Feminism | Posted by Lindsey T on 02/22/2011

Paris Gyms: Enter At Your Own Risk

Fashion in Paris: on and off the runway

Fashion in Paris: on and off the runway

From a very young age my mother instilled in me a certain logic, if you can call it that. There were clothes that could be worn to school, to friends houses, out to dinner and to events and then there were what she called “play clothes” – clothes for lounging around the house, playing outside or engaging in any kind of athletic activity. The two were not to overlap. From the moment I would get home from school I was told to go upstairs and change into my play clothes before doing anything else. I never found this to be unusual since the only time I would see my mother in anything but her play clothes (jeans, a sweatshirt and slippers) was when she would run errands or go out to dinner with my father on the weekends. It was an irritating rule but not something I perceived as abnormal.

Although I had many friends whose mothers did not maintain such an approach to dressing, I grew up buying into this notion that there was a time to get dressed up and a time to be comfortable. In my experience, this is very American. I didn’t realize how American it was until I came to Paris where looking good is an art form, an innate ability that we sartorially inferior beings lack. It goes far beyond good grooming and fashion sense and nowhere was this made more obvious to me than at the gym in Paris.

To a certain degree I can understand how looking good for your workout might contribute to a positive body image. I refuse to believe, however, that I should be spurned because I left the house in running shoes, stretchy yoga pants, a t-shirt and a trace of the previous night’s mascara. I’ve been a member of a fitness club since High School in a culture where, unless you go to the gym straight from work, you arrive in sneakers and fitness gear without thinking twice. This falls into the “play clothes” category of dressing. However, looking sporty in Paris is a major faux-pas, one that provokes looks of disdain steeped in judgment – as if I’m not only inferior but dowdy. What could be worse? The only context in which athletic-wear is permissible is for running outdoors but let’s be honest, this also confuses some Parisians. Why would anyone subject themselves to such sweaty torture?

I was immediately astounded by the get-ups women would sport to the gym, the majority of whom I would quickly learn were either stay-at-home trophy wives or stay-at-home mothers. Even at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, these characters would show up to the gym in heels, skinny jeans or a skirt, a painted face and an aroma that could only come from half a bottle of perfume. All of this just to head straight into the locker room, gossip with their girlfriends, change (into what can only be considered inappropriate gym-attire) and, presumably, sweat off their liquid foundation.

When I head to the weight lifting room, the most demeaning place of all, where the smell of sweaty socks fills my nostrils and hits me like a brick, I am the outsider among virtually all men. Some hopelessly scrawny nerds, some beefed-up meatheads, some flirty homosexuals in short-shorts that leave little to the imagination and a lot of excessive staring. As a female, I breach the male-dominated muscle fortress the second I sit down on the hip-abductor machine. Because of this, these surly representations of French masculinity feel the need to comment on how I use the machines, remarking that muscles aren’t attractive on women and I should stick to cardio. Fortunately, I have learned not to take this personally and have concluded that French men are merely unaccustomed to seeing women with a little meat, muscles and tone (read: real women).

Yes, these seemingly bizarre clothing choices and social behaviors could be attributed to a difference in culture (didn’t their parents ever teach them not to stare and judge?) but it really speaks to a much larger issue in the Parisian gyms, the idea of spectacle and prestige. It’s all for show – the outfits, the blatant yearning for perfection, the condescension, the visual competition – a great number of these Parisians are not there to lose weight, get fit or stay healthy (besides, any health benefit is negated by smoking the moment they leave the gym) but to socialize and show off.

This approach to fitness wouldn’t necessarily be problematic if it weren’t for the scowls and looks that scream “you’re inferior, you don’t look good, you have no style.” I’m not sure which is worse, their occasional blatant disregard for my existence or the more frequent looks of revulsion.

