Flick open the pages of any women’s magazine, and find me a picture of a woman exercising or wearing active wear. What does she look like?
I’m willing to bet good money that she’s tall, slender and lithe. She’s likely engaging in a cardio activity like running, most likely in a bright pink, trendy looking tank top and compression pants with zip pockets, coloured panels, pattern overlays and mesh cut-outs with a few well-placed beads of sweat on her toned abdominal region, as she breathlessly sips a bottle of water.
No, I’m not a mind reader - and it doesn’t take super powers to notice the lack of representation of the diversity of the female body when it comes to active wear.
And on the off chance that you do manage to find the image of a curvy, voluptuous or plus-sized women exercising, you’ll likely find her wearing plain black stretchy pants, an oversized grey top that hides her shape and some beat up old sneakers.
Wanting to adorn yourself in fitness gear that makes you feel good about your body may seem purely like an exercise in vanity, but the psychological effects are very real. Enclothed cognition (an extension of the "embodied cognition" school of psychology which says our bodies influence our brains as much as our brains influence our bodies) is a theory that suggests that the clothing that a person wears can be the catalyst for performance-improving mental changes. Of course, this isn’t to say that if you’re not wearing your trendiest active wear that you won’t perform as well, but the value of boosting your own motivation by getting yourself in the right headspace to work out can be a huge step forward in preparing your brain to expect exercise to occur. In addition to this, active wear can even serve to make you more aware of your body’s movements, strength and fluidity.
“Form-fitting workout clothes make you feel like your muscles are stronger. If your clothes are comfortable, you’ll have a greater sense of fluency about your movement,” explains Joshua Ian Davis, Ph.D., Director of Research at The NeuroLeadership Institute. “If you’re in clothing you associate with running fast or lifting heavier weights, your brain signals you to embody those qualities, giving you a psychological push to work a little harder.”
Female For Life’s own customer research suggested similar results, with over 50% of women surveyed admitting that they’ve stopped/avoided exercise because their workout wear was too uncomfortable, and an additional 63% noting that they found it difficult to simply find gear that suited their body shape. Over 87% of women surveyed found that wearing flattering and comfortable workout gear made them more motivated to exercise.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with working out in your boyfriend’s old baggy tee shirt and some USD$1.46 leggings - if that floats your boat and you feel good and they get the job done, that’s awesome! You are absolutely, under no circumstances, required to wear trendy or designer active wear in order to work out. Health and fitness are concepts that are accessible to all, regardless of what you adorn your wonderful body with. But for many of us, feeling good about our bodies, our clothing and ourselves while we’re working out takes our motivation to a whole new level - and that’s powerful. Particularly if we’re new to exercise, feeling like we “belong” can be a fantastic motivator.
Many retailers like to fool themselves that there’s just no demand for active wear beyond an AU Size 12 or 14 (or, if they do recognise the demand, many retailers will fabricate claims of difficulty in creating active wear to flatter larger body types as a justification for wanting to ensure that their brand reputation remains closely aligned with an “aspirational” lifestyle).
For brands that claim to promote healthy lifestyles, that doesn’t sound very healthy to me! Here’s the thing - by big brands attempting to covet affordable, on-trend and attractive active wear as the domain of only a certain body type, they’re not actually encouraging more people to engage in healthy lifestyles In fact, they’re actively discouraging them.
When it comes to plus sized women, the notion that they should shroud themselves away in baggy active wear only further reinforces the notion that they should be ashamed of their body; that they will be “allowed” to hold the “attractive fitness woman” status and upgrade to some designer threads once they shrink their body to an “acceptable” standard.
But, here’s what those retail giants aren’t considering:
It’s clear that there needs to be a change in the way that many retailers approach active wear.
An additional barrier to non-straight sized women finding active wear that fits their body is the fashion vs. function argument. For me personally, getting into exercise wasn’t an easy journey and when I finally ventured into the fitness world, I was excited about being able to kit myself out in some active wear that made me feel fit and healthy and motivated me to keep working out. Call me naive, call me optimistic... but I assumed that women of all ages, shapes and sizes would be widely catered for in the world of active wear. Oh, how wrong I was!
As a curvy woman, my body shape is what many would refer to as an “inbetweenie” - that is, my clothing size tends to sit somewhere between straight sizes and plus sizes, depending on the store that I’m in. This meant that in my search for active wear that ticked the 3 major boxes (cute, affordable, fits well), my curves sized me out of a lot of major active wear retailers that I could actually afford. I can only imagine how much more disheartening it would be as a plus size woman to search for garments that make you feel like a mega-babe while you work on your health, only to be told that “your size is not catered for.” This meant that for a long while, my workout gear was old stretchy black leggings and oversized t-shirts. They were cheap. They fit my body. I was able to Zumba and weight lift and Pilates in them… but they sure made me feel awful about myself. The garment completely hid my shape, and made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be in the fitness world. I felt like the more fashionable women at the gym were silently judging me. The cheap fabrics starting pulling at the seams and developing holes within the first session of squats. And as much as I longed for pants that didn’t show my underwear and tops that actually pulled the sweat away from my body, rather than leaving me feeling like a drenched swamp monster, it seemed entirely unreasonable to go out and spent USD$182.50+ at the only retailers that seemed to acknowledge that active women are not a “one size fits all” group.
So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered Female For Life! I will admit, I was sceptical about the quality of the garments. Sure, they were attractive and well priced, but I’d been burned so many times before and I’d been left more than a little jaded by some of my previous experiences with active wear.
I cautiously pulled the clothing on and was amazed by how well they fit. They hugged my body and proudly showed my curves, yet I didn’t feel like I was in some sort of bodycon fashion show that would prevent me from moving!
I did the lunge test, squatted around the house, waved my arms above my head frantically and twirled around - no holes, no seams pulling and no fabric riding up. They passed the initial test. After a quick butt check in the mirror to make sure the pants weren’t see-through (years of cheap workout pants have taught me to always double check the transparency before hitting the gym), I set out to put them through their paces.
When it comes to getting (and staying) active, ultimately the choice lies with you to find your own motivation, find the exercises that make you feel wonderful and learn to set your own pace. But, if we can all find garments that help us feel positive and confident while we do so, the process is infinitely easier.
Healthy looks good (and different!) on everyone, and we all deserve to be our healthiest selves.