I don’t look pretty while working out, and that’s okay

meI’m nearing the end of my third set of overhead presses. My arms shake from the effort of lifting the dumbbells above my head. I create a powerful ball of energy deep in my core, and as I push it up my body, through my chest, back, shoulders, and arms, I scrunch up my face and let out a roar as I launch both weights toward the ceiling and power through the representative. My coach laughs appreciatively at Zoom and says, “That’s why I love working with you, Rachel. You always give it your all.”

“Yeah, and I look and sound so hot when I do it,” I reply jokingly.

But I get caught up in the moment. Why am I thinking about how attractive I look when I’ve just overcome a difficult and ultimately empowering challenge? Even the description I use when I reflect, “beaten up,” has a negative connotation when it comes to my appearance.

I’ve noticed how “pretty” I look, compared to how powerful and beastly I feel, when I work out has been on my mind lately.

I think part of it has to do with the fact that I recently returned to in-person fitness classes, attending some of my first group workouts since before the pandemic. And in those classes I couldn’t help but notice how pretty and well-groomed my classmates looked. From matching athletic outfits to perfect ponytails, makeup, and lash extensions, these girls could just as easily go to brunch as they could to boot camp. Is it just me, or has looking cute to work out become an even bigger norm than when I went to the gym regularly, before the pandemic? But not only in real life am I noticing this trend.

For me, adding the expectation of looking good to exercise is another barrier to exercise.

I can barely scroll through Instagram or TikTok without seeing a woman completely decked out in sportswear as if she’s on her way to an editorial photo shoot instead of the gym, or being shown an ad for expensive, trendy workout clothes. On TV shows, I’ve noticed that matching outfits replace oversized hoodies and oversized t-shirts when there’s a fitness scene. We could be past the days of Monica forcing Chandler to work out at Friends while wearing gray sweatpants? In a way, it is an example of art imitating life. According to a report in ForbesSportswear purchases grew 84 percent during the first year of the pandemic. So maybe we all have the trendiest workout clothes we’ve been dying to show off for two years.

Or maybe it’s that the dopamine bandage makes some people feel more excited about working out. In a survey of more than 2,000 gym-goers, 69 percent said that having nice workout clothes motivates them to go to the gym. “Dopamine motivates us to seek a reward,” behavioral psychologist Carolyn Mair, PhD, author of The psychology of fashion, he previously told Well+Good. “So, scientifically speaking, dopamine dressing refers to a person’s motivation to dress in a way that results in a positive outcome, such as feeling more confident, competent, or happy.” Or maybe stronger, faster or fitter?

That’s great, and dressing up can certainly be fun. But for me (and the 31 percent of people who don’t get motivation from their gym outfits), adding the expectation of looking good for a workout session is another barrier to working out. Also, I don’t necessarily find trendy clothes like crop tops the most comfortable for working out. I know I don’t like showing off my stomach when I’m working out in public because (as much as I try not to think about it), the way my stomach looks can be on my mind and serve as a distraction.

For some people, perhaps getting dressed for exercise is a necessary part of their warm-up, and that’s totally fine. But for me, it’s a relief to have a moment where it’s okay that my appearance isn’t the most important thing. From Zoom calls to Instagram Stories, the pressure of being presentable to the outside world is a lot more weight to bear than the dumbbells I’m lifting.

I also wonder if this emphasis on our appearance takes away from what we’re really supposed to focus on in the gym or studio: pushing our bodies? It won’t matter how much I wear or if my sports bra matches my bike shorts when I’m doing a set like those overhead presses. I’m going to be grunting, sweating and grimacing like I’m ready to lay siege to an enemy stronghold. It’s not “pretty,” in the sense that it’s not prissy, clean, symmetrical, seemingly effortless, put together, or conventionally “attractive.” But it’s powerful, and it’s me.

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