Body Image at the Gym

A few months ago, Elissa posted about body image and gym mentality. She had read that many women avoid engaging in physical activities or sports due to self-consciousness or negative body image, and described her own feelings of apprehension and worry while running on a gym treadmill. She said:

Negative body image can have a huge impact on exercise. We all know how important it is to be active – the merits of physical activity include strengthened muscles, stronger bones, decreased stress and better sleep. But it’s no surprise that so many women feel uneasy in an environment where bodies are seemingly on display. Whether the discomfort comes from working out in front of men, the fear that they’re being compared to other women, or the disdain to be seen perspiring and red-faced, it’s there, and interferes in efforts to get healthy and stay active.

And as I read through her post, I was amazed to find that I am almost entirely immune to this particular strain of anxiety and self-consciousness myself. Everything Elissa was saying made sense to me – that gyms can feel like meat-markets, that comparisons arise naturally, that strenuous exercise makes most of us look less than lovely – but I’ve never let any of it stop me from hitting the gym. Four times a week, an hour and a half at a stretch, all year long. Here’s why:

Exercise makes me feel like a badass: Yes, I know that 20 whole minutes on the stairmaster doesn’t exactly qualify me for Hell’s Angel membership. But the types of exercise I do at my gym – hard cardio, planking for 3+ minutes, free-weights – focus me on feeling strong and tough. And I love feeling that way.

I have gym garb that makes me feel good: Even when I wore loose, formless gym clothes that made me feel kinda sloppy, I gave relatively little thought to how much scrutiny I drew from other gym-goers. But after years of tinkering, I’ve finally landed on a combination of items that makes me feel confident, cute, and LIKE MYSELF. I went from baggy pants and baggy tees to fitted tech tops and pants to my current formula: A graphic tee showing something I dig, tech capris, and a skort. I am the only person at my gym wearing a skort, and I couldn’t care less. I’m covered where I want to be covered, comfortable, and able to move. As is the case when I dress for any activity or occasion, I feel more grounded when I wear something that feels good and looks good.

I’m a gym loner: I have to imagine that any group class would be harder on me than my typical loner-gal routine. An hour spent gazing in the mirror at my body doing stuff right next to dozens of other bodies doing stuff would likely make me feel odd and awkward. But since I stretch with Husband Mike and do the rest by myself, I’m pretty focused on myself. Or whatever episode of This American Life I’m listening to …

I brainstorm while I work out: I definitely look at and think about bodies while I’m at the gym, and some of it is meandering, sexual, or comparative. But since I write this little body image blog called Already Pretty – maybe you’ve heard of it? – most of my body-related thinking yields idea seeds that sprout into post topics. Some of my best thinking happens at the gym. Much of what I’m doing is pretty mindless and repetitive anyway, so I use that time to brainstorm.

I focus on me: Maybe all of the previous points have made this abundantly clear, but I suppose it’s the heart of the matter for me. I don’t go to the gym to meet people or show off or see how I compare. I don’t exercise to get thin or look more like a model. Exercise helps me feel energetic, alive, engaged, relaxed, GOOD about my body. I go to the gym for my own health, and the other people there are a lot like scenery to me. I focus on what I’m doing, how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, and the rest pretty much falls away. Someone told me once that the great thing about bowling is that you can play to beat your own best score and completely ignore everyone else’s. I try to transplant that mentality to gym workouts, and keep my mind on the task at hand instead of worrying who is watching my butt jiggle, laughing at my bicep curl form, or thanking their lucky stars that their hips aren’t as wide as mine. I’m sure those things are happening. But I can’t stop them from happening, and they don’t change my purpose for being at the gym in the first place. So, miraculously, I can let them fall away.

This is not to say that I don’t have crappy days, or that I don’t struggle with the enormous, warped, floor-length mirrors that encircle my gym. This is not to say that I love the gym, look forward to it, have gobs of fun there. And this is most DEFINITELY not to say that I’m some sort of superior gym-going being or that anyone plagued by exercise-related self-consciousness should just buck up. This is just to say that I feel pretty lucky that my own gym-going mentality is relatively self-contained, and my body image worries don’t tend to flare up while I work out. Maybe some of my techniques – if you can even call them that – would benefit those of you who struggle.

Image via fitnesswithweights.

