body image · clothing · fitness

Gym dress codes…again

Image description: Kylee Graham taking a selfie with a red smart phone. She is smiling, hair in a pony tail, and wearing the "offending outfit," a black sport top that stops an inch above the top of her black leggings.
Image description: Kylee Graham taking a selfie with a red smart phone. She is smiling, hair in a pony tail, and wearing the “offending outfit,” a black sport top that stops an inch above the top of her black leggings.

A couple of years ago Sam had a change of heart about gym dress codes at the University gym. In “Sam changes her mind about gyms and dress codes,” she explained how she initially thought that if the dress code is gender neutral and gender neutrally applied (e.g. everyone has to wear proper footwear or everyone has to wear a shirt), then there was no problem. But that led to a huge outcry from readers, who basically objected to any dress code in a gym, particularly when the reason is to make others feel more comfortable.

The gym dress code issue came up again when a student at the University of Prince Edward Island wore a short top (I wouldn’t even call it a crop top) that didn’t quite reach the top of her leggings, thus exposing a little bit of midriff. The staff at the gym told her it violated the code — no sports bras or crop tops. When she drilled down about the reasons for the code, it came down to this: they are too distracting because they show abs and cleavage. The staff said they were trying to “find a happy medium where girls can still work out with men” (don’t get me started on referring to the women as “girls” and the men as “men”).

If this is the rationale, then we can file it in the same folder as all the other advice we give women to protect themselves from assault and harassment — cover up, don’t walk alone after dark, don’t go in the elevator alone with a man/men, take your drink with you when you use the bathroom at a club or bar…

Why can the women not “still work out with the men” if wearing crop tops? It has zero to do with the women. They’re just there doing their thing with body confidence, wearing a thing that’s designed for working out. So it’s a terrible reason. And if that’s the reason for a dress code, then definitely there should be no dress code.

I think there may be some legitimate reasons for some restrictions — shoes, for example. And I can even think of some gender neutral reasons for wanting everyone to wear a shirt — sweat on the equipment, for example. What I doubt, however, is that those reasons will be gender neutrally applied. Lingering in the background is this idea that women’s bodies should be covered because if they’re not, straight men will be distracted and unable not to sexualize them.

This assumption does both men and women a disservice. My best example of a fitness community where many people wear as little as possible and in my experience no one sexualizes the others in the room (or if they do, they keep it totally to themselves) is hot yoga. Women wear tiny shorts and crop tops. Men wear shorts and frequently go topless. And it’s just fine.

Do you think it’s out of line for gyms etc. to have dress codes?


10 thoughts on “Gym dress codes…again

  1. If shoes are for safety and shirts are for hygiene and it goes for everyone, I can see the dress code going along with wipe your equipment off after use, otherwise: hot yoga!

    1. That’s what I was thinking. Sam had the same thought last time and that’s when everyone jumped in and said “NO!” Apparently it’s quite a “hot” topic. 🙂

  2. Any dress code described as being for “girls and men” is already off the rails. This whole story makes me grit my teeth. But I admit, I waver between thinking that a big bland gym uniform that neutralizes everyone would be great and letting people wear whatever they want, so long as basic hygiene is observed.

    1. I so agree about “girls and men.” To be fair, I’m not sure it this was the gym’s way of putting it or the way the woman who was challenging the gym presented it. But that sets me off immediately. I guess we all expect that people will make sensible decisions without rules. The difficulty is that interpretations of what’s sensible vary all over the map.

  3. I’m of two minds; 1. women should wear what they want and I love the liberating near-nakedness of hot yoga but, 2. I have also taken a hot yoga class with a young woman who was wearing a loose tank top and no bra- it was basically a wet t-shirt situation within 15 minutes. I know that politically I should be all “she can wear what she wants!” but in truth I found it very distracting and maybe even a little disrespectful to people who were not there to watch the show.

    1. I hear you. Tough to navigate. People will draw different lines as to what constitutes a “show.” Some may (do) think that short shorts and a sport bra are a show, or that men wearing tights are a show. That’s probably what makes rules so hard to countenance–they seem like policing unless they hit it just right, but my “just right” isn’t the same as someone else’s.

  4. If they had said that she couldn’t wear just a sport bra or crop top for the same reason that guys need to wear a shirt and because that reason is that they’re trying to limit the spread of things like MRSA, I’m all for it. But absurd gym dress codes for “distraction” are not my cup of tea. I have to get on my students at the rec center for improper footwear and how the rivets and zippers on cargo pants and jeans can tear up the upholstery on the equipment. But, that’s universal to whomever wears it.

    1. Onegirlbreathing has nailed the weakness in the argument. If it is just about spreading disease, then it is hard to say that the shirt in the picture is any less effective than a man’s tank top (especially mesh types). Sports bras are a more of a challenge in that case. But policing is a challenge for all the reasons you point out, and the fact is there isn’t much loose/covering sports clothing for women. I have looked and most of what might be called “suitable” is only found in the men’s section, in sizes and proportions that don’t work for my petite daughter who has both a bust and hips.

      1. Yes, the health and hygiene argument is the one that really makes sense. Personally I like sports clothing with good coverage (and haven’t had much trouble finding it–except that it’s tough to find loose-fitting, knee- or calf-length pants with pockets).
        I’m no friend to dress codes, having had to suffer through all but one year of secondary school with a long list of requirements that were usually trivial and unjustly applied. Judy comes to school in a red dress 3.5 inches above her knees and black tights. Oh noes! Dress half an inch too short and besides that, the Dean doesn’t like the colors (no rule about what colors we could wear), so Judy gets a scolding and gets sent home to change, losing more than an hour out of the school day. Linda comes in wearing a dress with a hemline that grazes the tops of her thighs, and there are no consequences. And a young man was in trouble if his hair touched his shirt collar! And I don’t buy this “distraction” nonsense. Anyone who’s “distracted” by a short dress, a crop top, an unusual hairstyle, or a bright color has only him- or herself to blame if the result is “C” in geometry or a dumbbell dropped on a foot.
        I work out at my University’s Rec Sports Club, where you can often see female members wearing crop tops. And as far as I know, no one’s been “distracted” enough to break any toes with a dumbbell or to fall off the elliptical trainer as a result.

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