I fell in love with group exercise classes thirteen years ago, after my first baby was born. I’d gone to classes at the local rec center before that, but never consistently enough to make friends and become a regular. As a new mom however, I discovered an exercise class taught by volunteer women at my church in the cultural hall. I went almost every day, because I could bring my baby and set him on the ground next to me and interact with other moms.
I outgrew that class once my baby started crawling and getting in the way of everything, and renewed my membership at the rec center, which offered daycare so that I could exercise without balancing him on my hip. I still remember that group of women with fondness, though. My husband was deployed, I didn’t know a thing about babies, and the days were long and isolating. Those women every morning filled an important role in my life right when I needed it.
Well over a decade later, I still love classes at the gym, and my favorite workout of any year was always the Turkey Jam – a two hour workout on Thanksgiving morning. Everyone was always in a particularly good mood and extra friendly on the morning of a holiday, and it’s just more fun than a regular day.
But my gym canceled holiday workouts indefinitely last year. I was so sad! I asked around for any other gyms that offer a similar pre-turkey workout, and a friend told me that she teaches Zumba at a church just 4 minutes from my house, and that they have a great Thanksgiving workout I could come to. I went, and she was right – it was awesome! There were probably 60+ women in the cultural hall together by the end, and they added me to their Facebook group and enthusiastically encouraged me to come anytime during the rest of the year to their free workouts during the week.
On Thanksgiving this year, I wanted to go join them again, and got online the night before to double check the address and make sure I remembered which church building it was at. As I opened up the announcement for this year’s workout, I caught something that I hadn’t noticed last year – a note that said “No tank tops, please!”
I only work out in tank tops. I know some people don’t mind sleeves, but I hate them. They make my armpits extra sweaty, and when running long distances they chafe and feel wet and gross against my skin. And maybe it’s partly in my head, but I feel so hot in them! Taking off that two inches of material on the top of my arms makes me feel so, so much better.
I wondered if this was a new rule, so I searched for “tank top” in the Facebook group and found multiple posts over the years of reminders that the stake presidency allows them to use the facilities for classes, but the rules are “no tank tops in the church”. I even found more specific instructions on what is permissible to wear in a post from last year:
“For those of you coming and bringing friends… please remember, like any activity held in the church, to follow church standards of dress. No tank tops or low cut t-shirts that show too much cleavage.
“Women should avoid short shorts…, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back.” (For the Strength of Youth)”
I remembered that the instructor last year had taken a group photo of many of the women, and searched the group for that photograph. There I was on the back row, smiling and totally oblivious to how out of place my blinding white shoulders were in this group.
Everyone there handled my dress code violation perfectly, to be clear. Not a single person mentioned it and all I felt was welcoming arms. I didn’t even know I’d broken a rule. I’d almost come back the second year in another tank top actually!
I started to think to myself, “Man, I have to wear a t shirt tomorrow? I don’t even own one for working out in! This is such a dumb rule. These women are working out and teaching classes for free, bringing their babies and kids with them, providing friendship and drastically improving the mental and physical health of women in the stake, providing a fellow-shipping opportunity, and there aren’t even men in the dang building! And yet the stake president feels like it’s his duty to police how much of the upper arm flesh of these women is exposed to the cultural hall walls? No one is coming to a free church workout to show off their body and look sexy! I wear a tank top because it’s the appropriate clothing for the activity, not to break For The Strength of Youth standards (a dress code guideline for YOUTH, not mature adult women, and not supposed to be in reference to something like workout apparel anyway!). Why does a stake president need to be involved in these women’s workout classes in any way at all, other than to just say, ‘Thank you!’?”
Those were the frustrated thoughts that were churning in my brain as I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning a little calmer, put on a t-shirt, and went over to enjoy the workout.
During class, I started thinking. Maybe I overreacted. This is a free class, in a free facility, and there’s nothing wrong with a private organization having a dress code and asking people to follow it – especially since hey, it’s free! I am not obligated to attend there. I can pay and go to different places that won’t mind a tank top at all, right?
