Though still not ideal, there have been some positive changes made in the way of clothes for larger athletes. Some questions still remain.
Words From An Athena Runner
When I put on athletic apparel, I feel strong. I feel powerful and capable. I feel beautiful. I am free to move through space in the way that my body is able, without being constrained by poorly designed clothing. I am fortunate to be one of a fast-growing group of Athena athletes whose clothing options continue to expand, albeit at a slow pace.
This wasn’t always the case, however. When I recommitted to running back in 2008, things were different. I often found myself looking desperately for clothing that I could wear at my gym or even at home while I embarked on my fitness journey. I finally settled on wearing men’s athletic apparel and boxy cotton T-shirts, because those were the only articles of clothing I could wear that fit and allowed me to get my workouts in without worrying about the tights slipping down past my belly with every bounce or the tops rolling up under my bra…I mean bras, plural. The two or three bras I would wear to ensure that I didn’t have bruises under my chin after a run or jumping jacks or yoga.
But these days I have choices. I have an array of beautifully constructed tights, capris and shorts to choose from for almost all of the activities I love. In addition, I have short sleeved and long sleeved technical tops whose purpose is to support the athletic endeavor I am engaged in and NOT to hide my various rolls (and such).
And although I’m still searching for the perfect sports bra, I have many more options than I did even three years ago. I no longer have to layer two bras under a compression top that has an ineffective built-in shelf bra. I have several—albeit imperfect—pieces to choose from depending on the activity. Some of them are even in colors other than black and white!
Before The Slow Shift
Some athletic apparel companies are finally listening to consumers and are answering the call to create lines specifically for Athena athletes. Others continue to promote the idea of an aspirational body, restricting the sizes of their products in order to maintain a sort of weight-body-type status quo; in doing this, they miss out on an incredible opportunity to clothe an entire segment of the population that wants and needs well-made, high quality, functional, and beautiful sportswear.
Meet Susanne Johnson, a nurse practitioner, blogger at Purl Before Swine, all-around phenomenal woman and an Athena athlete. She began her fitness journey a few years ago after completing graduate school. She struggled to find apparel that fit her (i.e. didn’t ride up or down, bunch up between the thighs, cause chafing, or cause her to constantly adjust it, thereby ruining the spirit of the workout), but she soldiered on anyway, making her limited selection of clothing meet her needs. She could rarely shop at any sportswear store; the sizes would often only go up to an XL, which could be sized at 12-14 or 14-16, even though nowadays the average American woman’s waist ranges from 14-18. Susanne would often have to travel to the back of department stores to sections with labels like “Women” (which begs the question, Who is everyone else that identifies as female?), “Special Sizes,” “Plus Size,” “Maternity” and other terms that caused some discomfort and sense of alienation. It was a constant struggle for Susanne to find clothes that actually qualified as athletic and that weren’t pieces intended for athleisure.
Susanne also resorted to mens’ clothing too, even though the vast majority of items in XL and above wouldn’t even fit plus-sized men in the right way. They would typically be pieces that had not been sized and proportioned to fit actual people—they were simply cut larger without regard for the broad array of human shapes that did not fit in the standard sizing algorithm.
Here’s what she needed: compression material that actually compressed, wide waistbands that came up over the belly and butt and stayed there during exercise and quality material that was functional and flattering.
As I got deeper into my own fitness, I had the same list of needs. I looked all over, both in brick and mortar stores and online. Occasionally I would find something. I remember jumping for joy when I finally found a piece in over here in Marshall’s, there in Dick’s and further over there in the bottom of the clearance bin at Ross. These pieces might not have been intended for the constant rubbing and up and down and side-to-side movements of actual exercise, but they were a start.
So how did we get from having extremely limited choices to today’s growing (but certainly not sufficient) array of Athena apparel?