Paris is not only the capital of fashion but of the thin ideal. Sure, it underwrites almost all messages diffused by American fashion media as well, but you can feel the yearning to be thin and stylish on and off the Paris runways. For the most part, the women don’t have “play clothes” because, well, you never know who you might run into on a quick trip to the market or pharmacy so looking your best is imperative. I’ve had to completely change my approach to dressing and I fear my American nonchalance is being quickly replaced by Parisian snobbism. But as much as I become more French in style, I will always follow my mother’s logic and wear my “play clothes” to the gym. I can handle the looks.

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  • Kristen @ at 12:46 pm, February 22nd, 2011

    Lindsey, I entirely agree with you on the subject of casual dressing for the gym and various other times where dressing up is not necessary. However, I just wanted to point out that, as a naturally very thin woman, I didn’t appreciate your comment about “real women”. We’re all real women, regardless of our body shape and size, and making comments like that is just as hurtful as when women who are heavier set are called fat or chubby or something equally mean.

  • Lindsey @ at 1:24 pm, February 22nd, 2011

    Hi Kristen,

    Thanks for your comment! I understand your feelings and I apologize if my words came across as insensitive. My goal was not to insinuate that naturally thin women weren’t “real” but rather that the French women around me that smoke and obsessively drink diet coke to curb their appetites, are not. Anyway, I appreciate your comment!

  • Alec A @ at 5:11 pm, February 22nd, 2011

    I lived in France for awhile and I totally agree with your observations. The French have to look good constantly but, more importantly, it can’t look as though they tried.

  • jULIET @ at 1:02 am, February 23rd, 2011

    I’m going to paris this summer, and as I am not a skinny, traditional-looking girl, i’ll keep this in mind. maybe I won’t go to the swimming pool…

  • C @ at 4:33 am, February 23rd, 2011

    I can empathize a bit with you here – I just moved to France from New Zealand, and get all kinds of filthy looks regarding my appearance. I’ve never been one for makeup and pretty clothes, and I stick out like a sore thumb here.
    All of my female relatives here buy into the French attitude you mentioned, and even though culturally I am half-French, and legally I am a French citizen, I feel that people don’t see me as French because I don’t make an effort with my appearance and try and look good 24/7.
    While some aspects of French culture are far more woman-friendly than those in NZ, France still has a long way to go in several areas…

  • rhea d @ at 9:15 am, February 23rd, 2011

    Nice article Lindsey, and s great blog. I find it hard to believe you’re only teenagers.

  • Heather Stimmler-Hall @ at 11:23 am, February 23rd, 2011

    Hmmm…maybe it’s the gym you attend. I was a member of two different gyms in Paris at different times (Club Med gym and then L’Usine), and never once did I see inappropriate gym wear (make-up, yes, but I don’t think women coming from work are going to remove it), and never once had anyone say anything rude to me for doing weights. In fact, my trainer scolded me for spending too much time on the treadmill (I wanted to catch the end of the movie that was playing on the screen) because he said I needed to build muscle, not lose weight (merci to Kristen for the comment; I too felt that “real women” reference sting). I will admit that there were no fat people at the gym. That seemed rather odd. but those who were there seemed to be serious about their workout, nothing like the gossipy women who go to your gym (is there another branch you can try?)

  • Anne @ at 11:29 am, February 23rd, 2011

    Last Sunday, I couldn’t decide which outfit at my Parisian gym was most laughable — the guy in the aerobics class wearing a Ralph Lauren polo, bermuda shorts, and high top All Stars with no apparent socks, or the dude on the treadmill in a turtleneck, capri pants, black socks, and black gym shoes. And neither seemed to be working up a sweat.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 12:21 pm, February 23rd, 2011

    Pfft, American gyms are downright sad, they have about as many mirrors as your typical clothing store… so guys who are even vainer than I am can check themselves out from every angle.

    While Parisians fancy themselves as the world’s premier fashionistas, it’s a European thing, proper ladies and gentlemen do not wear “rags” in public.

    Looking at the world though an American “Lens” is a recipe of disaster. America is not a “working class” country, it’s a low class/born country. The only culture America has is the kind that grows in Petri dishes.

