September 20, 2013

Why Don’t We All Go Shirtless at the Gym?


Photo by Flickr user Chapendra

Every day, the highlight of my day is coaching CrossFit Kids and Teens classes.

I love CrossFit as a way to build both physical and emotional strength. I especially love it with kids and teens, because it feels to me like it is building a bridge over so much of the insecurity and alienation that is inherent in growing up.

For the kids it’s mostly fun and games. It would take an astute eye to realize that we’re working on mobility and strength with them. I mean, they’ve already got it. A kid can do 20 toes-to-bar, no problem.

An adult? Takes months to get that move. Our job with the kids is just to create a way for them not to lose the strength and flexibility they’ve already got.

The teens classes look much more like the adult classes. They are tough workouts, but teens are so energized and resilient, it’s amazing to watch. Even the ones that don’t walk through the door as athletes are quickly doing pull-ups, and lifting more weight than they thought they could.

With awesome form, because they haven’t yet spent years sitting behind a desk and becoming increasingly less mobile.

When I watch them, I can’t help but think that we really are laying the foundation for a lifetime in which they understand how their bodies work, know that they have strength, and that they can do things even when it’s hard and they think they can’t.

Yesterday was teens day. Seattle was having a mini heat-wave, our gym is a one-story brick building with no AC—which probably describes half the CrossFit gyms in the world. Our teens class is largely made up of members of the sports teams from the nearby high school.

Their coach approached us asking if we could do some sort of program for kids who are in the off-season of their sport so that they weren’t just wandering the streets getting in trouble. Ours is not a swank suburban gym. We’re in the grittiest neighborhood that Seattle has to offer, which is still laughably safe and charming compared to the grittiest neighborhoods in other cities where I have lived and taught.

So, yesterday, we’re working out.

I stepped back and looked at the mix of boys and girls, mix of races, mix of ages and was feeling my usual joy at how this sport, more than any other I know of, can transcend boundaries that so often divide people.

There are no winners and losers.

And then, as if it was The Wave sweeping through a stadium, all the guys took their shirts off. Nothing noteworthy, no one commented, they just all took their shirts off and kept lifting. It was oddly beautiful, went utterly without comment, fanfare or chest-thumbing. But it was hot in there. I was regretting my decision to wear a t-shirt rather than a tank-top. I didn’t question why they took off their shirts.

I waited for the girls to follow suit. Our adult classes  have a small handful of women working out in a sports bra, I do it. But not many. And in the teens class, all the girls kept their t-shirts on. 

I watched the boys move through the gym, with a natural ease and assurance. They were totally comfortable with their bodies, and their skills and their environment. And each other.

I watched the girls be slightly more timid and infinitely more clothed. In the same heat. The same environment. They were more protective. It was obvious. It would have been obvious to anyone, not just me. 

They come from the same background, from the same neighborhood, from the same school, from the same sports teams.

So, what’s the difference?

Later on, I was organizing all the athlete’s journals in the gym. One of the hallmarks of CrossFit is that athletes keep a journal of their workouts with their reps and weights and times so that they can see their progress or know where they’re at to pick a weight for a workout.

When an athlete starts with us, we ask them to write down their goals on the first page of their journal. And I usually talk to everyone who comes for their first workout, and have them tell me their goals. 

As I was organizing the journals, I looked at some of the front pages.

The guys journals mostly had goals like how much they wanted to lift, or some activity they wanted to do more easily.

The women? Far more of those goals had to do with losing weight, or being a certain size.

Is that what I was seeing, already, with the teens class?

I was talking about it with my husband over dinner and his first response was to institute a dress code of sorts, meaning that everyone had to keep their shirts on. His intentions were honorable and sweet. He didn’t want anyone, of either gender, to feel pressured or inferior in some way. I get it.

But I objected, vociferously, (as if there’s any other way that I object to things.) No! Watching those guys be so comfortable with their bodies, doing things, in public was beautiful. It was ease with not a hint of sexuality or braggadocio.

I don’t want to suggest, in any way, that they should cover up or be ashamed, or be responsible for how anyone reacts seeing them with their shirts off. It was wonderful.

What I want to do is figure out what it would take for the girls to feel the same.

And then the women. 

And I have no idea how to do that. Except that I know it involves men.

So here are the questions: Why do these guys feel so safe and comfortable and empowered? What did we do to enable that? As a gym? As a society? And what can we do to create the same thing for girls and women?

Because we are all in this together.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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