I spent the majority of my childhood in bike shorts. As a former volleyball player and cheerleader, they were essential to my lifestyle from the time I was six years old until high school. Tight Lycra shorts helped me move comfortably around the court and allowed me to fearlessly do cheerleading stunts in a short skirt. So it was strange that, when I tried bike shorts again at 26, I felt ridiculously uncomfortable in them.
When the bike short trend came around last summer, I was convinced I’d never try them. I knew I had no interest in going back to an item I wore every day for most of my life and had ditched voluntarily as I came into my adulthood. It took me a year of Princess Diana inspo and scrolling through Instagram #OOTD to finally convince myself to give them another try. I ended up settling for a black thigh-length pair from Target.
“Why do these keep running up?” I asked my boyfriend while we explored a hiking trail in Tucson, Arizona. “Seriously, these are so skimpy.” While I’ve comfortably worn sports bras, leggings, and other body-hugging articles of clothing plenty of times in my life, I’d never felt self-conscious in activewear until now. There was just something about bike shorts, though — maybe it was the tight-hugging fabric or the fact that my lower body was exposed — that I couldn’t get past. It wasn’t until later in the day that I realized why.
I got my first pair of bike shorts as a six-year-old cheerleader. They were an unofficial part of the uniform that everyone on the team wore underneath our short skirts, even if they weren’t particularly useful to our choreography. But we still wore them to shield our short skirts from attracting the wrong looks.
The shorts were tight, and worn along with sheer pantyhose, as was mandated team. They weren’t particularly comfortable, but they offered security from the male gaze, a concept I couldn’t grasp entirely at such a young age, yet somehow understood I had to protect myself from.
But when it came to playing volleyball, the shorts no longer protected me from anything. Instead, they made me a target.
The first time I tried out for a volleyball team I was nine years old. I hadn't prepared at all; I convinced myself I wanted to play volleyball after a classmate said she’d be at the tryout. So when it came time to put my
lack of skills to test, I did what I knew best: I took off my green jumper uniform and played in the white cotton button-down and bike shorts I wore underneath.
Though I was completely dressed under the jumper, I could feel that taking it off was frowned upon. Although other girls wore shorts as well, the simple act of taking off my jumper generated some concerned looks. Suddenly, I was exposed. And even if no one said anything, I knew that I just revealed a part of myself. So I made sure to put it back on when my dad came to pick me up and swore I played with the jumper on when he asked.
I didn’t make the team that time. But I had success at the next tryout, and ended up playing volleyball for eight years after that. Each time I went to practice or a game, I wore a pair of tight bike shorts. In my elementary Baptist school, we followed a strict dress code that included no drop earrings, makeup, or skirts above the knee. But there was no law regarding bike shorts, and who wouldn’t want me to play the sport comfortably? Or so I thought.
I managed to play in my favored athletic garment for almost three years without getting in trouble. Other girls were not so lucky. They’d often get called out by the school’s officials in the middle of practice because their shorts would run up when they ran or hugged their hips too tight. Every time I watched a friend return to the court after a private dressing down, I’d ask her what happened. The response was usually, “They want me to get longer shorts.” We all knew it wasn’t about the length of a garment. It was a matter of protecting boys lurking around the court from their “biological” urge to sexualize a girl’s body and punishing girls for the scandalous act of revealing our figures.
The day I finally got called out for my shorts I was already prepared for it. I had mistakenly left the ones I usually wore to school-team practice at home and brought a pair from my outside league team. Those were shorter than the usual pairs I reserved to play at school.
I walked from the bathroom to the court ready for an adult to come up and ask me to go home. When I finally made it, my cousin and fellow teammate said: “You know titi will say something, right?” Our aunt was the school’s principal, and I was terrified of having a family member whom I adored scold me over institutional policies that had nothing to do with our personal relationship. But that day, it happened.
I saw her look at me from the side of the court and call me over with a finger signal that read, “Come here.” Even though I explained it wasn’t on purpose, she said: “Don’t let it happen again.” She explained that the shorts were inappropriate to be worn at the school, and that she was only calling me out for my own good.
Walking back to my teammates, I felt ashamed. I finished practice and ran to the bathroom to change back into my school uniform.
After that day, I continued playing volleyball with bike shorts on. But I would bring a baggier pair of shorts to wear over them once I finished a game. By 14, even after I switched schools, I let go of bike shorts entirely, and opted for baggier styles to play volleyball. I wanted to be free to just play without the fear of my body being policed.
Although the trend says I should pair bike shorts with T-shirts and sweaters, I have yet to venture into street-style territory with my new pair, reserving them for working out or going on hikes. Not that I don’t love a sweater and bike shorts combo, but I am a creature of habit. And, frankly, every time I wear them I have to remind myself that I am no longer beholden to school policies; I am allowed to be in control. Still, I keep wishing I could give this feeling to my younger self.