No, I Won’t Work Out in a T-shirt

By Kristina Rofail

Two years and some weeks ago, I sat staring bleary-eyed at the floor in front of the fitness center while Coach Schall explained the rules.  

“Guys, don’t drop weights when you lift, girls, no wearing tiny, open-back tank tops while you run or go on the elliptical.” I stifled a shocked laugh and raised my eyes, hoping the blatant sexism was just a playful joke that would be taken back. It was not. I stretched out my body, flexed the muscles that I, a girl, spent five days a week training, and pictured the drawer full of crop tops and Y-backs I had to work out in. I was very disappointed, and rightfully angry, that my first encounter with this new space felt so tainted. 

A few weeks later, I investigated the reasoning for the dress policy. The FAQ on the fitness center site stated that the purpose of this policy was to reduce the likelihood of skin-to-skin or skin-to-equipment contact diseases. I wanted so badly for this to make sense, and to an extent, it did. However, the manner in which the policy had been relayed, in addition to the fact that my workout soundtrack was a chorus of the boys around me slamming their weights to the ground with no scolding, left me feeling unsettled. In channeling my inner feminist, I quit wearing t-shirts, went back to the outfits I knew and loved, and faced the reprimanding each time it came to me.  

I fell in love with lifting shortly after I began therapy to address six years of an eating disorder I had hid from everyone I knew and loved. Six years of hating every inch of body, cursing mirrors for their very existence, tearing down my metabolism, and punishing myself physically and mentally for every single thing I consumed. As I recovered, the gym went from a place I dreaded to my own sanctuary where I learned to judge my body not for how it looked but for what it could do. I lifted heavier for more reps each week, felt pride when the number on the scale increased, and became more in tune with the feel of my body than I had previously thought possible. It was a few months into my fitness journey that I realized what I wore to my lift mattered. I realized I preferred my lifts when whatever I was wearing had as little fabric and felt as close to being skin as possible. I wanted full range of motion in my muscles. I didn’t want the itch of something rubbing against me, and I hated the way trapped sweat stopped my shirts from moving with me. After all those years of hatred, I started to feel genuine love towards myself, and for the first time I said, “screw it” and worked out in a sports bra.  

What I wore to the gym gave me the mental strength and the physical parameters to put everything I had into my workouts. This freedom enabled the “me-and-only-me” time that made lifting so precious to me. At school, every time someone came to me and said, “put your sweatshirt on,” or “you can’t wear that here again,”  the very peace of mind I came to the gym in search of was yanked away from me. 

Relaxing the dress code this year was an extremely positive move for W&L. It’s a step in the right direction of giving women the freedom to feel confident in their physical abilities and the mental strength it takes to obtain them. “Gym-timidation” is something I struggled with three years ago when I first started lifting, and I know it is a deterrent for various women at this school today. Though I can’t yet say the atmosphere in our fitness center is perfect, any rule, or lack thereof, that works to strip away some of the anxieties that too frequently accompany being a woman in the gym is appreciated and deserves to be lauded.  

Didi Pace