But it still kept churning in my head and still didn’t feel right. I think I decided why. It’s the fact that it was the male leadership making the rules about women’s cleavage being forbidden, in a women’s class, in a program run entirely by volunteer women in the stake. If tank tops and shorts and cleavage are a concern in a church building, why couldn’t this message come from the stake relief society president instead of him? It feels weird, in the same way that it would feel weird if the stake relief society president went onto Facebook to inform the men playing late-night basketball games at the church that their shorts need to be loose enough that no one could see the shape of their male genitalia – especially if the men were playing basketball at a time of day when zero women were in the building. I’d start thinking, “Is the stake relief society president specifically going to their basketball games to observe and see if their shorts are too snug in the crotch? Or is she just assuming that some of the men will wear tight shorts, so she’s writing messages to all of the men to cover her bases, just in case? Doesn’t she worry about coming off as a little creepy lecturing the men of the stake about noticing their… *whispers*… penises?”
If there’s going to be a dress code at church events, fine. But I hereby issue a request to all stake presidencies of this worldwide church – please, PLEASE, delegate this responsibility to the female stake leaders. Don’t do it yourself ever again. And hey – thank you. I genuinely appreciate the free Thanksgiving workout facility! But for the other 364 days of the year, you’ll only ever find me sporting a tank top and yoga pants at the local gym, because I HATE SLEEVES WHILE EXERCISING. And I will, forever and ever, amen.
PS: I googled “Elder’s Quorum basketball games” just for fun after finishing this blog post. I found many, many YouTube videos of championship games filmed in Latter-day Saint cultural halls around the world. Interestingly, every single game had a number of boys and men wearing tank tops. So, is this a double standard? Or are all of these men doing the same thing I did a year ago at Thanksgiving, wearing tank tops without realizing it’s not allowed? What do we think?
I think you’re exactly right. A tank top is a perfectly appropriate article of clothing when you’re exercising, for heaven’s sake. Even the most orthodox of members should see this. The stake president is waaay overreaching.
And I also think you’re spot on about the double standard. To take it even further, I’m a guy and when I was a teen, I played a ton of pick-up basketball at the church, and we frequently played shirts and skins. Our YM leaders never said anything negative about it that I recall, and neither did our bishopric. (To be complete, this was decades ago.)
It’s hard for me to see this as anything more than another instance where, to men in power, women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and that’s bad, and they need to be covered up constantly to prevent their wicked sexiness from leaking out and making the whole world bad.
It looks like there’s a handful of other women who ignored, or didn’t know about, the no tank top rule. Good for all of you. I can’t workout in t shirts either.
And not only do men wear tank tops, sometimes they play shirts and skins. I’ve never seen anyone say anything about that.
It’s SOOOO frustrating that the half naked guy in the gym gets to tell the woman to put sleeves on.
Wow. This post smoked the hypocrisy of these silly rule.
I am a runner and I have gotten SO MUCH flack for wearing…running clothes when I run. I can’t wear those tiny shorts that tiny runners wear, so I wear longer (but definitely not LONG) running skirts and tank tops. From stake presidents all the way down to neighbors’ kids, I have been chastised for not being modest and for not wearing Gs when I exercise. Like, people stopping me as I’m leaving my house.
I know that’s not exactly the same thing as your experience, but it is built on the same principle: that I, as an adult woman, need to be told what to wear in circumstances that what I’m wearing actually matters (because chafing is real, my friend, as you know!).
All of it is men poking their nose where it shouldn’t be, and for me hearing it from the RS president wouldn’t cause any less annoyance and resentment because it is also not another woman’s business what anyone wears to exercise.
Thanks for your post. I hope a bunch of SPs read it! 😉
One of my pet peeves from as long as I can remember. Growing up we used to have stake track meets – men wore short shorts (it was the 1970’s) and tank tops or no shirts. Women, in the blazing summer sun wore shirts with sleeves, sweat pants and garments underneath. Bothered me to no end. Then came men’s basketball with tank tops for men or no shirts at all. Women’s sports had the modesty police around. Sorry to hear it’s still happening so many years later. I do see other shoulder in the picture so you’re not alone. I am glad you didn’t report that you’d been chastised for wearing your tank top, small tender mercies I suppose.