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  • Anat

    Well, I wrote about this yesterday…. 🙂
    I love dressing up for the gym, much as I love dressing up for work – It makes me feel great about myself.
    I mostly do class exercise, and I enjoy seeing myself in the mirror, working out in cool, funky gymwear.

  • How timely – I’m just starting my free week at the YMCA today after work! I’m often very uncomfortable at the gym, but used to be a member of the campus rec center. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons (classes being scheduled to be convenient for students not staff, a half hour bus ride away), but being under 30 and older than the majority of other gym goers weirdly got to me. Also, a lot of the student athletes were at the facility getting in their daily workouts. Trying to get in shape surrounded by almost exclusively very fit young(er) people? Not so comfy.

    When I toured the Y, the first thing that struck me was the diversity of fitness and age in the people working out. I feel like I’ll be able to fit in better there… or at least not stick out as much!

  • I take Zumba classes and belly dance classes, and those are big groups of women who probably could body-judge each other…but they don’t. The Zumba company whose classes I go to has the motto “as long as you’re moving, you’re doing it right”, everyone is friendly, and there doesn’t seem to be any of that undercurrent of competition that you get at gyms, especially university gyms where it really kind of is a meat market. There are lots of activities you can do that are tuned to non-judgy people of every age. My secret is/was to find them.

  • Liz

    I have purchased, and allowed to lapse, numerous gym memberships. But I run, and I do it for the same reasons you work out: it makes me feel strong and powerful. I only run outdoors, and I never listen to music while I run, so my mind wanders and all the mental cobwebs clear away.

    Before I had kids, I used to judge other runners–“she’s pretty slow,” “he needs to lay off the beer.” But I had to carry an extra 20 pounds on those first runs after having my daughter 9 years ago–every hill was like Mt. Everest, and I felt grateful just to be out and moving. I have never judged another runner–or any other mover and shaker–since. I love seeing people out walking, running, cycling–I feel very connected to all of them.

  • I’m with you–I never worry about how I look at the gym or how people are ‘judging’ me as I know I am trying my hardest and that I’m there to get sweaty and gross not to win beauty awards. I wear raggedy gym shorts and random t-shirts. I for one always admire ladies who may be a bit out of shape working as hard as they can–I don’t focus on their rolls or legs–just on how insanely awesome it is that they are doing something that is challenging and good for them.

  • I have felt watched…for the odd reason that I “look” fit but was (on rest now post-surgery) often fighting for every step. i felt like people thought i was wimpy for going slow OR just decided it was all easy for me. BUT, as another blogger recently pointed out, a lot of this is OUR OWN BIAS that we assign to others, not actually theirs. I notice newbies, but ONLY with positive cheer-ya-on thoughts.

  • JI

    I work out alot, and swim every day. Nothing stops me from my workout, and I don’t care what others are doing at my healthclub, I am focused and there for a purpose. I might not feel this way if my club was in a large city and everyone looked like a model…wait, yes I would.

  • anne

    Well , i bought a skipping rope and a bike, so I don’t have to run on a treadmill among navel baring bleached blond bunnies. I feel pretty good about myself but at some gyms there are girls that go there every day. I know I’m kinda slobby, but still. But I try to be better!

  • I’m immune from this sort of thing as I don’t go to a gym – I prefer to work out in the privacy of my own. Much simpler, cheaper, and I don’t have to pack up and go anywhere. But my question is – how the heck do you schedule so many long workouts in your week? I know you get up super early – are you going to the gym before work? Or do you go after work and eat dinner really late? I’m just very curious how you fit this into your seemingly very busy lifestyle!

  • Yes! I’m all about doing things that make my body feel good. I also consider the gym “me-time,” and I’m totally in love with listing to This American Life while I’m there!

  • I used to feel a lot of body-related anxiety, and as a result only passed through the doors of a gym for the first time 5 years ago. And I got in shape first. Not on purpose – I didn’t set out to get fit THEN start going to the gym, but it wasn’t until I started running regularly that I realized that I really enjoyed working out and being healthy.

    I still run solo outside, but I also practice Bikram yoga and swim at my gym. Starting hot yoga was what really helped me to get over any residual body-anxiety while working out. It’s way too hot to be able to wear covering clothing, and the feeling I get from a strong class out is about a billion times better than how crappy I feel when I noticed that so-and-so’s tummy doesn’t roll during a forward bend. Actually, I stopped even noticing others during class completely, the class is so challenging that I have to focus on myself completely in order to have a strong class.

