Fitness Fashion and Feminism (Guest Post)

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Flyer Courtesy Suzanne Bell.

Should we care about looking cute while working out? This week’s posts on monitoring fitness fashion, and past posts debating running skirts, show that this question evokes strong responses. Style, on and off the court, has become part of the branding process for professional athletes like Williams’ sisters. But for everyday women fitness style may have different meanings. I’m ruminating on these questions as, for the first time in many years, I’ve decided to take a group fitness class. Looking at my five-year-old faded, black Lululemon work-out top, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is undeniably in great shape after regular wear (good buy!) and on the other hand it is greying and looks/feels kind of depressing. The prospect of shopping for something new isn’t terribly appealing, but I like the idea of having something bright and kind of…fun, so I’ll probably go shopping.

My thinking on fitness and fashion changed after I interviewed 47 women about their bodies for an academic project on being fat. Prior to this time I thought of fitness clothing as frivolous, and felt special disdain for spandex, sports-bras-as-tops, and short-shorts, because they seemed to trivialize women’s athletic endeavors. But the women I interviewed, who, in the early 1980s, established fitness classes “for fat women only,” felt frustrated by fitness clothing for different reasons. In the 1980s it wasn’t easy to find fitness clothing over size 14, let alone cute fitness clothing in those sizes. Even today, MEC, Lululemon and Lolë, for example, top out at size 12 and “XL.” Athleta, owned by the Gap, goes to a size 2X, and Old Navy’s to a 4X. Size diversity, it seems, continues to elude most of the mainstream fashion industry.

In any case, Large as Life (LAL), a fat activist group based in Vancouver, started the first fitness class for fat women in Canada when they hired a “fitness instructor from the YMCA, a little skinny thing,” in fall 1981. Initially, only a handful of women joined the class. After a few weeks, LAL hit upon the idea of training fat women to teach the courses. Members of the group took a certification course through the YWCA. Once large instructors began to teach, the program grew considerably. New classes were formed as demands in particular areas of the city warranted. By the end of 1984 LAL was operating fitness classes from ten different community centres across the Lower Mainland. Different iterations of the class, run by the group, and later as a business by a former LAL member, lasted into the 1990s.

When the classes began, finding fitness clothing in plus sizes was a major quandary. Some of the women I talked to crafted their own clothing. One woman I talked to modified yoga pants by sewing an elastic at the ankles. Another hired a seamstress to make her custom leotards. Others worked out in sweats and men’s t-shirts women were happy to work out in sweats and homemade clothing because they were not interested in leotards. Fitness clothing had a negative association for some participants in LAL’s classes, including one woman who described aerobics leotards as “little chu-chu spandex things” and another who explained, succinctly, “I didn’t wear spandex.”

Those who were interested compared notes on the availability of fitness clothing in fitness stores, as well as which stores across the border might sell Danksin’s “outsize” line of leotards. Noting the dearth of options in the Vancouver area a LAL member, Suzanne Bell, decided to start her own plus-size fitness clothing line. Bell took great pleasure in displaying, and flaunting, her big, beautiful body. As she told Radiance magazine in 1992, “…people notice me when I walk into a room. They can feel it: I really like me.” Bell wanted other women to feel how she felt, and to profit from it. Photographs of the era show women wearing coordinated leotards and tights. There is a wide range of styles in colourful fabrics. Bell’s customer’s recalled her fondly and explained that it helped them to “get into” exercise in a bigger way. One woman recalled a particularly treasured pink leotard set: “I had gotten to a stage where I was exploring my body and being bolder.” Fitness and fashion facilitated pleasure for the women I talked to. Having felt their femininity devalued and excluded from the fashion industry, it was exciting to find clothing that fit and allowed one to express their personal style.

For me, these conversations with self-identified fat women led to a reconsideration of the meaning of consumption. Where in the past I read consumption as a sign of a frivolous approach to fitness, aerobics for fat women only pointed to the ways that it could also be empowering. Women in sport are often sexualized, and even everyday women (i.e. readers of this blog) may feel unfairly monitored at the gym and on the streets. Buying cute fitness clothes isn’t an end in itself, but the fact that someone chooses to wear an outrageous outfit shouldn’t be taken as a sign of her lack of commitment to fitness. If we buy into the narrative that clothing tells us something fundamental (i.e. bad) about the gender identity or sexuality of the wearer, than we’re buying into the idea that external appearance matters. Consumption can offer a meaningful outlet for self-expression, a sense of security and a way to express community membership (I’m looking at you armies of cyclists-in-tunics). The meaning of fitness clothing for individual participants is not determined by popular culture images of femininity. I think fitness clothing can be feminist not because of what it looks like but because of the way we use these products.

Jenny Ellison is a Research Associate at Trent University. Her academic research analyzes visual and discursive constructions of the body, and the ways that diverse groups of women have responded to these messages. More posts on fatness, feminism, fitness and the 1980s can be found at her website.  Or, follow her on Twitter @thejennye.

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