Why Dressing Sloppily at the Gym Helps My Self-Esteem

It recently occurred to me that my gym clothing preferences have crossed into interesting territory. I was standing in front of the wall-to-wall mirror at the studio where I frequently work out, ready to commence my morning class. I was wearing a favorite baggy white T-shirt, nearly translucent from years of use, baby-blanket-soft as a result.

Following along with the instructor, I raised my set of hand weights over my head for a tricep curl, and that’s when I noticed it: a sizable hole in one of the T-shirt’s armpit seams, just big enough to highlight my underarm’s sensuous five o’clock shadow.

I looked to my left where a woman was tricep-curling in a teal Lululemon crop top and matching spandex leggings. I looked to my right where another woman was transitioning to a shoulder press, rippling the breathable panels of her high-performance Nike racerback tank. I looked back to the front where my bedraggled reflection was flanked by an entire room of sleek, minimalist iterations of perfectly-coordinated athleisure.

I suppose this is the part where I must confess: I really, really, really hate wearing “chic” workout clothes. In fact, I would rather not exercise at all than face the prospect of a sweat-wicking spandex waistband that slurps up my abdomen like a strawberry milkshake, but because exercise I must (according to experts of the physiological variety), I have consequently eschewed that prospect altogether.

Instead of form-fitting crop tops, sculpted spandex and sexy sports bras, I opt for oversized cotton t-shirts and leggings, mesh gym shorts and bralettes from the Gap I still have from eighth grade. If I had to describe how I look in these getups, I would probably say “middle school P.E. dropout” or “Barbra Streisand at a yoga retreat.”

I haven’t always dressed this way at the gym. I used to drink the textured compression Kool-Aid with vigor, but whenever I did, I felt constricted — physically, yes, but even more so mentally. I was conscious of my body in a way that became burdensome, as if the clothes were containing me instead of simply covering me. I noticed every fold of skin, every wobbly spot that refused to cooperate, all the innocuous evidence of a human in motion rendered suddenly intolerable. This mental barrage turned up the volume on a voice I’ve been reluctant conversation partners with for years — a voice that tells me to exercise not because it’s good for my health, or because it makes me feel alive and strong, but because I need to look a certain way.

To tune out the voice, I had to take off the clothes.

I gradually replaced them with looser, softer things that gave my body permission to move freely, to expand and contract and stretch and take up space. The extra room extended to my mind as well — room to enjoy the experience of being active without unwelcome thoughts competing for attention. Those thoughts aren’t gone entirely, but they are noticeably quieter.

I’ll willingly admit I look like a slob at the gym. I wouldn’t blame you if you saw me there and thought to yourself: She should really throw out that t-shirt with the ripped armpit. I agree! I probably should, but it’s so, so, so comfy. In more ways than one.

The irony is not lost on me that, before heading into the office, I change into a pink corduroy suit or a silk midi dress with red boots — outfits that loudly emphasize my interest in fashion. In fact, I used to feel sheepish about that contrast, like I was betraying my sense of personal style by foregoing it so thoroughly at the gym. But what I’ve come to realize is that, although my workout attire isn’t aesthetically “stunning” (to put it kindly), it still serves the same purpose as my everyday clothing: it allows me to be and feel like the best version of myself.

And that’s why I’m keeping the T-shirt.

Photo via Harling Ross; Collage by Edith Young. 

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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