    And then one day, it was really, really hot. I wanted to go for a run. It was so hot, I decided to just wear a sports bra (even though I was secretely convinced people were going to run out of the bushes screaming: “Put a shirt on, fatty!”). No one even gave me a second glance, and if anyone did, I certainly didn’t notice. I decided in that moment that if people were going to judge me based on how I look while working out, their opinion mattered about as much as…. well, mattered very little.

    • Judy

      I totally know where you’re coming from about running in a sports bra! Beginning of the summer,when the temperature got to the high 90’s, I decided a shirt just wasn’t worth it. No children ran screaming. No one told me to loose some weight or get a tan. Kinda refreshing to realize how little other people can pay attention to something that seems like a huge deal to you.

  • I have a love-hate relationship with the gym. I love the concept, and when I have more money and freedom in my life I’ll probably join one, but for now it’s all about exercise that fits around my schedule and budget. Think more jogging with the dog than treadmill, stacking wood instead of lifting weights.

  • tobeornot

    I am not a model and a lot of work needs to be done so I can be satisfied with my body, but I like to go to gym. Other people do not bother me at all there. When I see women my age who look fabulous, it gives me hope. I know that if I work hard enough, I will succeed.

  • This is a great post! I don’t work out in a gym anymore, but when I did, I didn’t compare my body to other women. I did compare my workouts to others, though. If the girl on the treadmill beside me was going faster, I tried to pick up my pace. If there was a strong swimmer in the pool with me, I took fewer and shorter breaks between sets. It’s motivating for me and helps me push myself when I’m working out with others.

    Right now, I bike to work (and try to keep pace with fellow cyclists when we’re on the same street), walk my dogs, and hoop (and every hooper I’ve met has been non-judgemental and thrilled to give advice or show a beginner how to do new tricks).

    • Agreed! I also hoop from time to time, and it is so much fun! And the community of hoopers are all amazing, helpful and happy people. I think happiness lives inside a hoop.

  • Erin

    I’m with threegoodrats on this one – working out at home has a lot going for it. Expense was what motivated me at first, but now I really appreciate the ease of exercising when it happens in the living room. I started doing push-ups, sit-ups, and a yoga video from Youtube, and have branched out from there. It’s really nice to have total control over the environment – I can put on whatever music I want, adjust the lights, wear whatever I feel like, and hop right into the shower afterward.

    I recognize that it’s not for everyone, especially folks who need help working around a medical condition or injury. And there are certain drawbacks of working at home…like when your cat tries to hop on your back while you’re doing push-ups. But c’est la vie!

  • Jessica

    The most interesting part of the article for me was the part on “gym garb”. Just like the right clothes can make you feel comfortable all day long, the right clothes for the gym (and shoes you love) can keep you motivated and feeling better than you might be otherwise. Even just thinking about shopping for workout clothes makes me think maybe I should join a gym…

    • letta

      I’d love to see some tips and links for good, functional gym wear. I find I default to some cropped workout pants, a fantastic sports bra (one of the biggest changes I have ever made was getting a good one – I think a great fit here actually made me more active, just because now it was comfortable to move that much – mine’s a La Mystere Firm Control Energie), and a t-shirt. But for certain things, like Pilates or Yoga, where I really do need to be able to see my body moving so that I know I’m doing it right, I sort of need to be wearing tighter-fitted stuff that won’t flip over my head and expose my belly when I’m doing an inversion etc. And that’s where I get into “self-conscious” territory. So yeah, links? Ideas? Low-cost, multi-purpose please?

      • a.

        if you’re looking for low-cost-but-functional gym wear, you might want to check out Target’s C9 line by Champion. they have a decent selection of technical t-shirts, and I’ve never seen one that costs more than $20. also consider places like TJ Maxx or Marshall’s, if you have the time. like everything else in the store, their athletic sections are hit-or-miss, but I’ve gotten some really nice brand-name tech shirts for under $10.