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  • Lindsey @ at 12:02 pm, February 27th, 2011

    Heather – actually, this was my experience at Club Med République. For the last year I have been a member at a different gym and the experience has been much more positive and much more enjoyable. People ACTUALLY interested in working out (save for the very strange man who likes to socialize/distract other members and read magazines aloud as he is on a machine) and wear appropriate gear (for the most part). The instructors don’t make you feel worthless or point out your physical flaws. Furthermore, it’s literally 40 meters from my apartment so it’s a better deal all around.

    Other Club Med members have remarked that they did not see the same type of behavior at their local branch so I have a feeling the République club attracts particularly strange characters.

    Again, I apologize for not explaining what I meant by “real women”, my intention was not to offend.

    Anne -THAT’S the kind of thing I am talking about!

  • forest @ at 12:43 pm, February 27th, 2011

    as another club med member – i go to the ones in the 15th and the people there are okay. I try to go during non-peak times, but the people seem to pretty much focus on their workouts and don’t wear anything too crazy. (although I do get a few stares as I take the metro there in my workout clothes!) My biggest problem with Parisian gyms is that they are expensive and even though they recently remodeled ours they didn’t put screens on the cardio machines…i like to catch up with the news while I’m on them (or, okay, I admit, watch some stupid TV sometimes…I gotta do something to distract from the fact that I’m spending 45 minutes walking uphill nowhere!) :)

  • Lindsey @ at 10:58 am, February 28th, 2011

    Forest – thanks for your comment! I guess it really depends on the location! I was very unlucky. You’re right, they’re VERY expensive but I imagine they must be in New York as well, no? They need something like the YMCA!
    Even in my new gym we don’t have screens – now THAT is a luxury!

  • Simim @ at 2:15 am, March 23rd, 2011

    It’s true that in much of Europe, there aren’t “play clothes.”

    When you travel, the first thing that will mark you out as an American is wearing sneakers to anywhere.

    My mom taught me two things: Dress to impress, and wear what you feel reflects you.

    She did this in a weird way that involved letting me iron my Dead Kennedys patches onto my sleeveless denim vest, but not leaving the house if I wore that vest with velvet. I could dye my hair magenta, but I better not be wearing neon green unless I wanted to look like a watermelon.

    She taught me the value of aesthetics. There’s a certain “flow” to the way you dress, whether it’s punk or normal. And you never let someone catch you not dressed impeccably, whatever your fashion.

    The only time I was wearing sweats and a t-shirt(and I still do this) is if I was in my house, absolutely no plans for the day, doing something like mowing the lawn or homework or something.

    As a result, I’ve always been “the one who dresses up.” My friends say I’m overdressed when we go to the movies, but I’m always looking at them like they put on clothes like they could care less how they looked.

    It’s not really a matter of me being comfortable with how others view me. If I wanted to blend in I’d grow my hair out, dye it something normal, and slip on an AE shirt.

    Instead, it’s the idea that when I leave the house, my outfit is a work of art. I’m portraying my creativity and individual shine with how I choose to tailor myself. I like being able to look at myself in the mirror before I leave and know that if anyone were to rag on me for how I dress, it’s because they’re jealous. ^_^

    I also like knowing I can show my soul to the world without having to tell them jack. I can express myself, show it off to the world, and have this beautiful aesthetic to it.

    I mean, sure, there’s definitely been times where I mismatch, but those are purposeful. Sometimes I feel like I mismatch. Why not dress how I feel?

    Clothes, function aside, are merely aesthetic extensions of yourself, like getting a tattoo except less permanent.

    If I wanted to cover myself up, I’d venture forth naked.

  • Simim @ at 2:17 am, March 23rd, 2011

    And just to add on real quick: I’m not promoting wearing stilettos or corsets or plucking your eyebrows or wearing cake makeup, unless you want to.

    Being “forced” to wear something, like a bra, is uncomfortable and restrictive. Unless you enjoy it, it limits what I feel clothing as a fashion is supposed to portray: your freedom and creativity.

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