In defense of yoga pants

I own at least 10 pairs of “yoga” pants. I say this in quotes because the ones I own are not specifically designed for yoga – they’re actually designed for high-impact training or studio classes like indoor cycling or barre. And I don’t regret buying any of them. Ok, maybe like one pair because I couldn’t resist a sale when I was clearly already well stocked.

Workout leggings not only make me feel confident when walking into a workout, but wearing them also makes me feel safe. Living in Boston, I witness countless commuters on bikes every morning and night and they don’t tuck their right pant leg into their sock because they think it looks good. They do it so that flapping fabric doesn’t get caught in the gears of the bike and subsequently cause an accident. The same concept applies to indoor cycling classes, and I’d even go as far to say barre and yoga. Snagging or tripping over loose fabric is not just mildly embarrassing—it can be dangerous. And believe me, I have tripped over air more times than I’d like to admit, but I’d rather minimize my safety concerns during a workout.

Instead of focusing on what women are wearing or how women are behaving in a society driven by promoting unrealistic expectations for women and how their bodies should look, we should focus on the reasons why women choose to buy into the fitness industry. (Hint: not all of them are bad.) Even in an era when more brands are hiring so-called plus-size models, expanding their sizing, and making promises to end retouching the women in their ads, decades of societal constructs will not be reversed through changes in one industry.

Yes, there are cases of boutique fitness studios shaming larger or inexperienced clients, and yes, some of the most sought-after and expensive brands of fitness clothing don’t make above a size 10 or 12. But there will be outliers in every industry. As a woman who wears a size 16, I have been able to buy active leggings at a majority of stores.

The toxic culture surrounding modern fitness is exacerbated by social media. Studios use the platforms to promote their businesses, instructors use it to gather followings and thus driving more business into the studios they work for. Studios pair with brands to cross-promote and even get a cut of the profits to sell specific activewear in their studios. Those racks almost never have an XL pair of leggings on them. Many have also been criticized for their lack of diversity; an issue that also branches into the wellness community.

But studios also create networks of people who share a passion for fitness and community. In all of the classes I have been to, I have never felt shamed for not having a flat stomach or dimples in my thighs. The only person shaming me is myself; and I most likely developed that habit from the lack of body diversity throughout the media, countless advertisements for weight loss products, and a lack of societal acceptance around finding a woman over size 12 attractive.

Typically I am one of the largest if not the largest women in the fitness classes I take, whether that is barre, spin or Zumba. Looking fierce and feeling fierce are completely interconnected for me. But looking fierce doesn’t always mean skin-tight pants and a low-cut top. It can mean well-fitting work slacks and a blouse. It means whatever I want to wear and feel comfortable in.

When I look my best, I feel my best, and I focus more on my workout than on adjusting what I’m wearing while attempting to stay vertical on the treadmill. And skin-tight, tummy-tucking, sweat-wicking leggings do that for me; for someone else that might mean breaking out their sweatpants.

I used to reject sweat-wicking or activewear focused on cooling the athlete down because I figured I’m always going to sweat buckets no matter what I was wearing. In high school, my fashion flaws didn’t just consist of over-matched outfits and extreme jewelry. When I worked out I wore thigh-length spandex below mesh shorts, two sports bras, and a baggy t-shirt. I never felt comfortable. And yes, high school is an awkward period for most people. No matter what I wore I never felt completely confident, and I doubt yoga pants would have changed that for me. But once I gave those performance-driven athletic clothes a chance, I was hooked.

Although there are activewear brands that charge upwards of $185 per pair of leggings, there are brands that cater to a smaller budget and a similar pair of leggings to the luxury brands can cost $30. I have worn both kinds; I’ve never spent over $100 on a pair of workout leggings, but I have spent over $50. Stores like T.J. Maxx sell “top-brands” at lower prices than traditional retail.

Don’t get me wrong—much of fitness is a privilege. Even if a gym membership costs $10 a month, if you work two jobs, finding the time to work out might not be a priority. On top of that, a lower-cost gym might not be accessible via public transportation. This makes promoting inclusivity, physical education, and access to fitness all the more important. Perhaps some of the over $25 billion Americans spend on fitness memberships per year should be redirected towards programs to bring physical education to underprivileged areas of our communities. Perhaps instead of spending $75 on a new pair of compression leggings, I could donate that money to a program like the one my gym runs: Healthworks Community Fitness that works to educate and enable women and children in low-income neighborhoods by providing fitness classes and health support. 

Let us be fit, liberated, and empowered by pushing for inclusivity of all shapes, sizes, languages, races, religions, and yes, fashion choices, within our own fitness communities.