        I’ve also had some success at Dick’s–I can’t (or won’t) afford anything if it’s full price, but when I went in last week to buy GU, they were having a massive sale. I got the nicest pair of running shorts I’ve ever owned, for not a lot of money.

        good luck! hope this helps some.

  • pope suburban

    It never even occurred to me to feel weird. I guess maybe it helped that I used the gym on my college campus, so half the people around me were reading textbooks on the cardio equipment, making it pretty clear that they had no idea anyone else even existed, they were so focused on their own thing. I think everyone at the gym is there to do her own thing, so she probably notices others even less than she does just walking around.

  • For me, it really depends on the gym I go to. I have been to gyms where it seems like people are more interested in meeting each other than working out, and I did feel really uncomfortable getting gross and dirty there. The gym I go to now is not like that at all, people actually go to work out, and I feel right at home there. When people say they hate going to the gym, but don’t have a better alternative, I encourage them to shop around and find a gym that fits their needs.

    Also, I love to listen to podcasts at the gym too! Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me is a favorite, I just have to be careful not to laugh too loud!

  • Laurel

    I feel self-conscious running because I’m so bad at it. Obviously I keep at it because the only way to get better is to keep doing it, but I still feel like other people are judging me when I’m halfway up a hill and have to stop and walk the rest of the way.

  • Leah

    I was telling my husband the other day that I never feel sexier or stronger or more confident than when I am in my gym gear working out, or in my skin tight wetsuit getting in the water. I’m not ripped but I am strong, and I carry a bit of extra body fat, but I don’t care. When I am squattin’ those big plates and everyone is watching me grunt and sweat in my cute gym clothes I feel like the best version of myself!

    Also, function wise, I could never get behind cheap workout clothes. I need good clothing that doesn’t get in the way or make me feel uncomfortable, so I invest in good stuff and take care of it accordingly. This is even more true of sports bras and shoes.

  • Back when I had a gym membership, I went to a women’s gym which cut back on the type of gym gawking that I feel most awkward about. My work schedule also allowed me to go at times when it was mostly full of older ladies and they were pretty much the sweetest ever. I will say that I loved working out at home – there was no excuse not to do it and there was no one to watch me do the choreography wrong. It definitely built up my confidence a lot.

  • Emma

    Of the two gyms on campus I definitely preferred to go to the more secluded one. Even there, though, I liked going in the morning when there were fewer people around. I’m so impressed by all the voices declaring their immunity to self consciousness at the gym, but I am not one of them. Working out does not come easy to me and as a result I’m typically over-aware of my red sweaty face trying to pump out the last 15 minutes on the elliptical.

  • Kelly

    This is such a timely topic for me. My women-only gym went out of business last week and I’ve been transferred to a coed gym. I was self-conscious at the women’s gym because I’m not athletic, I’m very uncoordinated, and working out has just never been my “thing.” Now that I’m at the coed gym, I’m struggling to determine if I’m going to stick with it. There are all types of people there yet I feel intimidated by the big ol’ guys lifting huge stacks of weights. I’m sure they don’t think anything about me but I’m very sensitive to my environment so this has been a challenge. I’m not sure how it will unfold for me…

  • Sally, this is an awesome post, as always! 🙂 I do both at the gym: I take Pilates (and sometimes yoga) classes and do cardio and strength-training.

    It’s interesting because I do find myself self-conscious sometimes about my body and whether I’m doing a certain exercise correctly and wondering what other people are thinking, like “Geez, those pants are too tight on her,” “She needs to be thinner to wear that.”

    I don’t feel this way in my Pilates classes (the class is mostly filled with older ladies, who are so sweet) but while I’m out working out in other areas of the gym. I used to feel even more insecure years ago in college gyms. That was terrible.

    But like you, I don’t work out to lose weight or look like some model. It’s essential for me in alleviating anxiety, boosting energy and also makes me feel strong and comfy in my skin. I have to remind myself about making comparisons (about others’ bodies and their tougher workouts) and just focusing on doing my own thing.

    Who cares what someone else thinks? The gym is my time to enjoy myself and feel great. Thanks for reminding us of that!

