Going shirtless in the face of gym gaze


"Heroes" by Alesso is thumping in my SoulCycle class and I'm dreading what I'm about to do. I whip off my tank top, tuck it into my bike's water-bottle holder, and look around to see who else is with me in shirtless solidarity. All I've got is one woman who has delicately tucked the back of her shirt under her sports bra. "Oh God, I'm that girl," I say to myself. I'm wearing a "sexy" Lululemon bra with eight latticelike straps, like one of those lightly muscled athleisure showoffs.

I've been seeing flashy sports bras on my Instagram feed and in e-commerce emails in recent months. Many resemble a hybrid of a bikini and a harness, applying design details from high fashion onto a bra meant for getting soaked in sweat. They are brightly colored bait for "gym gaze," the subtle sizing-up of the people working out around you.

To the dismay of those who prefer unremarkable workout clothes, the sexy-sports-bra concept did not die on the vine following disappointing sales reported by Victoria's Secret last year. Not only is the retailer still churning out its Victoria's Secret Sport line, other fitness brands have entered the fray, offering styles with cutouts, mesh insets, straps galore, and removable cups to avoid nipple show-through as well as create a pleasing shape, whether the bra is worn under a shirt or as a shirt.

It would be easy to think that the trend of the showy sports bra is just for models, or women who look like them. My first instinct was to throw shade: I thought anyone who wore one did so as a power play, using swathes of nylon and spandex to say "I'm hotter than you" to other women, or attract attention from men. To see what was behind the attention-seeking, I decided to try it myself. But not without apprehension: The last time I'd ever worked out sans shirt was a humid run with a good friend; I was wearing a plain black sports bra, and there was no one else around for miles.

But there are good reasons to consider the sexy sports bra. Anyone who's ever taken a studio class jammed with 30+ people knows how swampy these rooms can get, especially if it's a high-intensity workout. That's part of the reason why Ashley, 29, removes her shirt as soon as the lights go off in Flywheel cycling classes in Manhattan. "Honestly, I just get really hot," she said. "I'm competitive, so I don't want anything to slow me down — there's nothing worse than a soggy tank clinging to you when you're trying to push yourself over another hill." The fact that the room is dark is a plus, because she's less concerned about other women questioning her motives: "It doesn't feel like I'm being overly showy."

Then, there are women who wear double-take bras because they're proud of their fitness progress. Tara, 38, said she didn't wear just a bra (or even shorts) at her Jacksonville, Florida, CrossFit gym until she got in better shape and felt more comfortable with her body. Even before she lost the pounds she wanted to shed, she was still proud of her small waist, so "the appeal for me was to show off something I felt was in shape," she said. "It started with pulling the bottom of my shirt up over my chest and exposing my stomach. Then, once I felt like that was okay, I started stripping the shirt completely." And with that came deliberation about style. "I definitely care what [the bra] looks like and how my chest looks in it. I want it to match [my shorts], and have cool straps or something fun about it."

Ditching the shirt (and displaying the bra) can also be a powerful self-motivator, Tara said. "Some days I'm sweating before the workout even starts, so the shirt doesn't even stand a chance. Other times I rip it off during, like beast mode!" (It brings to mind the widely shared Instagram photo quote, which claims that a girl tightening her ponytail mid-workout means shit's about to go down.)

Not only can going shirtless empower you to push to another level, it can also remind you of important basics like posture. Carly, a 30-year-old manager of Cyc Fitness in Manhattan, recently experienced this awareness when an instructor invited her to take a class and she didn't have an extra shirt. She opted to ride in her hot-pink sports bra. "I did wait until the lights went down, but I was surprisingly comfortable once I got going. It made me engage my core more and work harder since I didn't want any part of my stomach hanging over my pants," she said. "I got a much better workout! I would probably do it again."

When the lights came on at the end of my 45-minute SoulCycle class, Major Lazer's "Lean On" oozed through the speakers as I unclipped from the pedals and wrestled my tank back on over my clammy torso. I hoped it would be a little less awkward the next day, when I would strip downat my regular vinyasa yoga class at Crunch, and the day after that as a mostly anonymous rider at Cyc. But pulling off my shirt was surprisingly hard each time — not only was I dreading personally scrutinizing my stomach as I twisted and pedaled, but I thought of my initial bias and worried what others might think of me.

Many of us participate in gym gaze, sometimes without noticing. We glance at the treadmill display of the person next to us, evaluate the size of the dumbbells someone is using, or observe (and judge) the bodies nearby. Practicing yoga in particular has helped me rein in this bad habit. When the instructor asks students to raise their hand if they're new or they don't want adjustments, I close my eyes, trying not to form opinions about someone I don't know. When I wore a decidedly sexy Michi bra with front and back cutouts and mesh straps to yoga, I tried to focus on my breathing, which, incidentally, is the point of the practice. I reminded myself to be confident and deliberate, and that none of us were really there to look at each other, even though that's what working out in a group setting feels like sometimes.

While I admit that it may still be hard for me not to side-eye sports bras that seem designed for maximum cleavage, now what I also see is that the sexy sports bra is worth considering — or at least not deriding.

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