As a former competitive swimmer and lifeguard, I grew up spending most of my free time in super-skimpy Speedos—so you’d think my gym style would be fearless. However, there’s something about a 40-year-old man staring at you as he grunts through his bicep curls that makes a gal want to wear a parka to work out in public. (If you’ve ever been the only girl in a busy gym, you know what I’m talking about.)
Occasionally, like the time I wore a long-sleeve shirt to a HIIT session, I desperately want to strip down. And why not? That dude five feet away is wearing a tank that doesn’t even cover his nipples, yet here I am sweating my ass off all covered up. Yet, I can never bring myself to peel my top off because I'm worried about drawing attention to myself—especially while dripping sweat everywhere. That's why, when my editor asked me to go topless at the gym to investigate why ladies, like me, are so freaking scared to work out in just a bra, I was not into it. I'm a team player, though, so I agreed and just told myself, "I’ll wear the highest-waisted pants I own."
I was worried about drawing attention to myself—especially while dripping sweat.
The next morning, around 7 am., I hid in the gym’s empty studio to work out and took off my shirt. For a second, I felt like my bare stomach was breaking a rule, but I reminded myself that no one could see me.
I crushed my workout in solitude without noticing my shirtlessness much (I'd worked out this way in my basement hundreds of times), but threw my shirt back on to walk from the studio to the locker room. I was too self-concious about trainers and treadmill-walkers giving me, the shirtless girl, death-stares. Baby steps.
Since I totally chickened out during my first attempt, the next morning I let my belly button lead the way out of the locker room. I cranked my Jay-Z a little louder for an extra dose of bravery and avoided making eye contact with anyone. The gym buzzed with the pre-workday regulars I see every morning, but there was no turning back now. Not only was my deadline creeping up on me, but I had to prove to myself that I could do it.
Here’s what happened—and what didn’t—when I fully committed to going topless:
I Didn't Get in Trouble
Surprise! The gym indecency patrol did not immediately snatch me as I walked onto the gym floor. Reminder: That would be ridiculous. (If your gym ever tries to tell you to put a shirt on, find a new gym.)
Some Guys Stared
I decided to ignore the older guy that literally stopped pedaling his stationary bike when I started warming up. These are moments when my solid resting bitch-face comes in handy.
I Appreciated My Body
It wasn’t until I started warming up (with jumping jacks and kettlebell swings, in case you're interested) that I actually looked at myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror across from me. Did I have a six-pack? No. But I watched myself push through a set of deadlifts and smiled because of what my body could do.
I Worked Out Harder
Maybe it was an extra rush of adrenaline from feeling exposed, or that I wasn't overheating halfway into my workout, but I powered through 50 minutes of circuits without a single want-to-quit moment. I felt pretty badass.
It Was No Big Deal
When I hit the showers and scrubbed the sweat out of my hair, I laughed (which I’m sure creeped out the rest of the locker room). I realized the biggest lesson of my shirtless sweat sesh was that working out in a bra was only a big deal because I made it one.
My anxiety about showing a few inches of stomach in public almost kept me from taking on this story. Sure, I was a little less red and slightly more amped up than every other day, but otherwise my morning workout was business as usual, even without a shirt on.
While I’d appreciate not being sexualized by dudes while I work out, and for our society to generally stop trying to dictate what’s appropriate for women to wear (do you think nipple-tank guy thinks twice about his gym outfit?), I’ll never let these things impact my gym time again. In its truest form, exercise is a celebration of ourselves; an ode to our bodies. So I’ll chase that rush of feel-good hormones however I please. Shirtless or not.