  • I’m a Y girl and while I can’t speak for all YMCAs mine is full of different body types, ability levels, ages and so on. Add to that the instructors are supportive and helpful. I do a mix of group fitness and individual things. In the group classes I prefer to be in the middle without a direct shot and the mirror. I’ve also found that I’m more comfortable now that I dress the part. I invested in some nice wicking workout tops and some cute scorts and shorts most of which are from Target. This helps me feel a little more like I belong. I’ve also made some wonderful friends in my classes and running group. I’ve also met some full on wonderful wonderwomen in my running group and in addition to being super human they are nice and love to help people figure things out. I’m sure some gyms can be judgy but I’ve never felt judged only cheered on.

  • I heartily agree with the above comments that say the gym you go to matters. I go to a Crossfit gym now, where one of the most popular tshirts says “strong is the new skinny.” Knee-high socks are worn by many to protect your legs when you deadlift (not exactly fashionable, you know?), and the uber-fashionable are decked out in lululemon instead of Target athletic wear. But really, it doesn’t matter how good you looked (or didn’t) when you arrived, because everyone is a red-faced sweaty mess at the end of their workout anyway.

    I love the way working out makes me feel about my body. Getting in a good workout (or on a busy day, even a run around the block) starts me on all kinds of positive feedback cycles.

    Love this topic!

  • I do feel self-conscious at the gym. Part of it is that my gym is on a college campus, and I’m twice the age (and weight!) of a lot of the students there — plus I teach some of them! I am not terribly fit and run very, very slowly, so even if I am in awe of myself for running 30 minutes in a row, someone is going to be thinking, “Why is she going at the pace of an arthritic sloth? And is she going to have a stroke doing it?”

    I prefer to run, walk, or bike outside if I can. I feel more alone there, and can focus on the fun I’m having, or the scenery. But during the winter, that’s impossible: snow, ice, and dark at 4:30 pm put me indoors. Oh well.

  • I guess I’m the only one of your readers who resonates with Elissa. I’m going through this right now, since we recently joined a gym and I’ve been working out with a personal trainer. I cringe when I walk into the women’s locker room and encounter multiple perfectly fit women strutting around naked. Maybe I am old fashioned but I wonder what’s happened to basic modesty? I am glad for the people there who look like olympic champions — they have the bodies they’ve worked very hard to earn. But I sometimes wonder if I’m the only woman not perfectly fit who feels intimidated in that environment.

    • Katharine

      I don’t much go to gyms any more (I work out at home or on the street, since of all things, I hate the gym-going process) but I have to ask — what does modesty, basic or otherwise, have to do with (almost certainly unisex) locker rooms? I’m sure those women aren’t strutting — most of them, anyway — they’re showering/changing. As one does.

      I never had an “Olympic champion’s” body, not even during the all-too-brief period when I was too skinny and a serious, gym-going exercise obsessive, but damme if at any size or fitness level I am going to build myself a towel-hut around a locker or get dressed in the shower stall and risk dropping my undies in the wet just to spare everyone else the sight of my naked flesh!

      • As I said, I’m probably old fashioned. To me basic modesty means keeping in mind that others might wish to be spared the sight of your naked flesh. If you choose not to spare me, that’s a choice you’re making. Strutting isn’t the best word, and I do see what you mean about showering/changing. I don’t mind that actually. What I mind is standing naked in front of the mirrors for the full make up/blow dry routine. Is it too much to ask to put some clothes on before that? I really see this situation as another example of individual needs/preferences overriding those of others.

  • Elizabeth

    I have fairly recently stopped working out, since I quit playing rugby. I played rugby for about 14 years, and worked out constantly to keep at the top of my game, and I felt all the ways Sally described (especially “badass”.. Memo to Sally: if you want to up the “badass” feeling, try Crossfit! It was great fun and great fitness.) Rugby, running, weightlifting, crossfit, swimming… I never cared a hoot whether anyone was looking at me in the gym because I felt so massively fit and strong. I judged myself “acceptable” based on my self-imposed fitness regime.

    But anyway, I got tired of feeling badass, somewhere along the line. I stopped feeling like the best version of myself, I stopped deriving my feelings of self-worth from my fitness level. I don’t know exactly when it started, but I think it was withdrawing from the rugby lifestyle that finalized it.

    Now I do exercise for secondary reasons: I ride my bike because I like it, and also it’s a great way to get to the office. I walk at lunch to decompress and stretch my back, and to see Mont-Royal in all its season colours. I cross country ski because its almost free, super fun, and I need to get outside in the winter. I find I’m happier now that I am not aiming for any fitness benchmarks, or feeling guilty for skipping a scheduled training. My fitness level has definitely decreased, but it’s appropriate for my age and lifestyle.