Brands Were Catching Up…But Still Missing The Mark
Sure, some larger brands and companies jumped on the wagon and responded to the actual needs of their customers by offering sizes that went beyond XL—Target, Lane Bryant, Juno, Old Navy, Danskin and a handful of others. Unfortunately, and with the exception of a few, many (but not all) of these products were not designed with real athletic endeavor in mind and could not handle the demands of running or, well, anything beyond yoga, slow walking and stationary cycling. There were lots of cotton blends, flimsy waistbands and rough seams. Athenas who loved high-impact activities were out of luck unless they resorted to mens’ apparel, since at least those items went up to XXL (and in some cases 3XL). Were they a perfect fit? No, but at least it was something that allowed the desired kind of fitness to happen.
Brands Who Nailed It
Enter smaller, more grassroots efforts like Katie K Active and Lineage, companies that have created lines for a broader swath of folks. They focus on actual needs and take consumer psychology into consideration. Lineage, for example, prides itself on not separating straight sizes from plus-sizes: “We’re all used to plus-sizes being in separate sections. Not the case here at Lineage! Each product contains its full-size range in one place.” Katie K Active proves that they are the size-inclusive brand they say they are “by fitting [their] line on a straight size fit model and a plus-size fit model, we make sure we adjust the line to create a flawless yet comfortable fit.” The efforts of companies like this are helping to bring relief and a sense of belonging to scores of women who have always been athletes but have been traditionally ignored as such by big athletic companies who preferred to maintain the aspirational status quo.
CJ Riggins is another visionary. As the capstone project of her MBA program, Riggins, who has worked in the apparel industry since she was a teenager, decided to form her own company designing and creating technical apparel for Athena athletes.
Her desire was to lead a company that would be the “premier creator and retailer of Athena athletic apparel.” The goal was to empower plus size athletes to do what they loved without having to worry about the fit, form and function of their exercise clothing. As a seventeen-year veteran designer of technical apparel, Riggins wanted to bring her expertise to a world that was too often left to the dregs of the clearance bin or completely forgotten.
“I wanted to respect the athlete at her level, wherever she was. Why shouldn’t she get the same respect [as other athletes]?”
Riggins saw the opportunity to improve the industry she was in by making it more size inclusive. She took a hard look at the messages it had been sending and set out to reset those messages to include a whole segment of the population that had been previously cut off from its wares. There was still a little of this “mean girl” attitude marauding as the “aspirational” look and Riggins was determined to chip away at that idea; that well-designed sports apparel was only for women who fit a certain demographic and look. She took the huge project on herself, knowing that she would encounter criticism and comments like “Athenas don’t really work out…,” for example.
Fast forward to a year after the initial conception of the idea, and Riggins is now the CEO and founder of RSport and it is exactly as she envisioned: a small batch, customer-focused company backed by many years of experience and research into the needs of the specific population she serves, people like me.
There’s Still Much To Be Done
The reality is that globally, people are growing larger, and old size standards just don’t work for many of today’s humans. Riggins sees supplying Athena athletes with functional attire as an equal rights issue. Why shouldn’t larger athletes enjoy the same comforts as everyone else? Some might say that worrying about access to clothing for exercise is not an important human issue, but if you allow me to wax psychological for a minute, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs includes clothing as shelter from the elements as one of the patterns of human motivations. So should inclusive athletic apparel even be considered here? Is it a need?
Folks can get exercise in a variety of ways, and true, not all of these modes of physical activity require clothes specific for those particular types of movements. But we have made available apparel that facilitates these physical actions and that makes it easier to move efficiently through space…for some people, that is. Why inhibit others then? Why make it more difficult? Why improve movement for only a limited group of people? How did we get here, and how do we move on?
These are questions whose answers seem simple but the implications of creating space to include more kinds of bodies in athletics and in every way possible are far-ranging. Our national initiatives to get everyone moving, to help curb the incidence of diseases that may be a result of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and to prolong our lives can definitely be impacted positively if more companies, both large and small, grassroots and global, continue to help facilitate movement for every kind of body.