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An Open Letter to Women Who Feel Like They Don't Belong In the Gym

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I recently found myself doing squats in a weight room filled entirely with men. On this particular day, I was wearing a nude knee-high compression stocking on my left leg to help keep the spider veins that have plagued me since pregnancy under some semblance of control. Twenty-five-year-old me would have been too mortified to show up—she would have worn full-length leggings or else stayed home. Forty-one-year-old me DGAF. I have squats to do.

For many women, the gym can bring up a lot of insecurities. A size-10, 34-year-old half-marathoner recently admitted to me, "When I'm in a group fitness class, I spend 75 percent of it wondering if I'm the biggest person in the room, or worried that people are thinking, 'Why the hell is she even bothering?'" We allow culturally induced worries like "Is my fat jiggling under my shorts?" pressure us into heading for the corner treadmill. Our inner Simon Cowell screams that our Warrior II pose will never be as enlightened and swan-like as that of the Lululemon-clad yogi next to us, so we relegate ourselves to the back row—or just stay home on the couch. A recent International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association survey found that women are twice as likely as men to quit their health club due to the intimidation factor, and also twice as likely not to join a gym due to being "too out of shape to think about it." British research shows that 75 percent of U.K. women wish they could be more active, but allow fear of judgment about their looks or ability to hold them back.

So anyone with a stretch mark, a fat roll, and half a soul can empathize with the woman captured by Dani Mathers' phone in July of 2016. In case you missed it, Playboy Playmate Dani Mathers, 30, cruelly captioned a nude photo of an older woman in her Los Angeles LA Fitness locker room, "If I can't unsee this then you can't either," before posting it to Snapchat. The image was juxtaposed with a selfie of Mathers, a fingerless weightlifting glove-clad hand clamped over her mouth, as if the mere sight of a naked woman with measurements outside the 38-24-34 vicinity was something worth freaking out over.

Mathers was recently sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to complete 30 hours of community service as penance for her social media (and human decency) misstep. When the story first broke, I remember being horrified—the victim was simply minding her own business, showering in the locker room after a workout. The gym can be tough on our psyche, but the gym locker room is especially fraught with anxiety; you're usually greeted by a scale as you enter (sometimes two), and those awful fluorescent lights seem to hold a magnifying glass up to your cellulite. Who hasn't tried to sneak a peek to see how we stack up next to the woman at the locker next to us—do her boobs sag like mine? What does her stomach really look like under that t-shirt?

Don't be gymtimidated

One reason so many of us feel the need to pop a Xanax before hitting the Bosu ball is that social media has morphed into a sort of toxic aspirational mirror, says Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D., author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out and Never Say Diet Again. "People post the sexiest, most photoshopped shots they can get, along with a humblebrag, like, 'So grateful for this yoga class today.' Instagram is filled with fitspo catch phrases like 'Sweat is just fat crying.' You see those pics and you think, 'Well, I'm a piece of shit because I didn't work out today.'" (Indeed, studies show that frequent social media consumption spikes up our FOMO, contributing to poor moods, depression, even eating disorders.)

I think gym anxiety may also partially stem from the sexism that still exists in sports 42 years after Title IX. Male ballers are aggressively recruited by top universities, offered multimillion-dollar contracts once they go pro, and showered with embarrassingly lucrative endorsement deals; pro women's sports arena can often resemble ghost towns, and the disparity in their pay grade is impossible to ignore. A review of two dozen studies found that, in gym class, female teenagers routinely report feeling marginalized by their male counterparts who monopolize equipment, or by boyfriends who warn them they'll look butch if they play sports. Even the bodies of the most incredible pro women athletes aren't safe from scrutiny. Serena Williams' (killer) physique is constantly criticized, and when a beach photo of Team USA gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Madison Kocian went up on Instagram, trolls attacked their hard-earned abs.

Today's toxic gym culture can feel even worse for heavier women, says fat-acceptance activist Lindy West, author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. "Many gyms have ads with people looking down at their fat rolls and frowning," says West. "Imagine entering a building where every person inside is working toward the goal of not looking like you." As if Teyana Taylor gyrating around Kanye's weight bench in a thong didn't beat us down enough. Sure, there has been some progress. The new "no judgment" marketing approaches of popular gyms like Planet Fitness and Crunch (and movements like the UK's This Girl Can campaign, which inspires women of all sizes, ages, and abilities to get active) are helping, but there's still a long way to go.

Well, ladies, it's time to eff that noise, flip the script, and let your damp-ponytailed, pit-stained, cellulite-speckled freak flags fly. It's 2017. The body-positivity movement is in full force: Lena Dunham, Ashley Graham...even Barbie ditched her thigh gap. We are strong, intelligent women, and there's simply no reason to avoid your favorite boutique fitness class simply because you don't look like Athleta mannequins.

Here, your three-step plan for squashing sweat-sesh anxiety.

Focus on how you feel.

Stop making exercise about compensation ("I need to cancel out last night's pizza and rosé") or self-flagellation ("My ass looks disgusting in this bikini"), and stop treating your body like a frenemy that only deserves praise when it's on a cleanse or elliptically purging itself of calories. Instead, Scritchfield suggests, focus on exercise's happy side effects, like the rock-solid eight hours of sleep you nab after a challenging HIIT class or the way 30 minutes of Pilates makes you feel like a living, breathing wood nymph donning a glittering Snapchat butterfly crown.

Try to prioritize performance and strength over appearance when working out. This takes practice (I'm still working on it myself) but remember that really, truly, no one is looking at you. The other women in your weighted hot yoga class are hanging on for dear life, just like you are. (If a man is staring at you and it's making you uncomfortable, let him or your gym know.)

Gear up.

Sometimes the right workout gear is all you need to feel on point. Personally, I hope the see-through mesh legging trend never ends because it makes me feel a little sexy while I sweat. For longtime group fitness instructor Jennifer Ferguson of Portland, OR, sporting a thin, flimsy sports bra while leading Spin and boot-camp classes was starting to bum her out, so she used it as motivation to design a line of super-soft, underwire-free sports bras with thin removable pads (cheekily called Handful Bras.) There are plenty of workout clothing lines that cater to every other possible body type or insecurity under the sun, too. Superfit Hero offers inclusive, performance gear in sizes XS to 4L; plus-sized company Torrid has an entire line of activewear. Or, just say screw it and wear the damn sports bra, like this Dare to Bare charity fitness campaign wants you to do: Organized by the Movemeant Foundation, it encourages women to challenge themselves by exercising in their sports bra in public as a way of promoting self-acceptance and a new standard of beauty—one that has no standards at all.

Find a pal.

Still struggling? Buddy up. Ada Wong, a real estate project manager in San Francisco, found motivation by running with friends she met through From Fat to Finish Line, a running support community for, and composed of, people of all shapes and sizes. In 2016, Wong, who describes herself as plus-size, completed a 200-mile relay race with 11 other individuals, each of whom had lost an average of 100 pounds. Next on her list: Running the Chicago Marathon in October.

Age helps, too. "For years, I avoided going to dance, yoga, or exercise classes because I felt self-conscious, like I wasn't thin enough or competent enough, and like everyone was judging me," says Candace Walsh, 44, an editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "But that was my own projection. Getting older taught me that everyone is more focused on their own performance. Now, I love the camaraderie of boot camp and how strong PiYo makes me feel. I have zero F's to give about whether anyone judges me on my appearance. Working out just feels great."

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