“Look at that ass in yoga pants!” This brilliant remark is brought to me by one of the five young men who have chosen to harass me during my afternoon run.
It is an ordinary run—four or five miles along the streets of my neighborhood. It is ordinary, too, that I am being harassed.
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I run by the local college, where the men call out to me, yelling in vivid detail what they want to do to me, what they think of my body, what they want me to do to them. They yell louder and follow me for a few steps as I run past. They are laughing.
My heart beats fast and hard against my chest as I try to strike that balance between hightailing it out of there while also not letting them see that I’m afraid.
But I am afraid. I am afraid and humiliated and so fed up with being confronted by this almost every time I run outside that I consider turning around and just laying into them, really letting them have it.
I know exactly what I would say. But I also know that I am not safe, and so I just keep running.
My Body Was Not My Own
Men started sexually harassing me when I was eight years old, and it hasn’t let up since. From a young age I felt that my body and sexuality were not wholly mine. Instead, they were products to be assessed and labeled by people who did not know me but seemingly had the power to define how I was perceived in the world.
As a highly sensitive child, my response to this messaging was to detach from my relationship with my body. I wore baggy clothes and avoided makeup and anything that might be perceived as “sexy.” I shrank from attention, partly out of an effort not to be seen and therefore sexualized or harassed.
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Something weird happened in the process of trying to hide. Surrendering ownership of my body and sexuality meant that I started to objectify my own body through other people’s eyes. I couldn’t describe my own appearance; I couldn’t tell if I looked nice or if I was attractive. I relied on other people’s assessments to give me some clue as to what my body was like.
This created a bizarre dichotomy: At the same time I shrunk from other’s perceptions of my body, I also craved them. I was only attractive if someone else said I was attractive. If someone implied that any part of my body wasn’t up to snuff, then it must be true. I needed other people’s opinions of my body in order to have an opinion about my body.
I lived this way until I was 21 years old.
I started going to the gym when I was 12, a space that was fraught for me from the beginning.
At the gym, it is impossible to avoid your own body. There’s the changing room, filled with women in various states of undress, with its pressure to be comfortable while naked and on display. There are mirrors on every wall. There’s your own heartbeat and your own muscles, demanding you recognize your attachment to them. There are the compressive fabrics that make it so much harder to hide your body—from others or yourself.
Still, I tried. I wore baggy T-shirts and flared, full-length yoga pants (one size too large) for weight lifting, using the elliptical, and running on the treadmill. I started doing calisthenics at home so I wouldn’t be on display.
In the last eight years, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable and confident in my own skin, but this habit—of wearing loose, bulky clothes during workouts—has persisted.
Finally, over the past year or so, something started to shift. As I’ve strengthened my relationship with my body, my focus during workouts has swung from what my body looks like to how it feels.
And in the process, I realized I felt encumbered on my runs—weighed down by flared pant legs, drooping waistbands, and long yoga pants that dragged on the street or the trail as I ran.
So I decided to do something that younger me would have found unthinkable: buy a pair of skintight running tights.
It took me nearly two months to actually go through with it. I saved three nice pairs to REI’s online shopping cart. I’d return to it every week or so to re-read descriptions and reviews.
But I couldn’t bring myself to fork over the cash. If I spent $65 on a pair of running tights, I thought, then I’d feel obligated to wear them to get my money’s worth. And I wasn’t ready to commit to that.
So I opted for a cheaper pair from a big-box store, and I told myself that I didn’t have to wear them once they arrived. Worst case scenario, I’d only be out $18.
When the package arrived, I cut it open and anxiously pulled the tights from the envelope.
Holy sh*t, I thought. These are small.
I figured I’d pull them on, they’d get stuck at my thighs, and I’d send them back to the store. At least then I could return to my dumpy yoga pants having said that I’d tried.
But the tights slid the whole way up and over my hips. They fit. They were comfortable. And I could move. I shimmied around the kitchen. I threw some high kicks and some sidekicks. I jogged down the hallway. I felt fantastic. One question remained: Could I actually wear these out in public?
Getting Comfortable Outside My Comfort Zone
As it turns out? Yes, I am physically capable of wearing skintight running tights in public. I’ve now done so 20-plus times. Still, getting emotionally comfortable in them has been a gradual process.
Like strengthening a muscle, I grow more confident every time I wear them. I’ve now donned them for runs with friends and solo runs, on street runs and trail runs and on the treadmill at the gym.
I would love to say that in wearing my running tights, I’ve learned to stop giving a damn what other people think of my body—but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
I see people looking at me as I run, and I sometimes feel self-conscious as I question what they’re thinking. I wonder if they’re judging me. I worry about being harassed. (But I also know, sadly, I’ll be harassed no matter what I wear—and all responsibility lies with the men who choose to catcall me, not my choice of clothes.)
For the most part, these concerns are now eclipsed by how great I feel when I go running in my tights. Freed from the weight of extra fabric, my legs move faster and more fluidly. I’m more agile: I can leap over logs and rocks with ease (and without fear of my pant legs getting snagged). I feel proud of my body for what it allows me to do. And I can more easily explore my physical abilities when I’m wearing clothes that enable me to do so.
Something else has changed too. These days, I don’t need anyone else to tell me whether my body is fit, or attractive, or nice looking. I feel attractive in my running tights. And I am starting to learn that this is not such a terrible thing.
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After all that time hiding—as if my sexuality was a secret that, once revealed, would be defined by anyone but me—I am learning to own my body. I am not waiting around for other people to tell me whether my body is worthy of judgment or praise. My butt looks great in running tights. I’ll be the one to say it.
I know these changes aren’t solely the result of buying a pair of running tights—that would be the mental health equivalent of saying that you can have your “dream body” simply by taking one dose of a miracle pill. It takes mental effort to shift my relationship with my body, not just a new pair of pants.
But here’s the thing that I’ve realized: Because running tights are skintight, learning to be comfortable in them is virtually the same as learning to be more comfortable in my own skin. And that, to me, is worth much more than $18.