Just needed stronger leg muscles and some prep workouts ) so now I press and deadlift and what not..and jeans,well they do fit on waist pretty ok, the legs are no longer like inserting a stick in a bag, that makes me proud but then… and I mean no offense..how thin are girls nowadays??? I tried about 7 jeans yesterday,in one it wouldn’t go past my calf xD the other…didn’t fit my ass at all,but the waist was ok,the other made me feel I’d get purple quads anytime. so 😮

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  8. I’ve increased my weights for back/shoulder exercises over the past year and now I can’t zip up many dresses of mine that don’t have stretch–any solutions to this? I know it’s not back fat because when I try to fit in the dresses it doesn’t “squish” out if that makes sense, I just can’t close the dress enough to zip it up.

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  9. It was actually a relief to find someone else who voiced this problem. I’ve been looking everywhere for a casual jacket for fall but my shoulders and back are broad from climbing and nothing fits. All the articles I’ve found from non athletes talk about “how to hide broad shoulders” but I love my shoulders! I just want to find a jacket that fits without wearing a potato sack. So far all I’ve found is “find a jacket with no structure” (potato sack), “only wear jackets with soft fabric”, or “go to a tailor” (expensive). I’d love to hear other ideas or tips from big shouldered women who have small waists.

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    1. I totally understand! As a climber, anything that fits in shoulders/forearms is too big in the waist; as a trail-runner, I can’t find skinny pants that fit in the calves (and even quads/glutes!) without the waist being baggy. It’s not an issue with running tights, but for tops made by climbing brands for climbers (like Mountain Hardware and Patagonia, for example) they are still NOT cut for a climbing body. You’d think that (at least some) athletic wear would be cut for an athletic shape.

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  10. I came across your blog while searching for cycling jerseys that will fit my athletic shoulders. Ugh! I went for a road ride today (thank you El Niño!) and it was awesome other than the pull across my shoulders and bunched up fabric under my arms. As I spun along, I imagined slicing the seams that attach the sleeves to the trunk of the jersey.

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  11. Hi,
    There’s a picture here if a shirt with ‘ i may not look like her but I can bench press her’ just wondering if this is an actual shirt? 1. It’s a great saying 2. It has sleeves to hide my muscular shoulders!

    Thanks
    Karly

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  12. As a petite (I’m 5′ 1″) athlete who also works for a NYC investment bank, this has been quite the journey for me. Yes–lats, shoulders–those will not fit into ANYTHING petite, unless I go 3 sizes larger and wear a tent. I’m sitting in the office in a new Banana Republic dress at size 2 (I’m a 00), and my shoulders feel like they’re about to burst through the seams any minute. Even athletic tops are a problem–hear me out, Reebok and Lulu Lemon!!! Calves and hammies are also a big (literally) issue–I’ve been wearing Athleta’s Metro leggings in black mostly, which I can get away with at the office… Tried Betabrand–their yoga pant is tight on the leg and super loose on the waist, at the smallest size. And boots–well,I only wear stretchy boots now…

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  13. In the last few years I have transitioned from being a runner to doing strength training and the result is that my arms, shoulders and thighs are significantly bigger. This has been very disheartening because not only have I not been able to fit into most of my wardrobe, but I have also struggled to find professional clothes that fit. I am an attorney in an executive position and need to look polished. My go to has always been suits. I’m really struggling to find jackets that fit my shoulders, but aren’t otherwise too big. I’m also on the petite side for pant and arm lengths. Tailoring is an option, but I also tend to work stupid hours, which makes it challenging. Suggestions?

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    1. I have the same exact issue and I haven’t found any brands that work for muscular shoulders as of yet. I think you will have to buy a jacket for your shoulders and get a tailor to fit the rest of it to your torso

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  14. I have never in my life (even as a kid) had boots that fit over my calves. Surprisingly I found the solution when I moved to TX: buy 100% leather and take them to a place that stretches them to your size. As long as the foot fits, they can make everything else fit.

    My other big problem area has always been upper arms and shoulders. Clothes just strain unless I make them myself. Which is unfortunately my only solution: to become enough of a seamstress to make the patterns and clothing myself.

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  15. I’m so relieved to find this post! It’s good knowing that I’m not alone with this problem. The same areas (plus chest) are tight for me. I just went shopping today to try to find clothing to wear to my internship. Had to settle for an ill-fitting stretchy-enough top that didn’t look too awful. My fave pants for work-type stuff are Old Navy’s Pixie pants in black (didn’t like them in grey though- the fabric wasn’t as thick) because they fit my muscular thighs but are still soft and professional-looking. I wish it were acceptable to wear tank tops in an office. Guess I’ll have to settle for altering and custom-making my clothes!

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  16. I am a competitive swimmer that trains about 18 hours a week. Recently, my body has become way more muscular: shoulders broad, thighs and calves bigger, biceps HUGE, and I am 100% okay with that. I love the way my body looks and I wouldn’t change it.
    The only problem I come across is finding clothes that fit and are reasonable, other than athletic clothes. It’s a challenge.
    Some of my co-trainers don’t really have this problem because they aren’t naturally curvy with muscles on them (like yours truly) or they’re smaller, or skinnier to begin with. I’m honestly just fed up of having to deal with clothing companies’ inability to cater to needs of fit women, without wearing fit clothes all the time. My only hope is that sometime in the future there will be some sort of clothing line with cute clothes, that are made to fit broader, bulkier women.

