What the “New York Times” yoga pants op-ed gets wrong about women and group fitness classes

On February 17th, the New York Times published the latest in a string of controversial opinion pieces. This time, the viral and patronizing op-ed targeted an unlikely subject: yoga pants, or more accurately the women who wear them. Don’t get me wrong, op-eds are meant to be provocative in some way, or, at the very least, to serve as conversation starters. After all, they are based in opinion.

But to have an opinion on something implies that you understand it, and as a yoga teacher, as a fitness student, and as a woman, I can’t help but notice that “Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women” contained many misunderstandings — including about the value and purpose of group fitness classes.

In her now-infamous piece, senior staff editor of the New York Times Opinion section, Honor Jones, attempts to discredit yoga pants as functional workout attire (which they absolutely are, as their name would imply). Instead, Jones presents them as pointless articles of clothing that women only wear because they’re “sexy.” Her case is built largely around the sexist assumption that “we’ve internalized the idea that we have to look hot at the gym.”

Jones then frames the gym as some kind of sinister space where women congregate to impress one another — or more accurately, our male classmates — with skin-tight outfits. Jones flat-out admits that she is “annoyed by the whole booming industry around women’s exercise, which is perhaps most evident in the rise of group fitness classes, but she has a basic misunderstanding of WHAT group fitness classes are and WHY women seek them out.

As Jones points out, there is a noticeable increase in studio memberships versus traditional gym memberships, and she isn’t wrong when she says that  women are spending more in these spaces; “they outnumber men in studio classes by more than two to one,” according to Jones. But she is wrong in assuming that these trends are somehow “bad for women.” Her misguided argument fails to recognize two key factors in group fitness and studio spaces that, as a teacher and a student, I can attest to:

1. Yoga pants, and the choice to wear them, are just that: a personal wardrobe choice, one that every individual has the right to make. There are no dress codes at group studios that require attendees to wear mesh-paneled pants and push-up sports bras. No one is there for a fashion show.

2. Studios are actually incredibly positive places where women are able to find not only a community but also the rare opportunity to honor themselves in a supportive space where they have control of their bodies. That includes what exercises they choose to do with their bodies, and what they choose to wear while doing them.

Despite what Jones’s op-ed would have readers believe, women don’t go to group fitness studios to impress their fellow classmates with sheer yoga pants or translucent tops — although there is absolutely nothing wrong with expressing yourself through fashion, especially when working out. Women go to fitness studios to find friends when they move to new cities, to unite with likeminded people outside of their workplaces and families, to simply connect with other women who share similar goals of living healthier and feeling happier. Fitness studios are spaces dedicated to body exploration, to self-love, and to self-expression, right down to the pants you choose to wear or the “flawed” parts of your body they might showcase.

Jones may not want women at the gym to reveal their “imperfections” by wearing pants that don’t hide every stretch mark or lovehandle, but in reality, group fitness studios are the exact kind of place where women can feel comfortable showing “every dimple and roll.” So what if there is skin or fat hanging over shiny black yoga shorts? Who cares if cellulite can be seen through netting on a tank top?

Why should we be hiding these very real and very normal parts of our bodies, especially in settings where we are actively using them?

Studio classes can be places where students go, not to look sexy as Jones misunderstands, but to feel sexy by taking agency of their bodies, purported flaws and all.

In the hot yoga classes I teach, yoga pants aren’t suggested attire because they set a “sexy” tone. Yoga pants are suggested attire they make certain poses easier for students to do and safer for me to monitor. In the community spin classes I attend, yoga pants aren’t my outfit of choice because I feel the need to impress my teacher or classmates. They are my outfit of choice so I don’t get fabric caught in my gears, and so I can more clearly see whether or not my form is correct in the mirror. Yoga pants also let me have fun with my wardrobe because, to me, fitness classes are more like a party than a competition. Yoga pants are an opportunity for me to express my personality at the gym, fat dimples be damned.

Don’t get me wrong — the fitness industry, and the studio space in particular, have glaring problems.

The high prices for tuition and individual classes exclude a huge population of people who could truly benefit from access to wellness centers. There are obvious issues of cultural appropriation, especially in yoga. The wellness word has a serious lack of representation, one that many leaders in the industry are actively working on.

What the fitness industry needs — what women in that space need — are real conversations about the problems that exist in the industry and how we can solve them.

What it doesn’t need is a member of the fashion police blaring her siren in “Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women.” There is already enough noise drowning out women’s true intentions and genuine interests with sexist accusations and overt body shaming. We don’t need one more person shouting about how a particular piece of clothing is “bad” for women. Instead, we need someone sounding the alarm about the fact that women’s wardrobes are still up for public debate. Even in spaces where women should feel safe to be in their own bodies, there are people telling them to hide under baggy sweatpants.

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