Published: 01/16/2022By Connie Phillips
As a person with a female body, I can’t go into yoga class with only a sports bra on without getting judged. “She must be confident in her body to try that look,” their eyes seem to say. But my male bodied friends can walk outside with no shirt on and be considered “normal.” The moment I take off my shirt, it’s seen as an indecent move (not because I’m an overheating human trying to cool down). Yet, short-clad male friends don’t cause a flinch. It doesn’t matter what our body shape is, how fit we are, or how conventionally attractive we appear. I’m still judged while my male friends are not. Why is there a stigma around women’s clothing and modesty in gym culture while men have none?
Early Modesty in the Gym
It began in the infancy of modern gym clothing. Back in the 1930s, Women were thought to be too delicate and advised to do less strenuous workouts. Gym suits were loose fitting two piece sets of puffy knee length bloomers and modest v-neck tops. Many advertisements of the day suggest women work out in their PJs. Another option was their swimsuit. Fashion dictated tank tops and short shorts to be the attractive swimming attire.
The swimsuit was more close fitting and was meant to withstand workouts. The modest one-piece swimsuit of those days resembles modern mini rompers. Men wore similar outfits, styled a bit more like a sailor or Superman.
Up through the 1930s it was illegal to show off any gender’s chest. However men decided to revolt. In the summers of 1934 – 37, men protested against wearing swim tops. The government responded with public arrests (42 people in 1934). Not everyone was happy about this. According to an excerpt from the Associated Press story published June 29, 1936, “‘In this year of campaigns we are having our own drive, and we won’t stop until every hairy chested man covers up on the beach or removes the curls from his chest,’ said Grace Donohue, a spokeswoman for the group who demanded men wear shirts or wax.”
That is until the Mayor of NY converted in 1937 after a vacation in Florida. Which led to a NY judge to overturn the ban on bare chests for men. Afterwards, men wore only shorts.
But just like women’s pockets, Women’s modesty has been regulated since Ancient Rome. Today, the modern movement #FreetheNipple leads to protests to decriminalize women’s nipples. Some states and towns have legalized all nipples. But female nips only show up in private spaces, away from the public eye. Most gyms like Planet Fitness and Soul Cycle dictate that everyone must wear a shirt. Other exercise spaces like hot yoga allow shirtless, but women must wear a bra.
On the flip side, why do we even have a bra for sports?
At the risk of stating the obvious to any person not gifted with itty bitty titties. Our boobs can be a hassle during working out. Heck, going down a flight of stairs can be an adventure. Which was why the sports bra was invented.
In 1977, Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller and Polly Smith invented sports bras, or Jogbra. Mainly for female runners to keep their chests from cartwheeling. These sports superstars would regularly experience chafing, sore boobs, and discomfort. Plus no back support.
A moment of silence for the women who worked out without supported boobs.
Other ladies of note, Renelle Braaten and Cynthia Smith, expanded on the design to include larger chests. Braaten invented the 1992 Enell Bra (Oprah approved) after too much pain from double Ds in high school volleyball and track. Similarly Smith received 3 patents for incorporating Lynx material for more breathability. Countless other women have paved the way for female-bodied people to have chest support while crushing Olympic level sports.
Maybe one day women will be able to enter a gym without a bra and not be judged. Or will we want to continue to have chest support? History, and the boobs, will tell.
Have you ever received judgement based off of your gym attire?
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