Dressing for Success

“Where are you coming from?” My friend Amy asked as we chatted briefly in town. I was dripping sweat from head to toe. “Lemme guess? Spin?” She asked. I nodded, feeding more quarters into my parking meter. “I can’t do spin,” Amy said. “I don’t…”and here she tilted her head skyward, searching for the right words.

Let’s pause. For instructional purposes, I’m going to ask you to guess the end of her sentence. Remember, it began with “I don’t.” Was Amy’s predicate:
a) like sweating profusely while pop music pounds in my inner ear, or
b) enjoy riding a stationary bike to nowhere, or
c) have the right outfit.

If you guessed c, then this is the article for you.

Press play.

“Not true!” I said. “You don’t need an outfit. You just need leggings.” I inspected Amy’s legs, which were already clad in tight black lycra. “Like those! You’re good to go.”

And then I invited her to join me any time she wanted to try a class.

We waved goodbye. I watched her go, a thought bubble developing in the empty air between us.

Who was I kidding? Of course she needed an outfit.

Here’s why. A few years ago, I was struggling to complete my doctoral dissertation. It was a bitch. I had just received feedback on a round of revisions that I felt were satisfactory; my doctoral committee disagreed. I had to re-write about 100 pages of text and I didn’t know if I had the mental or physical endurance to do it. I didn’t even know if I cared anymore about finishing my degree. So I did what any self-respecting 38 year old woman would do in such a situation: I scream-cried to my mom on my cell phone about it after dropping off my children at school, with a narrative that went something like this: “I-can’t-won’t-do-this-anymore-hate-them-me-you-Brett-all-suck-getting-fat-want-to-give-up-so-mean!” I hung up on her mid-panic attack and drove around for a while.

Then I went to the gym.

I took a deep breath and entered a 9:30 stretch and strength class, grabbing some 2-pound weights. I selected a spot on the carpet that seemed like a good location based on my ability; just left of center from the middle of the square room. And then I caught a look at my reflection, and panicked all over again.

When my friend Sloan entered the class, I took one look at her and burst into fresh tears.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her sharp blue eyes showing concern. She came and sat next to me.

I told her about the failed attempt to complete my dissertation. “And,” I added, gaining momentum, “everyone in this class is wearing LONG pants and I have on these wide, weird, CROPPED ones!”

“Oh,” she said softly, her consoling eyes gazing around the room. “That’s true.”

But then Sloan gave me some wise advice: It was a problem that was easily fixed. All I had to do was to buy a nice, new pair of long, lean yoga pants. I’d feel better the next time I came to class because I’d blend in. The dissertation? She was sorry, but her advice couldn’t really help me with that.

You may be rolling your eyes at me now, thinking that I’m only going skin deep to believe – and, further, to admit in the newspaper to believing – that what I wear to a stretch class or what my friend Amy (or anyone else for that matter) wears to a spin class (or any other venue, for that matter) matters.

But it does.

We all know that old adage to “dress for success,” which has certain connotations for the business world. In our careers, we have been told to dress more like the part we want to be (boss, leader, corporate somebody) instead of the part we really are (harried mom, student, corporate nobody). Put on a power suit and feel powerful, the advice goes. Well, I would like to suggest that the same is true for gym attire.

I am not what you’d call a big fan of exercise. I lack some pretty elemental hand-eye coordination, making the catching and throwing while running portions of sports implausible. Plus, I am in no way competitive. I could seriously care less if I win or lose on the field. In fact, I used to try my hardest to be picked last for teams in gym, and then wished with all my might to be positioned somewhere on the fringe of the game or deep in the outfield.

Not every sport has an outfield in which to hide. But, they do all have uniforms. Standard outfits, some basics for what to wear while playing (or pretending to play) said game. And so, for me to feel competent and comfortable while at spinning class or in yoga, I need to dress the part. Much like a secretary who hopes someday to have the corner office, I dress for the back row of spin class like I’m someday going to be front and center.

This requires a few pairs of basic (but cute!) leggings and tanks that I can mix and match and grab and go. Having a uniform like this makes my mornings stress-free and makes me feel athletic, even though I’m totally not. In my exercise clothes, I feel like people look at me and say, “Oh, she’s so fit! Look at Julie going off to spin class again.” What they don’t know is that, sometimes, I drive right from spin to my favorite bakery.

They may notice, however, that I do not wear the newest, latest, couture fashion tank, nor do I wear bright leggings or clothing studded with bling. This kind of adorable hipness I reserve for the true athletes. They’ve earned it, what with their triceps and biceps and sculpted shoulders, shoulders that I’m not sure I even have under all the layers of croissant. Part of me worries about over-dressing for the part, calling attention to my weaknesses (spinning really fast while standing) instead of my strengths (rocking out on a hill and singing along with the tunes). When I lack the skills, I’d rather be doing it in a basic (but cute!) uniform that doesn’t attract too much attention.

So, to answer your question honestly, Amy, yes. You require an outfit. Embrace it. Own it. Do it. It’s okay. I’ll help you pick it out, if you’d like. Then you’ll have the right gear for the occasion, and it will be one less thing to worry about. And then we can hit the gym together in style.

Today I can do four push-ups. Tomorrow, after I put on my Lululemon yoga pants, I can most certainly imagine myself doing five.

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