A Sports Bra of One's Own

5 years ago

Women of all ages, sizes and fitness levels strap themselves into some kind of exercise gear on a regular basis. If you're like me, you probably don't think about the sociopolitical history of either the exercise that you're doing or the clothes that you're wearing.

A friend got me thinking about this when she forwarded this article about Sue Macy's book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom. Please do read the whole thing -- you'll be inspired even if you're one of those women like me who complains about exercising.

public domain image from wpclipart.com

The gist is that, toward the end of the Victorian Age in the late 1800's, the widespread popularity of bicycling gave women a newfound freedom. It allowed them to leave their homes for independent, unchaperoned activity. It helped them become physically stronger. It even allowed women to begin wearing -- can you guess? Pants! Well, bloomer-style pant prototypes, anyway.

This was no small achievement, and early women's activists knew it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that "the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, [and] self-reliance." Susan B. Anthony agreed, calling a woman on a bicycle "the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

Macy's book traces the invention of women's sportswear to the 1890's, with the invention of practical "cycling costumes." As always, I started thinking about how women's roles are reflected in the clothes we wear. Remembering my own experiences over the years, I am struck by how much things have changed in my own lifetime.

Consider the following:

The Sports Bra


For a truly fascinating read, check out this piece about the history of the sports bra. How is it possible that women exercised, attended mandatory gym classes in schools, and even played sports without these? My mind absolutely boggles.

Believe it: sports bras were not invented until the 1970s, by real women who needed them. (And yes, a re-fashioned jock strap really was part of the initial design process!) This decade saw great progress in women's rights, of course, including the Title IX legislation that went a long way toward leveling the playing field (at least as far as college sports were concerned). More importantly, perhaps, the 1970s ushered in a widespread jogging craze. Enter the "jog bra."

Astonishingly enough, though, large-breasted women were mostly excluded from the sports bra market until the 1990s. The 1990s, people! Two decades after Title IX! During a time when playing sports had become a normal and expected activity for girls in schools.

Apparently there was a belief that large-breasted women didn't play sports. It took a well-endowed hairdresser,  Renelle Braaten, to tackle this inequity by a) designing a better sports bra, and b) convincing people that there was a market for it.  Breasts worldwide rejoiced.

Today, the sports bra is such a staple that I can't believe I didn't have one until I was a college graduate. Not being much of an athlete, I was rather late to the party. Even though I've now been running and working out for years, I only recently switched to "real" sizes (beyond SML) with adjustable straps. And I've been kicking myself for waiting so long, believe me!

My only remaining wish? A greater variety of reasonably priced styles with just a touch of padding, for modesty. Microfiber exercise tops show quite a bit, especially when temperature changes occur. When working out in public, I don't necessarily want my girls yelling, "Well, hel-lo!" to everyone we see.

Aerobic Wear

The first time I took an exercise class, I'm pretty sure I was wearing a stiff cotton T-shirt and ridiculously tiny, 1970s-era gym shorts. If you can't picture the shorts I'm describing, just look at some NBA footage from the 1970s. (Go ahead! I dare you. You'll be horrified yet unable to look away).

These shorts were meant for running or playing team sports. They were clearly not meant for doing floor exercises that required one's legs to be elevated and/or, forgive me, spread wide. Can you imagine my dread of the "seated inner thigh stretch?" Everyone must have had this problem, yet I always thought I was the only one showing my underwear to the whole world.

Eventually, I switched to dance tights under a leotard for aerobic classes. This particular outfit probably dates back to 1970s dancers and yoga practitioners. Picture Olivia Newton-John and Jane Fonda, circa 1982. I was wearing this outfit as late as 1990, I'm sorry to admit (minus the leg-warmers, though).

But at some point, I'm not sure when, the fitted  lycra short migrated from the cycling world into mainstream exercise. Once again, cycling led the way! This was a momentous development, indeed. From there, it was only a short skip to the comprehensive array of fitted shorts and leggings that we have now, in all different lengths. Full disclosure, though: I still sometimes wear regular, loose shorts over these, for modesty. Lycra clings, mercilessly, and I don't want to worry that my most intimate bits are on full display. So perhaps there are still a few advances to be made!

The Yoga Pant

I still remember my first sweat pants. They were made of a stiff, heavy cotton fabric that, although breathable, would never, ever dry if it encountered any actual sweat. The elastic, drawstring waist looked like a cinched grocery sack. The legs were oddly tubular in shape. And you know the flattering bootcut that we see today? Forget about it. These sweats tapered into elastic closures at your ankle. The overall effect made your legs look like hot dogs, only much, much wider.

I know there has been widespread hand-wringing in fashion circles because women insist upon wearing their yoga pants everywhere. I think this is a small price to pay. We can argue all day about whether yoga pants are flattering or not. The bottom line is: women feel good enough in them to wear them everywhere.  This is priceless.

I don't know about you, but I find it very gratifying to realize that these advances have taken place in my lifetime. I know everything isn't perfect. I haven't even touched on the verbal harassment and other threats that many women still face when exercising in public. When Susan B. Anthony made her comments about "untrammeled womanhood," part of her point was that women on bicycles would not be accosted or harmed, presumably because they could escape! Sad but true.

Many of us still grapple with the question of whether we should dress to be seen or not to be seen while exercising. Appearance and body image issues persist. Back in the day, it often felt like my aerobic classes were divided into two groups: a) the front row women standing proudly in front of the mirror in cute, perfectly-coordinated outfits, and b) the women in baggy shorts standing as far from the mirror as they could get.

I know this is an oversimplification, and a depressing one at that. I hope we're moving beyond it. I do know that, in exercise classes of more recent years, I've often lined up in the front row facing the mirror. The goal was not to admire myself, but rather, to monitor my form and thus prevent injury! Looking around, I once noticed that the entire front row was filled with women over 40, while the younger women hid in the back. Dare I say that, as we learn to cautiously work within our limitations, we also acquire a measure of self-acceptance?

Sure, we'll continue juggling our often-competing needs in activewear, for comfort, style, practicality and/or modesty. Why, just today, a favorite blogger wrote hilariously about the phenomenon of sexy yoga wear. But I am glad that we have the freedom to approach exercise, and dressing for exercise, in a  variety of ways.

It didn't even bother me when, awhile back, I read that many women wear makeup to the gym. True, we can view this as a sign that we are still struggling with appearance-based insecurities even as we exercise for our health. But I also know that, some days, I'm more motivated if I can wear my colorful purple paisley workout shirt and coordinating shoes with funky purple laces. (Yes, they're making them like that now). And on other days, I'd rather throw on an ancient pair of faded running shorts and baggy black top.

On my colorful purple days, I smile and chat with everybody in the gym. On my dark and faded days, I stare down at my treadmill, focusing, pushing myself to the limit while glowering in what I imagine to be a badass manner.

See? I can do both. Hear me roar, dammit.

What are your experiences and challenges with activewear? Are there any new advances that you'd like to see?


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