In a ward I was in, the young women (I was in the ward yw presidency) would practice basketball the hour before Wednesday night youth group and the young men would practice the hour after. More than once, the young women were “reminded” by various people in positions of authority (and even by just random ward members) that they should be wearing sleeves and long shorts while practicing. And without fail, an hour later the young men would practice basketball wearing tank tops, or even without shirts on, and no one disapprovingly eyeballed the young men’s bare shoulders. The double standard was absolutely blatant.
Someone just shared with me this (quite funny) Alex Boye YouTube video about playing church basketball. Almost every man in it is wearing a tank top, and if you peruse the comments afterwards, no one is giving the performers flak for not wearing “garment friendly” clothing in the video. The clothes are for exercising in, not attending Sacrament Meeting – so it doesn’t occur to anyone that it’s a problem… because it’s men.
On the other hand, if the women wear tank tops for their exercise programs – it’s inappropriate. There’s a real double standard here.
Policies like this that blatantly declare the Mormon male gaze upon women and young women are awful. Even a projection of an imagined or threat of a gaze reinforces to women that their bodies are lustful objects to be covered up, and somehow all the bishops and stake presidents saying these things cannot hear what their words are actually saying. It’s asinine.
Complete and total double standard.
I live in a high density Mormon community and work-out every morning at the gym when it opens (5 am). A shocking number of women wear their garments to work-out in (the garment lines are a huge tell). I never even did that when I was an active member who wore garments. I would have gotten heat stroke. I mean, these women can do whatever they want, but I think it’s completely ridiculous to expect these women to overdress for the activity. Modesty should be more about dressing appropriately for the activity and not about hem lines or garments proving your obedience.
I’m not opposed to short sleeves when I work out, but I cannot wear long sleeves. A lot of people do in the winter and it’s too much for me. I wear tank tops quite often, especially in spin class, for ease of movement, which is common sense.
I had a bishop that would not allow us to do Zumba in the cultural hall. Forget tank tops. NO ZUMBA! The dance moves are suggestive and inappropriate. I’m no longer active. I just couldn’t deal with all of it anymore. I mean really, some neighbor man is telling all the women in the ward that Zumba is too sexy and they shouldn’t be doing those moves in the cultural hall? Creepy.
If you wore that tank top to sunday services, guess what, nobody would say a thing because there is no dress code or rules for Sunday. What does that tell you? This man is out of line and making up shiz.
I’m with you. I only wear tank tops when working out. If I wear sleeves, I show my belly every time I raise my arms. It’s so uncomfortable. My sister and I sarcastically refer to our shoulders as “porn-shoulders,” haha. It IS a dumb, double standard.
The first thing that comes to my mind is how the message from the stake RSP would sound: “Sisters, the SP has asked me to remind you to follow the dress standards in FSY during exercise classes in the cultural hall.” Delegating the message does not help. It almost makes it worse, even if (especially if?) she doesn’t invoke the SP’s authority in laying out the rule. It just reeks of women having no authority at all, and policing each other in a shame-filled culture to gain favor in the eyes of the men who do hold authority. The whole thing just feels awful to me. No wonder why I keep my distance lately.
I wish this were an outlier, but sadly, I think where I live is more the outlier. just luck? the modestly rhetoric some places is so crazy! I’m so relieved no one said anything to you—I very much thought this story was going to go another way.
I don’t workout out in the cultural hall, but I do workout with a lot of other members at my local gym. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone NOT in a tanktop. We also all frequently hit the grocery nearby after class before anyone goes home and showers—meaning we are often still in tank tops and tight workout pants or shorts while grocery shopping. No one has ever said a word to me. I never gave it much thought—was the mostly the same the last place we lived, although I did once hear a woman wonder why more people weren’t nervous about getting into a car accident without their garments on while driving home.
Leadership roulette is one reason why you see this. I might have written the same thing as a 35 year-old. Of course, as a an older man I see things a little differently. Of course, I’m for modesty in mixed spaces for a lot of reasons, but you rarely see that anymore, even here at BYUI. But I don’t look at your tank top as an issue of modesty–it seemed perfectly modest to me.