    I wanted to read more. I wanted to learn to dance tango. I wanted to learn to sew, to ride my bike more, to hike more, to go mushroom picking… now that I’m not doing all that fitness activity, I do more of these things. I feel more balanced. A little less fit and firm, but overall happier, and interestingly more thankful, too.

  • anonymous

    I swim, so that’s my time to focus on me. Even if my family is with me, I do my laps (earplugs in place) and reflect. I also indulge in some cool swimwear!

  • exercise makes me feel like a badass too. Or rather, strong and confident, which on some days is the same thing, and other days is a bit more diva than badass.
    It took me years to love the way I look. But I love the way I look, even when I am sweaty and trying out something new and might look stupid the first time. Even when I run 12-minute miles and my daughter runs circles around me. Even when I try to balance in crane pose and I know the person behind me in Yoga class can probably see stretch marks AND up my shorts. FYI Knockout panties are the best for workouts! http://www.knockoutpanties.com

  • I’ve been forcing myself to go back to the gym because I have some medical issues that are dramatically improved by exercise. I do about 50 minutes of cardio and really need to do weights as well, but I have a hard time fitting it all into my schedule.

    I go to a gym with a lot of older people and pretty varied body types, so I don’t feel intimidated. What I DO feel sometimes is sad and frustrated, because I see my body in the mirror and realize that in my late 30s, it’s never going to look like it did when I was in my 20s — no matter how hard I work out. I noticed today that I was wearing longer shorts and my legs looked slimmer, and I realized right away that certain things being covered up just makes me feel better. I’m trying to focus on getting strong and healthy rather than how I look, but a lifetime of gym and athletics has conditioned me to expect my body to respond a certain way and it just doesn’t anymore, and I’m trying to be ok with that.

  • Anna D.

    Okay, here’s my problem. I sweat a LOT when I exercise (I say I have an efficient cooling system!), and I feel much more self-conscious about this at the gym than, say, exercising outside. At the gym you’re sort of stuck on top of the same group of people in limited space, so I feel like I’m going to drip on them (I certainly drip on the machines) or they’re going to be grossed out by my sweat stains. Plus, I feel like I have to have new clean clothes for every time I go to the gym, but right now I only have a couple of sports bras and pairs of shorts that I like, so I have to do laundry all the time. Outside, I feel like you have much more space, and you’re not up against other people – you pass them on the path only briefly. So I feel better about maybe being more grungy and rewearing workout gear than I do in a gym, which means I’ll go more often.

    Mind you, I go through phases where this bugs more or less – if I can kick myself in the butt to start and get into the habit of going to the gym, I get past it. But right now I’m feeling self-conscious and stick with outside exercise.

    Honestly, at heart, I think I believe that gyms are for other people, not for me. They’re for athletes, and I am not an athlete (I have exercise-induced asthma that wasn’t diagnosed till I was an adult, so I was useless at sports/gym class all through school and never knew why). I have a similar reaction to bicycle shops or sports stores or REI – I do not belong there, everyone’s looking at me funny, and I’m not supposed to be there.

    (All that said – funnily enough, it never bothered me to have women stroll around the gym locker room stark naked, even when they looked so much better than I do. The insecurities are all about the performance side of gyms.)

    • I sweat a LOT too…to the point where somebody made a comment to me once about it! It bothered me for a second, then I kind of got over it. I think it just shows how hard I’m working, and I feel pretty tough instead of gross.

  • telracs

    I love my SkirtSports! Now, they ain’t cheap, but you can find them (and brands like them) through various online retailers!

  • D

    I don’t work out at the gym, but since I am a Denver Roller Doll, I do work out in front of and with other people quite a bit. Strangely, I don’t feel a lot of body image related anxiety when I’m working out with the dolls- my anxiety is mostly focused on performance related issues. I tend to feel like a badass after a good derby practice, and my friend there are super supportive, so I’ve never felt judged in my performance or in how I look. We don’t often have men around, so that probably changes some of the way I think and feel when I’m working out. I don’t know how that would change if I used a more traditional gym…

  • Nikki Clark

    When I was in college my cousin (and next door neighbor) and I worked at the same place so we carpooled. Because he was also a football player he wanted to stop at the gym and get a workout in on our way home. I wanted nothing to do with working out in public. But he promised that if anyone looked at me the wrong way or laughed at me that he would beat them up, so I went. And guess what: not one other person who was there gave a crap about me or what I was doing. Turns out people go to the gym to work out and not be judge other people.

