Taking care of yourself starts with taking pride in your body.
Next week in New York’s Union Square Park, a mass of women will take on a fitness challenge that many would pass up. It’s not the high-intensity that scares people away, or the complicated moves, or intimidating instructors. It’s the wardrobe. To participate in the annual Sports Bra Challenge, sponsored by the SEAK Foundation, you have to wear a sports bra and only a sports bra. No t-shirts allowed.
The annual and increasingly popular event is based on the idea that feeling comfortable in our bodies, and all of the ways they behave, is the beginning of taking pride in our bodies, and taking pride in our bodies is how we ultimately treat ourselves well. Too many people, women especially, get caught up in how they look while they exercise. Instead of focusing on feeling strong and getting stronger, women worry about the jiggle in their upper arms, the pooching belly, the muffin top edging over lycra pants. They worry about their hair, or their makeup, or that other people will think they are too out of shape to exercise.
There are plenty of reasons not to go to the gym. I went yesterday. I’m behind on Mad Men already. I need to call my mom. I’m too tired. I’m too busy. I’m too sore. I’m too out of shape. Wait, what now? Hold up…too out of shape, for exercise? This perception, that you’re too fat, too easily winded, too inflexible, too anything to exercise has got to stop. Exercise is for everyone, in some shape or form, and when we let these insecurities prevent us from spending some quality time with the barre, mat, elliptical, trail, bike, weights, or pool, we’re the only ones who suffer.
It happens about once a month. Scrambling into yoga class two minutes before the door closes, pulling pants and bobby pins from my bag, reaching, searching, digging and then…Crap. I forgot a yoga top. Again. Instead of a stretchy tank, I accidentally grabbed a sports bra. I’m stuck with two choices, buy a top to cover (literally) my forgetfulness, or stick with the sports bra. You might think it’s an easy decision and the $28 would safely stay sequestered in my wallet, but there’s one little problem with the sports bra solution. Without a top smoothing out all my junk, every twist will create stomach rolls, every forward fold will spill belly over thighs, every tadasana will expose pooch. You might point out that this would happen anyway—your body is your body no matter what covers it—and you’d be right. The difference is, with a top, I don’t have to see it.
The intersection of exercise and body image can be a tough spot fraught with judgments and self-doubt. Just ask any of the celebrities who’ve been criticized for walking from the gym to the car with a ponytail and no makeup, or who’ve been the subject of cruel attacks on thigh-size while sporting yoga pants on their way to work out. This idea, that exercise is only for those who are already fit, is deeply damaging, but it’s hard to shake. I do yoga every week, and I do sometimes feel like an outsider when many of the other yogis could fit their whole torsos into one leg of my pants. I’m not the only thick girl in class, but whether it’s Lululemon advertising or just the preponderance of size-2s in the locker room, it can be an intimidating circle to enter, especially at the beginning.
The thing is, we can’t let this intimidation stop our march toward strength and wellness. Being thin might be the exclusive province of thin people, but being fit is not. Being strong is not. Being healthy is not. Exercise and all the good vibes and endorphins that come with it are available to everyone in some variation.
A Dove Real Beauty study found that over 1 in 4 American women avoid exercise and physical activities because they feel bad about they way they look. Sometimes the concern is more tangible; just ask Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who realized women (especially black women) weren’t exercising because they were concerned about their hair. She launched a whole campaign to help women find exercise-friendly hairstyles so they could focus on fitness instead of worrying about their appearance. When we stop ourselves from participating out of shame or embarrassment, literally the only person we harm is ourselves.
I don’t live in New York, or I would be at the Sports Bra Challenge next week. I find the whole idea in equal parts scary and thrilling. Part of me would love to feel the sweat on my stomach, the sensory manifestation of how hard I’m working, and part of me is appalled at the thought of how far my belly might sag while leaning over a stationary bike. But wrestling with that tension is worth a lot, because it forces me to put my money where my mouth is. I tell myself that I exercise because it feels good, and because it’s good for me. If that were truly my motivation, then why would I let a little pooch stop me from getting my workout on? The answer is I wouldn’t.
There is no right way for someone to make you feel bad about your body, but there is especially no right way to feel about your body when you’re treating it well. So my belly isn’t flat when I do sit-ups. Who cares, I’m doing sit-ups! So my arms jiggle when I do jumping jacks. Go ahead and look, because I’m doing jumping jacks! So my thighs touch when I slowly jog down the lakeshore path. Judge away, because I’m jogging! So my stomach rolls when I’m in eagle pose, garudasana, big deal, I’m in eagle pose! Who needs a $28 top when I’ve got a perfectly good sports bra?
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.