Have you ever found yourself thinking “I couldn’t wear that!”? Or complimenting a friend for wearing something that you think looks amazing on them but that for a bunch of reasons you think you could never wear yourself. Perhaps you think you’re too big, too small, too pale. Perhaps it’s your cellulite, your varicose veins, your age. There is always, always something.
Unfortunately our culture has a lot to say on the matter of who can wear what. Whether it’s by describing clothes in certain ways, aiming the advertising of them at certain people, or by using insidious phrases like ‘bikini body’, the messages coming at us about what is acceptable and what isn’t are strong and firmly ingrained.
The funny thing is, we often apply those rules much more harshly to ourselves than to those around us, setting the criteria based on whatever will exclude us. Think how often we encourage friends to wear things we think they look beautiful in, and how often we disagree with them when they try to encourage us. I’ve heard so many people recently expressing the opinion that there are clothing lines that they just cannot cross: that they somehow have not earned the right to wear a particular item.
What if we didn’t have to earn that right? What if our bodies were ours to adorn however we wanted or needed to at the time? And what has all this got to do with fitness?
Hot and Bothered
Recently I went on a long bike ride on a very sunny day. I got hot, I removed a layer. I got even hotter, I removed another layer. In the end I was only wearing cycling shorts and a sports bra. Now I have been trying to break down the negative messages in my brain around body image for a long time, ever since a girlfriend introduced me to feminism at the age of 17. After all that, I still wondered if it was permissible for me to be wearing so little, even if not doing so would make me incredibly hot and uncomfortable. After 20 years of gently chipping away at the cultural conditioning in my head, I still found myself thinking “am I fit enough to have earned the right yet?”
In the gym recently there’s been a marked increase in women working out in just leggings and a sports bra. It’s hot outside, we have big windows and there’s been an intermittent problem with the air conditioning. It makes perfect sense. Yet I’ve spoken to multiple people who feel that they haven’t earned the right to do the same – and in all honesty, I somehow feel that I haven’t earned the right.
I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s size, age, or a certain body part that we find entirely unacceptable, we’ve been trained into putting these invisible constraints on ourselves even at the price of practicality and our own comfort.
Because You’re Already Worth It
I describe myself as a body positive trainer and I think this clothing issue is a great example of why that’s needed. I also think that the most important thing about it is that it’s really nothing to do with clothes. Body positivity is a movement that encourages people to value their bodies just as they are. By learning to value ourselves without judgment, we’re automatically in a better place to take care of ourselves in whatever way seems right to us.
That might be by practicing yoga, it might be by competing as a powerlifter, it might be working to improve our diet – the details don’t matter. What’s important is that we are working on ourselves because we understand that we have value just as we are, and not only when we fit X, Y or Z criteria. I want to encourage people to look after their health and wellbeing because they know they are worth it, and not because they will be worth it when they reach a certain size or look a certain way.
Working Out In My Pants (Again)
As part of this, I consciously post pictures of me working out in the things I actually work out in – and yes, it is usually bra and pants. It’s hard for me not to try to choose pictures where you can’t see the parts of my body that I’m self-conscious about, but I firmly believe that we all benefit from seeing all sorts of bodies doing all sorts of things. All of those bodies, without exception, have the right to be wearing what is comfortable to them at the time. That right does not have to be earned.
When I say comfortable, do I mean physical comfort or mental comfort? I’m physically comfy working out in my underwear, but mentally it’s a challenging thing for me at times. We all have our own limits when it comes to how we portray ourselves to the world. Suggesting that everyone should start appearing on the internet in their undies would be just as unacceptable as insisting that only certain people were allowed to do it.
Examining Our Limits
The important thing here is to question whether those limits are self-imposed or not. Finding yourself wishing you could wear a certain thing is often a sign that this restriction has come from elsewhere. Take a little moment to work it out. If it did come from elsewhere, you might find yourself feeling comfortable pushing that boundary and you might not. Some days it takes more bravery than others. Just as it’s not your duty to be physically uncomfortable because of what others might think, it is not your job to make yourself mentally uncomfortable in order to challenge their perceptions either.
But when you do push the edge of your comfort zone a little, please remember that this isn’t just a victory for you. Every time we non-model bodies step out onto the street, onto the beach or into the gym wearing whatever the hell we like, it’s a small blow against an incredibly pervasive – and damaging – cultural ideal. That victory belongs to, and benefits, all of us.