  • I don’t judge other people, so I kind of go with the believe that they’re not judging me right back. I maybe look at some people and think, Wow, she’s working hard! And okay, fine, I’ve looked at a few guys and though, Wow, niiiice arms. But if somebody has some extra jiggle, or if they’re panting or sweating a lot, I never think anything negative. I always just think, Good for them for doing it, they’re working really hard.

    It’s takes a lot of motivation to go to the gym sometimes, especially if you’re not looking like a beauty queen or as buff as Mr. Universe. I applaud anybody for doing it, and I feel tough doing it myself.

    Something to add–if you feel self-conscious, it might help to ask somebody who works at the gym for some advice on the machines and weights. That helped me a lot in going from “Some girl doing cardio at the gym and feeling not so tough” to “Super strong woman who knows her way around this place.”

  • Jan

    Thanks for this, Sal. What kind of skort do you wear?

    • Sal

      It’s actually a skirt/capri combo from Lucy. Don’t think it’s for sale anymore, but Lucy and Athleta both do skirt/capri combos most seasons. They’re great!

  • I figure that everyone at the gym is trying to either have fun or be healthy, and as such it really shouldn’t be a place for judgement. I take group classes, and there are all shapes and sizes of folks in them, so people are pretty nice and supportive.

  • I’m just focusing on my workout…I don’t look at anyone else so I don’t know/care if they’re looking at me.

  • I find I feel super self-conscious about my body while exercising if I’m wearing clothes that make me look frumpy. I feel much more energetic when I’m wearing a flattering tank top and my favorite yoga pants than a ratty old t-shirt and ill-fitting running shorts, whether I’m exercising alone or in a room full of people. I used to be scared of the gym, but once I realized pretty much everyone there feels the same way at one time or another, it got a lot easier!

  • When I was younger (20s), going to the gym was too intimidating – mostly because I had no idea what I was doing, and the gyms were fairly “gym-bunny” focussed. Lates 30s and 40s (once most of my body image problems were under control) – not a problem. Both the gyms and I have grown up and there is a lot more tolerance 🙂

    I have some structural problems (dud back, lousy balance and torn ankle ligaments) and a very real loathing of exercise from school days. But a hospital stay from when my back went into spasm helps remind me why I need to go. That and I’ve disposed of some 20kg, so keeping that away is another incentive! I’m never organised enough to do classes, so I will happily do my stretches and fast walking with a magazine or MP3 player. I have 2 pairs of bottoms (one long for winter, the other 3/4 for summer – and the length is because I get shocking bruises with absolutely no idea how) and a couple of ratty t-shirts. Plus a sloppy-joe for dashing between inside and the car in winter.

    For me, it’s about comfort….

  • K

    I’ve been reading your blog for ages (from London) – and loving it – but this is the first time I’ve left a comment. This post was just so, so spot on and exactly how I feel about exercise – I’m almost evangelical about it! Hope you don’t mind but I’ve given the post, and you, a little heads-up on my own extremely fledgling blog. Keep up the good work!

  • I’ve never been self-conscious about my body in the gym, probably because of years of school sports. I’ve definitely been self-conscious about being slow, but it usually pushes me to go faster and work harder! I totally agree that yoga is perfect for getting your mind off of body worries though. Everyone looks so ridiculous and in the challenging classes you have to focus so hard on keeping your pose correct that you don’t have the mental capacity to compare to others.

  • nsv

    Heading towards 50 and having been a YMCA member for 25 years, I can feel pretty confident in my town’s Y which is friendly and diverse. I used to swim at a college rec facility, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a group of cheerleaders sitting in the sauna covered in high-tech full-coverage suits, complaining loudly that they had to sweat 5 pounds off before weigh-in. Now, that’s entirely their prerogative, but what I objected to was that I was sitting right there, naked, and very obviously I could have dropped 50 pounds and still not come anywhere near their weigh-in requirements. What I objected to was their rudeness and their complete obliviousness of the presence of another human being. I suppose I should have felt grateful that they weren’t openly hostile, but thank goodness, even back then I felt rock-solid certain that I didn’t deserve any abuse for my appearance.

