clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photo: Harrison/Getty
Photo: Harrison/Getty

Filed under:

In Defense of Wearing Plain Old Sweats at the Gym

Why do people keep shaming women who wear baggy clothing rather than tight designer duds to work out?

Growing up I loved watching people get makeovers. It didn't matter if it was a housewife on Oprah getting her hippie-long hair chopped off or Audrey Hepburn morphing from duckling to swan in My Fair Lady.


Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

But I never imagined that one day I'd be the person in need of a makeover. After all, I didn't wear socks with Birkenstocks, cutoffs with Uggs, or mom jeans (that is, until they became cool again).

Then, I caught celebrity stylist Stacy London on a recent episode of ABC's The View. The white streak in her black hair made her look like a comic-book heroine as she tsk-tsked at a group of four women for their choices in athletic wear. They were different ages and races, and had different body types. But each woman London trotted out had committed the same sartorial sin: They dared go to the gym looking like, well, they were going to the gym.

They wore baggy T-shirts and oversized sweats, all in drab colors London described as "dark" and "boring." A 19-year-old with a self-described pear-shaped body made the mistake of wearing what London quipped were "50 shades of the same gray." A middle-aged mother with a petite frame confessed that she wore long shirts while working out to cover her rear. Collectively, according to London, the foursome had slipped up by choosing workout gear that didn't show off their bodies.

"The idea is that you don't wanna look like Rocky Balboa when you're gorgeous," she told them.

Sizing up their outfits, it dawned on me that if London ever caught a glimpse of my workout attire she'd finger me for a makeover as well.

Why is it a sartorial sin to go to the gym looking like, well, you're going to the gym?

See, I, too, favor dark sweats and T-shirts, mostly with the collars cut out, for workouts. In fact, when Beyoncé sings in "If I Were a Boy" that she'd like to "roll out of bed in the morning and throw on what I wanted and go," she's describing my approach to getting dressed for the gym. My only real requirement for workout clothes is that the pants have pockets, so I have somewhere to put my keys. I don't even buy most of the tees I work out in, instead scoring them for free at the races my marathoner husband completes.

Despite my personal lack of interest in fashionable workout attire, I watched the entire makeover segment. After London overhauled their workout gear, the four women wore leggings with elaborate patterns, shirts with strategically placed shoulder cutouts, and puffer vests. Some of them now had fancy, metallic workout bags strapped to them. The looks channeled Sporty Spice and probably cost almost as much as some of the onstage gear she used to wear.

Including gym shoes, sports bras, and outerwear, the ensembles ranged in price from $235 to $556. That's up to one-third of the $1,700 the average American family spends on clothing yearly. Choosing such pricey ensembles ignores the fact that even just joining a gym is cost-prohibitive for many families. Shelling out hundreds of dollars on a single athleisure outfit is inconceivable for them.

But it's not the cost of the outfits that offends me as much as the idea that women must always look attractive, even while breaking a sweat. The fact is, unless you're Taylor Swift, who leaves the gym wearing expertly applied lipstick, as if she hasn't lifted a finger, let alone a weight, it's normal to look a hot mess after an intense workout. And a pair of leggings with an eye-catching print won't change that.

During workouts, dried sweat leaves streaks on my face, and sometimes my toenails get bruised, my hands get calloused, or I get the sniffles.

When I exercise, I'm interested in meeting the fitness goals I've set for myself, not showing off my body or looking cute. I'm concentrating on lifting one last weight or walking one last mile on the treadmill. Dried sweat leaves streaks on my face, and sometimes my toenails get bruised, my hands get calloused, or I get the sniffles. But I don't care how I look. I'm just grateful that I pushed myself to get out of bed to endure another grueling workout session.

Outside of the gym, I'm a bit of a clotheshorse. I take care with my appearance in the workplace, when meeting friends, or when my husband and I go out. The gym is the only public place I routinely patronize without putting on makeup, doing much with my hair, or coordinating my outfits, and the suggestion that it's unacceptable to show up to exercise this way just adds to the unrealistic expectations women face about their appearance.

And those who shake their fingers at women for walking into the gym in sweats instead of tight designer duds overlook the discipline it takes to work out in a nation in which just 20.8 percent of adults meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for physical fitness. The oversight brings to mind feminist Naomi Wolf's observation in her book The Beauty Myth, in which she writes, "Our society does reward beauty on the outside over health on the inside."

It's clear that many women feel pressured to look glam at the gym, particularly as the idea of the fitness-center-as-meat-market proliferates. Planet Fitness addressed the discomfort some women have in gyms in its 2013 "Hot" commercial, which features an ordinary-looking woman in a locker room surrounded by scantily clad supermodel types who keep telling each other how hot they are. "That's why I don't like gyms," the woman later tells a gym staffer. In fact, the all-women's fitness chain Curves launched 24 years ago partly to give women the freedom to exercise free of the male gaze and, thus, the pressure to look "hot" at the gym.

The suggestion that it's unacceptable to show up to exercise this way just adds to the unrealistic expectations women face about their appearance.

Unfortunately, Stacy London isn't the only celebrity to urge women to focus on their looks and shun sweatpants. Last year, actress Eva Mendes, who has a clothing line with New York & Co., famously blamed wives in sweatpants for spiking the divorce rate. After public outcry, she backtracked, but the message was clear: When women don't look nice, their husbands bail.

While there's a decidedly sexist streak in such comments, bias isn't the only factor in the no-sweats trend. The rise of activewear lines such as Lululemon and Athleta contribute as well. Women have more fitness apparel options today than they had in the early aughts, when Juicy Couture tracksuits were de rigueur, or in the '80s, when the aerobics craze introduced the masses to headbands, leotards, and leg warmers.

The popularity of athleisure brands means that the lines between fitness apparel and casual wear have blurred so much that it's now passé to poke fun at oneself for wearing yoga pants all the time. Women have been doing this for years. But how many of the women who perpetually don workout wear are actually working out —€” vigorously, anyway?

At my most recent visit to the gym, I made a point of checking out what other exercisers were wearing. Most were clad in the drab colors that London characterized as "dark" and "boring." In my sole pair of hot-pink sweatpants, I stood out as one of the handful of people wearing color. No one looked like they'd put much effort into their attire. Like me, they appeared to have rolled out of bed and sleepily thrown on faded T-shirts and jogging pants.

Watching them, I felt reassured. After all, if I needed a makeover, then so did the dozens of people working out alongside me.


Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist.

Essays

Aging, but Make It Fashion

Essays

The Death of the Plain Preppy Sneaker

Essays

Navigating the Intensely Gendered World of Hair Salons When You’re Queer

View all stories in Essays