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  17. I too have a difficult time finding clothes that fit. My biggest challenge are jeans, tights, dresses, coats and jackets, especially clothes that does not stretch. I have large thighs (from leg pressing 450 lbs), butt from squatting, and the biceps, back and shoulders from everything I do in my upper body. I’m a “girly” woman so I like wearing dresses, and other feminine looking clothes and that’s difficult without a tailor or the ability to sew. I do make some of my clothes but time is a factor. I’m just glad I’m not alone!

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  18. Thanks ladies, this post was a real comfort today. I have an interview tomorrow, and discovered that most of my dress clothes haven’t kept up with my muscle development. I train in martial arts and I lift weights. A a result, I have a dramatic derriere, muscled legs and shoulders and ridiculous upper abs and back muscles…something about all those falls and rolls in aikido. A few fit thoughts: I find that covering one half of my bubble butt – the upper or lower with loose fitting shirts, skirts or trousers minimizes the rear drama. I opt for a lot of sleeveless tops to reduce shoulder pinching and help me manage my high running temp. I love vests as an alternative to jackets/blazers for the same reason. I am a big fan of utility/military-inspired tops with roll sleeves, looser fits and I often tuck them into the front of pants over cute belts for a bit of snazziness. Speaking of, I love obi-belts to emphasize my waist. And yeah, in the end I use my sewing skills (honed during a college career spent reenacting) to modify garments or make my own that fit. In the end, I remind myself that my body is great and clothes are the problem.

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  19. I fully agree. This is modern day foot binding. Society complains that women are weak but then supplies no support for women who are strong.

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    1. Amen to the modern foot binding. It’s like women aren’t supposed to have muscles/be strong enough to lift anything more than a purse. It’s like body constriction. How come men’s clothing allow for muscular growth while women’s, I’m looking at even designer brands, don’t?

      This even applies to designer clothing. I do however think for example buying dress shirts, buying designer brands that only specialize on dress shirts fit the body better. For example, Thomas Pink only makes dress shirts and their cut is way more tailored than your typical dress shirt (Banana Republic’s sizings is horrid.)

      I’m not saying all designer brand clothing fits the body better. It’s the clothing. Your body changes, whether due to muscular gains in your body and unfortunately your clothing will remain static and un-malleable. Signs it’s time to let go of those clothes.

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  20. Now that my legs are getting bigger from weight training, my jeans that used to fit over my belly button are now fitting under my belly button, tell me that makes sense??

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  21. I’m not a bodybuilder but I lift weights. I fit into most adult clothes but fit better in youth 12-14 size workout clothes. With an adule female body. With muscles. My problem is finding clothes feminin enough to wear on my not so feminine looking lean upperbody (too much vascularity. Scares people).

    Any ideas?

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  22. Totally late to the game here (reading all the way through and realizing the original article was posted 4 years ago) but just thought I would add anyway. I do rock climbing and run tough mudder races, and I have issues with both pants and shirts, every problem that was mentioned (boots and calves, pants fitting butt/thighs/waist/calves differently, shoulders and arms in long sleeves, etc) is something I’ve faced. For work my go to outfit is a sleeveless top, a cardigan (I get cold 100% of the time), stretchy bootcut or flair leg slacks, and flats. That’s the best combo I have found for all those things. But I still struggle with finding jeans that fit my thighs and butt without being several inches too large at the waist. And it doesn’t help that I’m 5’1″ and every pair of pants is already a mile long. Oh well. 🙂

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    1. You might want to take a look at Lane Bryant if you wear a size 12 and up. They just launched a petites line in their stores. I love them, because they have specifically curvy fit pants and jeans. The thighs also fit well developed quad muscles too. I just wish I didn’t have to order online, as their tall sizes are not in any stores.

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  23. Training leggings esp full length ones that don’t have enough stretch to comfortably fit calves and thighs leaving once on a huge wrinkling at back of knee! Arms in tops and blouses made for stick people so you go up two sizes and then look like you are wearing a marquee!
    Sports bras that you buy to fit chest but then are so tight on shoulder and under arms they cut u in half!
    Stretch stretch please!!!

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  24. I love wearing leggings too, but I find that regular leggings and other workout pants are not made for tall women. I am 5’11 and can never find something long enough, unless I go to men’s clothing. But this year, my American niece introduced me to Lularoe for tall and curvy. They are long enough for me and my taller sisters, and are not overly priced. There are some funky patterns! I am not a dealer but just thought I would share this. https://www.lularoe.com/adult-leggings/.

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  25. Female powerlifter, also preparing for strong women competition. I get so discouraged when shopping for clothes recently got married I had to buy a tent of a wedding dress that later cost me $500 to alter and it was still to big, just because of my shoulders. I haven’t worn an actual bra in about 3 years, they cut into my lats and it’s extremely painful. I’ve resulted to just wearing men’s clothes….. it sucks I would like to look cute and not always have to dress like a man but getting anything over my shoulders and lats has become nearly impossible.

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