The Sports Bra Challenge

April 9, 2013

Have you heard about the “Sports Bra Challenge”?

According to the SEAK Foundation:

“The Sports Bra Challenge movement is celebrated annually every spring in Union Square Park, the heart of New York City. The Sports Bra Challenge is a day for all women to participate in a series of group fitness classes in their sports bras as a way of supporting and empowering one another to feel comfortable in our bodies. Body image issues, lack of confidence and feelings of self-hate are all topics that most people encounter but are never addressed. The Sports Bra Challenge is about bringing people together to accept and share their insecurities and overcome their fear of them. The Sports Bra Challenge will be launching in cities nationwide.”

In the past few days, I’ve read several negative reactions to the challenge. Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment summed up a lot of the common criticism in her post, writing:

“I may be just showcasing my own mental issues here (don’t I always?) but the more I read through their site, the more this ‘challenge’ rubbed me the wrong way. The mission of the SEAK foundation is to donate fitness equipment to schools and to fund a ‘a week-long health and wellness program for young women between the ages 16-22 who have dealt with, or are currently dealing with, body image issues, eating disorders, insecurities, and lack of self-worth.’ These are awesome goals but doesn’t telling these kids that undressing is empowering for women run a little counter to their mission? How is baring your skin in public empowering to women? Isn’t that kind of what society wants us to do all the time anyhow? And aren’t there already plenty of opportunities for women to take off their clothes in a public setting if they want to? I think the point is for women to embrace their flaws – like my stretch marks, perhaps? — and stop hating their bodies but I’m not sure that taking off my shirt and standing next to a woman with perfect abs would do that for me.”

While I get where she (and other critics) are coming from, I actually really get why this challenge could help some women change the way they view their bodies. Because the first time I took my shirt off for a workout (three years and several pounds ago), it was actually really empowering for me.

For a long time, I assumed that women worked out in just a sports bra to show off a body they’d worked hard to tone. I figured it was about being proud of your body. And since I didn’t have a body that one “should” be proud of (by society’s standards anyway), I didn’t think I was “allowed” to go shirtless for a workout. After all, no one would want to see that. But one day in the summer of 2010, I wanted to go for a run outside and it was hot. Like, really hot. Too hot to wear clothes hot. The thought of wearing an extra layer for my run was disgusting, so I decided to strip down to just my sports bra because it would be infinitely more comfortable…even if the thought of doing it made me uncomfortable.

During that run, I realized…sometimes a body is just a body, existing in space, doing its thing. It’s not there for others to look at. It wasn’t even there for me to feel good or bad about. It was just…a body. Up until that point, thoughts of my body were always so fraught. But during that run, I realized that my body didn’t have to be controversial, and I realized that other people probably saw it as just a body, like I typically saw theirs. And I realized that sometimes, a body gets hot and wants to be wearing less clothes. Even when it’s not “hot” by Victoria’s Secret’s standards (but sometimes when it is, which is OK too).

And sure, society may be telling us to take our clothes off all the time (sort of…until we get slut-shamed), but that day, I taking my clothes off (ish) on my terms, for my own health (because I may have skipped exercising otherwise), and for no one’s gaze, not, even my own. Did someone else benefit from it? I have no fucking idea because it’s not my concern. Someone else might feel like he or she benefits from how I look with a particular workout top on over the sports bra too, but I’m not going to just not wear that shirt. (Because then…what about my pants?! Are those OK??) When every outfit a woman puts on becomes a statement — of modesty or sexuality or pride or shame or rebellion — and therefore an invitation for attention (good or bad), getting dressed becomes exhausting. Lately, I’m just so over dressing around others’ (male or female) potential reactions (positive or negative) to my body. Most days, I just want to wear what I’m in the mood to wear and I really don’t care about who will or will not get a boner because frankly, their boners (or lack thereof), feelings, and/or assumptions about me are really not my problem. If others choose to make my body controversial, that’s on them; meanwhile, I’ll be over here, you know…doing shit.

I don’t work out in just a sports bra very often, but I do it from time to time, mainly when it’s hot and I want to feel light and cool. Whenever I do it, it’s a good reminder that my body is just a body. Sometimes it’s sexual, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s not “good” or “bad”…it just wants to downward dog or go all out on a spin bike and not feel held back by an extra layer of fabric. And maybe if more people saw more women (and their different, diverse, and “flawed” bodies) doing that, we’d all feel more comfortable with women’s bodies, including our own. So while I don’t think the Sports Bra Challenge is going to change the world, I’m all for an event that may help women realize that showing your stomach in public is both an act of bravery and totally not a big deal at all.

Do you ever work out in just a sports bra? What are your thoughts on the Sports Bra Challenge?

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