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Charity “Challenges” Women to Be “Empowered” by Working Out Shirtless [Would you do it?]

Posted Apr 08 2013 12:20am



I dunno Lane Bryant, I just don’t think our relationship is to that level yet where I tell you which strange fruit my girls most resemble. ( Image Source )

Tutus, spangly leotards, glittery leggings, neon arm warmers and even a cape and motorcycle helmet (I was a human cannonball for our most recent TurboKick circus-themed dress-up day) are just a few of things I’ve shown up in at the gym recently – suffice it to say, I have worn some weird stuff to workout in. I’m not a shrinking violet when it comes to fitness fashion (or any fashion, really). But, there is one thing I haven’t ever – not even once! – worn to the gym: A sports bra. Lest you think I’m flying free, I should clarify; I’ve never worn just a sports bra to the gym.

For me it’s always been sort-of a no-brainer – my LDS (Mormon) religion has a code of modesty I adhere to, I have stretch marks and scars so badly that my son once christened me the “tiger lady”, I’m pasty pale, my stomach sweats, I had a traumatic experience from a skin infection I got from dirty gym mats and I have never ever had defined abs even when I was at an unhealthily low body fat percentage. Just to name a few. But there are lots of ladies who do wear just a bra as a top and it’s never bothered me when someone else does it. No matter what they look like or what they’re doing. Of course the group who seems to wear bra tops solo most often are fitness models in magazines but I’ve also seen plenty of real ladies sweating in sports bras. I mean, it’s your underwear.

(Side note: There have only been two times in my entire gym career I’ve ever questioned a lady’s choice of a bra. First was the lady who showed up for class in a black half slip and a lacy Playtex 18-hour number. I’m guessing she came straight from work and forgot her gym clothes? While I give her props for being that dedicated to her workout, I have to draw the line at any top where I can see your nipples. And also, it looked super uncomfortable. Second was the woman who showed up with no bra whatsoever and a crop top. I’ll never look at shoulder presses the same way again. Please reference my rule on visible nipples.)

But a recent news story covering the annual SEAK foundation ‘s “sports bra challenge” made me question my attitudes on bras-as-tops. Per their site,

“The Sports Bra Challenge is a day for all women to participate in a series of group fitness classes in their sports bras as a way of supporting and empowering one another to feel comfortable in our bodies. Body image issues, lack of confidence and feelings of self-hate are all topics that most people encounter but are never addressed. The Sports Bra Challenge is about bringing people together to accept and share their insecurities and overcome their fear of them. The Sports Bra Challenge will be launching in cities nationwide.” [Emphasis mine]

As it was illustrated with this photo from the NYC event, several issues became immediately apparent to me:


1. See the lady in the orange bra, just left of center on the back row? See her butt? THIS is what I’m talking about with the see-through pants! Finally, vindication! So glad I’m not the only who’s had this issue with workout pants and I’m even more glad I didn’t get my tushie snapped by the AP whilst wearing said pants. (But hey, at least she’s got a thong on?) And also, what is up with the lady in the rainbow shorts next to her? She either split her pants or that is some kind of new crack-highlighting design I’m not aware of.

2. What are all those little kids doing up front? That is a lot of cleavage to be staring down some poor 4th graders!

3. If you’re going to go topless, crouched over a bike is basically the least flattering position you can assume.

4. All those women showing their “body confidence” are skinny white women (and one dude!) who already look pretty smokin’. Now, I totally get that you can have a poor body image even if you look like a supermodel and I’m not trying to say what the state of their mental health is but I always get a little tetchy when someone who is so obviously conventionally beautiful tells me that I just need to have more self-esteem. I’m just saying that standing next to any of these girls would probably not make me feel more confident in my body. And really, I’m not sure it takes a lot of “confidence” to show your skin when it’s the type of skin most idolized by our society. In fact, sometimes I think it takes more confidence not to show a lot of skin. Seriously, check out these classic super-heroines reimagined with full coverage costumes and tell me they don’t still look like they could totally kick your butt!

I may be just showcasing my own mental issues here (don’t I always?) but the more I read through their site, the more this “challenge” rubbed me the wrong way. The mission of the SEAK foundation is to donate fitness equipment to schools and to fund a “a week-long health and wellness program for young women between the ages 16-22 who have dealt with, or are currently dealing with, body image issues, eating disorders, insecurities, and lack of self-worth.” These are awesome goals but doesn’t telling these kids that undressing is empowering for women run a little counter to their mission?

But SEAK isn’t the only entity that pulls this stunt. Think of every lingerie and swimsuit commercial equating their product with power. Think of the commercials for razors, lotion and even yogurt and breakfast cereal encouraging us to bare our “bikini bodies.” How is baring your skin in public empowering to women? Isn’t that kind of what society wants us to do all the time anyhow? And aren’t there already plenty of opportunities for women to take off their clothes in a public setting if they want to? I think the point is for women to embrace their flaws – like my stretch marks, perhaps? – and stop hating their bodies but I’m not sure that taking off my shirt and standing next to a woman with perfect abs would do that for me. In fact, the things in the past that have helped me the most in this aspect are things that have surprisingly little to do with my body at all: helping someone out, talking to a good friend, making my husband laugh – these are things that make me feel confident and beautiful.

The public nature of the event also bothers me. The point of doing this in public is so that people will look at you, right? So you can… prove that you don’t care what the colloquial “they” think of you? Get compliments on your fine physique? Fat-shame yourself? Compare yourself to other women? I’m not sure what the whole point is – just to say you did it?

Plus, for me, wearing a full-coverage top really doesn’t have a ton to do with how empowered or comfortable I am in my own skin. While I will admit to preferring to keeping my stretch marks covered, for me it’s more about staying true to my personal beliefs and what is most comfortable for me to workout in. At the very least the shirt fabric protects me from germs and keeps my back sweat (mostly) off the weight benches.

I can understand if a lady tells me that she jogs in just a sports bra because that is the most comfortable option for her and offers the most functional range of motion for the movement she is doing. Or if she tells me she is wearing just a bra top because it’s super cute and she loves it. Or if she tells me that she gets overheated easily in the aerobics studio and a bra keeps her comfy and cool. (I’m also fine with it when a man tells me he wears a sports bra to prevent nipple chafing on his long runs!) But telling me she’s doing it to prove she’s “empowered”? REALLY? Let the record show: I’m not telling anyone they can’t wear a bra top if they want to. I’m just saying I don’t do it and I don’t like it when other people tell me I need to do it as some sort of cultural right of passage.

The female body is beautiful. All of them – in all shapes, sizes, ages, state of gestating, stage of life – I think there is something artful and worthy of love and admiration about every woman’s body. But is the best way to demonstrate that to tell us all to take off our shirts and “prove” it? I mean, it kind of feels like a fraternity prank. But hey maybe I’m a prude. Standards of modesty are quite variable between cultures, situations and even groups. Just because wearing a sports bra as a top doesn’t do it for me doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help other women? Maybe? I don’t know. And hey, if this is just a media stunt to get attention to their foundation well then success all around!

What do you think? Am I missing something important? Would you participate in a “sports bra challenge”? What is your workout top philosophy? Anyone have any gym bra horror stories to share?

Edited to add: Gym Buddy Krista made a good point when she added, “I’ll believe it when men are “empowered” into their jock straps!”

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