Women Dare to Bare for the Sports Bra Challenge
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“Take it off! Take it off!” chanted the enthusiastic crowd at the two beautiful blondes up on stage in the highly trafficked north plaza of Union Square Park in New York City as music blasted. In any other circumstance, this phrase might have been misconstrued as offensive and sexist. In this particular scenario, however, the more than 200 women (and some men) making the lewd-sounding demand were already half-naked themselves.

Most women, if not all, were in only their sports bras (the guys were topless) and bottoms while sitting on signature yellow and gray stationary bikes from SoulCycle, the hit indoor cycling studio. The two blondes—SoulCycle's superstar spin instructors Stacey Griffith and Melanie Griffith (no relation)—had just finished leading the warmup on this sunny spring afternoon as part of the 2013 Sports Bra Challenge. With their hoodies still on (they responded by saying the crowd had to earn seeing their rock-hard abs), they were the most dressed around besides gawking spectators and some fully-dressed event partners, including New Balance and Calorie Count, plus the deejay.

The annual one-day outdoor charity fitness movement, which took place on Sunday, April 14, aims to help women overcome insecurities, celebrate their bodies, and raise money (more than $200K this year) for the City of Hope’s Positive Image Center, which helps cancer patients feel beautiful and confident while undergoing treatment, and the SEAK Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes self-esteeming-boosting programs for kids and women.

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Among the famous faces there to support the feel-good cause were The Biggest Loser winners Olivia Ward and Hannah Curlee. Somehow I ended up spinning right behind these two ladies, and let me tell you, they were bringing it. Just trying to keep up with them made me totally forget the awkward fact that my pale winter skin was seeing sunlight for the first time all year. I wasn't the only one who got caught up in the moment.

“At first, I was a little self-conscious,” says first-timer Danielle Rabin, 29, of New York City, “but after setting up my bike and starting the ride in just my sports bra, I didn't even think about it. There was so much high energy in the park, it was hard not to be inspired.” Angelica Ocasio, 38, of the Bronx, felt the same way. “It was my first time ever romping around in my sports bra in public and it felt very empowering!”

It wasn't easy for even the fabulously fit to strip, but the warm, supportive environment made it more comfortable for everyone to shed the extra layer, including Shape.com's own executive editor, Abby Lerner. “I won't lie; I was a little reluctant, but then I got there and saw so many incredibly confident women of all shapes and sizes rocking a sports bra,” Lerner says. “It made me excited to ditch my shirt!”

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Why does it feel so damn good to let it all hang out? “American women have been given the message that until you look a certain way—typically emaciated or photoshopped—you should stay in the shadows and make life about deprivation, self-punishment, and self-criticism,” says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., an L.A.-based licensed clinical psychologist and author of the new book You Are Why You Eat. “Think about how much you have missed because you felt that you didn't look 'good enough' and held back. This has long-range implications for your health. There is no way to get to wellness unless you love your body,” she explains.

You don't need to wait until next year's event (or travel to NYC) to get your sweat on in just your sports bra. Get a group of girls together on a warm day and hit the park for a run, walk, or some yoga in just your sports bra and shorts or capris. It's so much easier to face your fears—you know, the ones that keep you from slipping on that itsy-bitsy bikini come summer—together and in a positive way. Just don't make the same mistake Lerner and I did on Sunday. Wear sunblock!

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