Take It From Me, The Best Workout Clothes Are Ones You Already Own

Photo: Courtesy of Ebony-Renee Baker.
Ready to work out in my dad's old t-shirt and leggings
A couple weeks ago I was sifting through my drawers, looking for a full gym top. Not a crop top, not a lone sports bra, and not a flimsy pair of sleeves that cuts off at the literal shoulders (i.e. clothes I’ve previously worn to the gym without batting an eye). But after several months away from working out, and growing through grief and mental illness, I have found a steady routine again. What I haven’t found is my old desire to wear my tightest clothes possible to the gym. And, consequentially, the right gym top.
Of the countless micro-trends perpetuated by algorithms and brand marketing, the “gym girl” aesthetic has had a vice grip on us for years. Though the pandemic welcomed a shift towards comfortable fashion, spaces like TikTok have bred more rigid aesthetic rules. What was once an activewear trend has morphed into an aspirational lifestyle driven by consumerism — rather than the actual activities we partake in. We are inundated with “BBL jackets” (zip-up cardigans with cinched waists), controversial (but still popular) waist trainers, layers advertised as “gravity defying” and $100 workout sets to accompany our already pricey gym memberships. 
As a fashion editor, it is my job to let you know what’s trending, suggest brands to shop, and at times, be an unofficial middlewoman between the market and your wardrobe. But I can’t ignore what we’ve all been witnessing, which is an endless cycle towards overconsumption and pressure-fuelled spending. As January comes to a close and the “new year, new you” messaging continues to roll on, I have a not-so-subtle PSA: We simply do not need new clothes in order to work out. And the clothes we wear do not have to be skin-tight.
In that embarrassing moment when I couldn’t find a normal length top for my workout (the two I do have were dirty, okay), I ended up pulling out a regular old T-shirt from a different drawer. It had no sweat-wicking properties, but was equipped with two sleeves and a torso. As it turns out, I did not spontaneously combust, nor was I repulsed by my reflection. I got a good workout in, cleared my mind, and proudly displayed my hard-earned sweat stains.
This reminded me of gym classes as a kid, where I was perfectly content in my basketball shorts and baggy tees and there was no required aesthetic aside from comfortable clothes and sneakers you could run in. I then distinctly remembered how that changed in high school, when us girls started cinching T-shirts with hair ties and rolling waistbands to shorten hemlines. That suffocating feeling of wanting to fit in but not really knowing why is the same one that crops up for me with this pressure to be a certain kind of “gym girl.” The further I’ve gotten into adulthood, the more I’ve understood that clothing is often marketed with bodies rather than people in mind.
In a recent episode of her podcast Say Your Mind, author and activist Kelechi Okafor announced that she is no longer wearing tight leggings and crop tops to the gym. “If I’m perfectly honest, I feel shit when I wear them. I hate them. It doesn’t compliment my physique, I’m not curvy in that way, I’m rather straight in terms of my body shape,” she said in conversation with fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell. “I like things to feel soft on me. And [with] the general exercises that I do at the gym I don’t need to wear tight up, tight up things.” Okafor went on to say that she is now choosing to wear soft joggers and loose tank tops instead.
Actress Jameela Jamil has also regularly admonished this pressure to look a certain way while working out, as founder of the podcast and mental health movement I Weigh. In an Instagram post earlier this month, Jamil referenced the typical January fitness content and its explicit links to shame, exclusion, and diet culture. “Exercise should be accessible, fun and a daily maintenance practice just like brushing our teeth. But that’s so hard with all the pressure surrounding it. The culture has become so toxic,” she wrote.
Body image and fashion have always been linked, so it’s important to acknowledge how uncompromising aesthetics can negatively affect consumers when they don’t, or can’t, adhere. This especially includes people who are differently abled and need clothes that accommodate their needs, or wear specific religious or cultural dress like hijabs or burkas. It’s similar to the outdated concept of the aspirational “bikini body.” We all have bodies to move, so why must there be a certain way for them to look while we do so?

There may be more pressure to dress a certain way when working out… But on the other hand, if treating yourself to some new gym wear that makes you feel confident and motivates you to go, then that’s great.”

Christina Okenla, fitness trainer and content creator
Anti-trends are also just as common, whether that’s through understated shifts like “normcore”; embracing the mundane side of fashion; or the rise of de-influencing. But regardless of whether a trend encourages us to spend money or not (and let’s face it, all trends are rooted in capitalism by nature) it’s really only up to us to choose the clothes that make us feel good. When we’re figuring out what to wear for the gym, the simplest solution may just be to follow comfort and confidence.
Christina Okenla, a London-based fitness trainer and content creator, tells Refinery29 that confidence is most important when it comes to exercising. “There may be more pressure to dress a certain way when working out [but] I would hate to think that this could be another reason to put someone off of exercising and getting started on their fitness journey,” she says. “On the other hand, if treating yourself to some new gym wear that makes you feel confident and motivates you to go, then that’s great.”
When training new clients or in group sessions (which I attended for a period during the pandemic), Okenla notices that sometimes when clients start off wearing dark, baggy sets, they tend to venture out into brighter colors and new styles as their confidence and strength grows.
As for what she recommends for the technical side of working out, she says a proper sports bra is the most important item. “Something that properly supports your breast tissue, especially if you like to do a lot of high-impact workouts,” she says. “A good sports bra will usually come with adjustable arm and back straps, will have some cushioning and contouring under the breast area.” 
“Appropriate footwear is also very important. A lot of fashion [sneakers], especially those with high platforms, aren’t suitable for running or lifting, so I always recommend my clients get a pair of [sneakers] just for the gym.” 
So, yes, there are certain technical clothes that will aid you in working out but as Okenla demonstrates, it is far from necessary to buy a whole new workout wardrobe — especially if you’re just getting back to the gym. Perhaps you can embrace a clean slate like me, whether I’m feeling confident in my tight leggings sets, or in my dad’s old baggy T-shirt and a mind that’s ready to clear.

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