    The Y suits me so much better. I wander around the locker room naked (and believe me, that 50 pounds is still there, plus a great deal more!), swim my mile in an athletic black tank suit (thank you, Junonia!), and am remarkably unself-conscious. This is all the more surprising because I am very modest outside the gym. I have made so many friends at the Y over the years, and delight in running into them elsewhere and being able to say to each other, “Oops, sorry, didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!”

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  • I actually made a video about this very topic, called “Fat Strong Lady.” It’s on YouTube – if you search that title you’ll find it! I made this video to empower all the fat women and men I know who stay away from the gym because of the fat stigma we all have felt exercising with other people. I think it’s important to get more images of fat people exercising out in the world, so it doesn’t feel so stigmatized. The time for loving our bodies and exercising to feel good, no matter what size we are or abilities we have is HERE!

  • nsv

    Sal, excuse the thread hijack, but people, you HAVE to go see Tristy’s fabulous video (see previous comment). What confidence! What strength! And I LOVE the voices cheering her on in the background. Go, Tristy! The video is very much in the tradition of Deb Burgard, who was a very early proponent of joyous exercise for fat people; she was a real inspiration for me, as is Tristy. Thank you!

  • Do you feel self-conscious when you exercise at the gym?

    I do feel self-conscious at the gym, not because of covert looks from people but because of what they actually say to me.

    There are some remarks that are well-intentioned but clueless to varying degrees, like telling me I’ll “lose the weight” if I “just stay motivated” from folks who’ve “been at it over 6 months.” (Which is awesome for them but sort of slams against the reality that I’ve been exercising regularly for years and haven’t lost an ounce, nor am I trying to.)

    There are comments that are condescending and less well-intentioned, such as that I “need to step up the intensity” on a treadmill if I “really want to drop that fat.” When it’s from someone who knows neither my workout goals nor my training patterns, it is… unhelpful… at best.

    And of course the comments (usually at me rather than to me) that are essentially verbal abuse — jokes like, “it’s a workout for the treadmill, not her!”

    Conversations with others have taught me that not all gyms are like this. However, I’ve maxed out my affordable local options.

  • It’s great knowing that other people feel the same way when going to the gym. I’ve been going now for 2 years and have gradually transformed my body, from just purely doing running to now doing weights. Throughout all of this I suffer from psoriasis, especially lower legs. It looks red, spotty and angry. I finally took the step of wearing baseball stirrups (new york yankees) complete with matching singlet and gym shorts. I did feel kinda as if I was saying to people “look what I’m wearing”, but in truth it’s just to cover up my psoriasis, not a fashion statement. By the end of both sessions I was tired and worn out, and felt good. If someone stares at you, hold their gaze until they flinch – then go back to what you were doing. I did this tonight for the first time, and it was a gym club trainer no less, he should know better than to treat paying customers like that. Feel the fear and do it anyway!!! We all come in shapes and sizes because if we all looked perfect then even that normality would become warped by something else – we’d be clones!

  • I found a lot of it is in what you do – if I’m on the treadmill, I feel like a floppy wheezing lump, and I also usually end up dropping my phone and it flies into a wall. And if I take a step class, I sort of look and feel goofy which distracts me. But if I’m on the elliptical or at a dance practice, I feel amazing and strong as whatnot. But I have some friends who are runners and they feel most at home on a treadmill or a track, so I guess if just depends on how you like to move.

  • Melissa

    Medically I’m not overweight, but I’m certainly no Megan Fox in a bikini. I feel that even if I was, I would still be self conscious at the gym. Being that way causes me to stay in my comfort zone which are the cardio machines. I shy away from weights. Not sure why. I know how to use them for the most part. Maybe it’s because that’s where all the big muscly guys are. I don’t want to be at the center of their attention for ridicule. Not that there’s really anything about me to ridicule. But I always worry that there’s something about me that I don’t see that others do that they make fun of. Rationally I know most people there are just doing their thing and not really paying attention to other people. Guess high school can leave scars on your subconsciousness.