Does the Fitness Industry Have a “Sexy-Shaming” Problem?

Photo: Stocksy/Lumina
It was mid-August and Christina Canterino was getting her daily sweat on. After a 60-pound weight loss, the 29-year-old financier and personal trainer-in-training was at her local UFC gym in Charlotte, NC—where she had just been hired as a group fitness instructor—doing a solo Tabata routine. When her tank top became drenched, she did what plenty of women would do: she peeled it off.

A few days later, one of the female owners of the gym pulled Canterino aside to tell her she wasn't allowed to work out in a sports bra; her midriff had to be covered at all times.

"I was taken aback," Canterino recalls. "I knew it wasn't a legal issue or else there would be signs everywhere. It wasn't a sanitary problem because people were often barefoot. I mean, it was a UFC gym and Ronda Rousey was plastered all over the walls in just a sports bra. It just felt like a really weird, personal problem—they didn't want me to be me."

Could it be that some women opt out of showing skin not because of their own values, but because of what other people might think—or even say?

Seems crazy, right? After all, if you flip through any fitness magazine or scroll through any activewear brand's Instagram, you're bound to find dozens of sports bra-clad women looking strong and powerful while they work out. And at gyms and studios, you'll likely see more than a few sweaty, bare-chested men milling around.

Of course everyone's got a different comfort level, and some parts of the world are more conservative than others. But could it be that some women opt out of showing skin not because of their own values, but because of what other people might think—or even say?

Here's what you need to know about sexy-shaming, where women feel unfairly judged for their workout wardrobes—plus how to deal if it happens to you.

Photo: SukiShufu

Fitness fashion: Too hot for the studio?

Even some women who remain fully clothed during their workouts are facing some backlash about their wardrobe choices—especially now that designers are adding a fashion-influenced edge to activewear.

Brittany* is a London-based Bikram Yoga instructor who was just finishing up a class when her studio's owner asked to discuss her outfit. She was wearing a long tank top and a pair of SukiShufu's gloss "leather" leggings, which feature a strip of faux leather along the back waistband.

"They are sexy-shaming their instructors."

"My boss basically told me they look like they belong in a burlesque environment and she didn't want students getting the wrong impression from their teachers," Brittany explains. "I was shocked—you couldn't see the leather unless my tank shifted during a pose. And also, so what?"

When she heard about this incident, SukiShufu founder Caroline White was surprised, too. "Customers tell me they feel like superheroes when they wear the leggings because they're a little more glam than your everyday tights," says White. "I'm guessing that the owner thought the look was too sexy for the studio, but why should that be an issue? They are sexy-shaming their instructors."

*Name has been changed

Photo: Pexels/Scott Webb

The right to bare abs

For many women, showing some leg or a bit of midriff is simply a matter of staying comfortable and streamlined during a 100ºF yoga class or while trying to tap it back during spin.

But for others, showing off one's body is a natural extension of feeling strong, and organizations are springing up to support the fact that society doesn't always make it easy for women to revel in their own skin. For instance, Dare to Bare is a nationwide movement devoted to inspiring ladies to shed their tanks at workouts, promoting self-confidence and empowerment among all ages and sizes; in Los Angeles, Free the Nipple Yoga encourages women to practice totally topless as a means of de-sexualizing breasts.

Whether you've just accomplished a major weight transformation, are learning to love your body, or are simply looking to avoid washing an extra piece of clothing come laundry day, the decision to sweat in whatever you want—within reason—should be a personal one.

"Some people may think: 'What’s the big deal? You can’t work out without your abs showing?' But I see a much larger social issue here," explains Canterino. "Being told to cover up is not empowering, especially in a place you go to chisel your body."

"Some people may think: 'What’s the big deal? You can’t work out without your abs showing?' But I see a much larger social issue here."

When Canterino made her case to the UFC gym, they didn't apologize. They just reminded her that those were the rules and to stick to them. She now works out at a YMCA—which, she points out, is known for its family-friendly vibes—and they have no problem with her activewear choices.

Unless the rules are clearly stated and transcend gender boundaries—SoulCycle, for example, has a "no nipple" rule, meaning going completely bare up top is not allowed regardless of sex—no women deserves to be shamed for what she's wearing. So go on, rock your crop top and shredded leggings with pride. Maybe if enough of us do, it'll become the new normal.

This isn't the first time women have faced adversity in the name of fitness—here's why running solo as a woman is way different than it is for a man. And find out why more gyms and studios aren't embracing body positivity the way the media has.

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