Gyms are one of the few places in China where women enjoy freedom to wear what they want
It’s hard to walk into a gym in China without seeing scantily clad female bodies everywhere.
This surprised me at first; Chinese society tends to encourage rather more conservative dress than the west. Short skirts and exposed midriffs are rare, long sleeves are common and a low-cut top is guaranteed to attract stares.
In 2019, a blog post went viral on the Chinese internet which alleged that Chinese women did not have “freedom of dress”, because wearing something considered revealing resulted in stares, crude comments, or even a barrage of cyber-bullying, as in the case of actress Reyizha Alimjan.
The “freedom of dress” post amassed over 5 million views and many thousands of comments, with some supporting more conservative dress, and others criticizing the policing of women’s outfits and widespread shaming of female bodies in society. Whichever side people took in the debate, it was clear that a nerve of some kind had been touched, and that women’s clothing mattered.
I remember at the time a female Chinese friend shaking her head knowingly when the topic came up in conversation, rolling her eyes with resigned disappointment, and agreeing with absolute certainty: “No. Chinese women don’t have the freedom to wear whatever they want. Not if you want people to respect you.”
After this conversation, I started to notice that even on sweltering summer days, I saw few short shorts or crop tops on the street. I also noticed the way that people would stare and whisper to one another when a woman who waswearing less walked by. A few days ago, my landlady commented that a friend of mine didn’t seem “classy”, because she had forgotten to close the door when she went out; I was fairly certain the real reason was more to do with the short skirt she had been wearing.
What I had originally thought of as just cultural differences in fashion taste – a societal preference for baggier shapes and longer cuts – suddenly took on a different dimension of peer pressured modesty. It felt extremely frustrating, especially given the frequency with which middle aged Chinese men exposed their own (markedly less attractive) midriffs in the infamous “Beijing bikini”. The injustice was everywhere.
Except, I noticed, in the gym.
This was the one place that crop tops, bralettes, tight pants and short sleeves were all completely acceptable. Chinese shopping platform Taobao is awash with attractive two-piece sets and accentuating leggings that I see worn in every gym, yet never on the street. Working out seemed to have created a bubble in which revealing clothing was not just allowed, but encouraged.
Part of the reason for this is practicality, of course: sports clothing works best when it is form fitting, tight and quick-drying. But part of it is also gym culture – and the décor.
Photos on the walls of most gyms in mainland China show perfectly-figured women in their underwear, often in suggestive poses. It’s clear that this is intended as a negative-inspiration sales tactic: “Hello, women! You should look like this if you want to be attractive. Buy our memberships so that you can make your body resemble this photoshopped model!”
Problematic as this negative marketing is – I am firmly of the opinion that exercise should be used to feel good about what your body can do, rather than bad about how it looks – different rules for clothing are a happy sort of side effect. With so many near-naked bodies on the walls, the gym suddenly becomes like the beach: a place with a dress code separate from the rest of reality. Here, it is normal to put your body on display, because in this environment, your body itself is presented as the product being bought or sold.
Arguably, that doesn’t really sound like a feminist space. Is it really a positive thing for women if the freedom to wear revealing clothes is related to an underlying logic of comparing physical appearances?
In my opinion, the answer is an overall yes.
In an ideal world, nobody would judge anyone on their appearance, and people would exercise to make themselves healthier and happier. But we don’t live in that kind of world; and really, there’s nothing wrong with exercising to make your body look different. Aesthetics is as valid a motive as any other for working out.
The important issue here is that the gym is a space where women are not judged (or at least, are judged a lot less) for wearing more revealing clothes. Wearing less is not enforced – it’s a genuine choice, with plenty of women still choosing to wear baggier clothing. And that is exactly the point of why it is a liberating space. It doesn’t matter whether you wear something revealing or not. The unimportance of whichever way you choose is what defines genuine freedom.
Gyms would be altogether better places if it were also unimportant what your body looks like, but in the meantime, having a place where women can wear a little less is most definitely a breath of fresh air.