Guest Post: Breasts at the Gym

stop policing

By Sonya W

Workout wear can reflect your mood, comfort level, and sense of fashion. But what if a woman’s choice is a distraction to other gym-goers? Sensitive male (and female) eyes may be confused and agitated, not knowing where to look. Surely, there must be some limit to how much cleavage a woman should be allowed to flaunt in the weight-room? The obvious answer is yes, of course! The correct answer, though, is no.

I’d like to argue for the premise that a woman can wear what she pleases and that anyone’s offence is not her problem to solve. Telling a woman to cover up lest she upset others—lest she distract the boys!—is tantamount to suggesting that she deserved to be raped if she was dressed like a slut. Nothing a woman wears or doesn’t wear can cause a man to rape her. But there are plenty of men and women (mostly men) who insist on outsourcing male sexual self-control to the female in the low-cut shirt. There are women getting kicked out of Planet Fitness for wearing a crop top or a tank top.  And there are plenty of school dress code controversies about just how much skin girls can reveal, because those tight jeans and bare shoulders are too tempting for the boys.

my body is not your businessLet me explain what all this has to do with cleavage at the gym. Last year, consolidating my enthusiasm for stationary bikes with a zeal for shouting orders at people, I took a weekend course to become a certified spin instructor. As a former teacher, erstwhile performer, and workout devotee, the idea seemed like a no-brainer. Sadly, the workshop facilitator, a peppy young man flown in from Atlanta, was indeed without brain. How else do you explain his “feedback” after my first try at coaxing fellow participants through a warm-up track?

Facilitator: One thing to think about is your choice of wardrobe.

Me: Huh?

Facilitator: Well, you may end up with lots of guys in the front row of your class, if you know what I mean.

Me: Excuse me?

Facilitator: Just remember you’ll be leaning over that bike a lot.

That was actually the only feedback he had. No discussion of my coaching or my vocal tenor. Just, no boobs while biking. Noted.

When I walked into the room full of fellow instructor hopefuls, I saw that we all had something in common: moisture wicking tank tops. But I was also painfully aware that I have something the other women do not: D-cups. It’s genetic.

No matter, of course. Effective spin coaching is a matter of enthusiasm, stamina, and motivation, right? Well, apparently you’re supposed to look a certain way too. And that way does not include any discernable hint of cleavage. That wouldn’t be good for the boys in the room.

There’s nothing new about insisting that scantily-clad women drive men to distraction—or worse. But not since my high-school days have I been so obviously singled out and humiliated for simply having breasts. To be clear, I would need to wear a top going right up my neck to avoid displaying any cleavage at all as I lean over the handrails of a bike. Feeling choked by a sweaty shirt collar has never been my workout wear priority. So I just wear the clothes I’m comfortable exercising in and I try not to obsess about whether or not my boobs touch each other. The American Spin Guru who led the weekend workshop was not generally concerned about the uniform of his new soldiers. He called me out because I happen to have certain girl-body parts that are more visible when I ride a bike. His dress code holds me responsible for having large breasts and for tempting the men to ogle them.

female-dresscodeIn 2014, a Montreal teen was singled out at school because her shorts were too short. In response, she papered the school with signs reading: “Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing shorts. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.” The internet labeled her a brat. “She needs to learn that there is a real world out there,” went the Twitter trolls. “She won’t get an office job dressed like that.” Touché. Though from what I recollect about my grade 12 history class, the guy in the back row who hasn’t showered in six days might also have trouble landing a cushy desk job. And not just because of his zombie apocalypse shirt or his unwashed hair. He also tended to get confused between Bismarck and Bisquick.

Wardrobe rules which punish a 15-year-old by making her wear a shame shirt are less about teaching girls and boys to dress smartly, and more about ensuring that the girls are not distracting to the boys.

Having just hit puberty, teenage girls are getting introduced to body shaming under the guise of “learning to be adults.” Meanwhile, fully adult United States senators are confirming that they haven’t outgrown this bullshit. In January, a Kansas state senator enacted an 11-point code of conduct to prohibit women testifying on bills from wearing low-cut necklines or miniskirts. Asked about the directive, which did not include any restrictions for men, he replied that provocatively dressed women are a distraction. “Be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself,” said Holmes. Apparently, having breasts in Kansas makes you guilty of some sort of biological sabotage.

But I actually think the most salient problem isn’t puritanical senators, school administrators, or even group exercise despots. It’s that otherwise smart, forward-thinking women have bought into this crap. A female manager at the health club indicated I’d need to change outfits when it’s time to teach a class. She stressed that I was doing a good job coaching and instructing, but that I’d need to find a t-shirt or something.

She was not the only one. I described my cleavage shaming to a friend and fellow spin teacher. Her response, though supportive, was less than heartening. Apparently her husband had attended her class and noted a hint of cleavage. He said he found it distracting. Distracting? Was he so aroused as to be unable to finish the class? My friend did agree that the stationary bike buff from Atlanta should not have made a comment about my boobs in front of a room full of people. But she agreed that my d-cups could indeed be upsetting to the men exercising in my vicinity.

To that I say: too bad. My body is not sexually harassing you merely by existing. Your distraction is not my problem to solve. The sooner women internalize this fact, the better we can push back on those imposing arbitrary moral standards on women’s attire, and, in effect, their behaviour. This is basic stuff, even if it seems provocative. Suggesting that some cleavage will negatively affect the men in my spin class is like saying that I better not wear a skirt if I don’t want to be raped. It is to say that having aroused a man’s attention and desire, I am obligated either to mollify his lust, or be liable if he takes advantage. Cover up or put out! I refuse to believe that men are so utterly incapable of self-control.

I’ve made a choice to dress in a way that makes me comfortable during a heavy, sweaty workout. The men (and women) in my class can decide to focus on my girl parts, or to focus on the task at hand. Look down my shirt or look at your RPM. Your choice.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 49-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Breasts at the Gym

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post Sonya. I regularly show cleavage when teaching spin class, mostly because it is next to impossible to avoid, even for someone with relatively small breasts like myself. I have never been disciplined for this flagrant display, however. I wonder why not? Because my cleavage is unimpressive and I am old? I hope that other fitness instructors or gym ladies will respond with their own stories about breast policing.

  2. Though my cleavage has not been regulated, my shoulders have been. About 6 or 7 years ago I was working out at a Planet Fitness in the USA—was it in Lafayette? I was wearing a tank top and was forced to change into a Planet Fitness “complimentary” t-shirt because my arms were at that time visibly muscular. “How are my shoulders and biceps offensive?,” I asked. “Well, they could make less fit people feel uncomfortable,” was the answer. So visibly fit and muscular people are unwelcome at your gym? WTF? The next day, I worked out at the local Y. No problems there and a much nicer atmosphere.

  3. You should be allowed to wear whatever you want while working out. Your comfort is the priority. Society has to change, not you!
    I heart you!! Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Breasts at the Gym — Feminist Figure Girl’s Blog | move the dog fitness

  5. I love this article!! So well argued and articulated that is comes off as obvious. I want to be able to make a case for gender equity: if men didn’t drive such fancy sports cars or have such thick wallets, I wouldn’t be compelled to steal this stuff from them all the time. It’s not my fault if they are flaunting it. And I agree, women buy into women’s body shaming and become some of its worst defenders. Let us wear whatever we want instead of treating the female form like it has some special magical power over men, and the poor men need to be looked after, protected from themselves.

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