Monday, January 12, 2009

Never Let Them See Your Sweatpants

Every New Year's, I make the same two resolutions -- to overeat more and drink to excess. The way I see it, this is win-win. If I keep these resolutions: terrific. More pasta and inebriation for me. If I don't, I'm leaner, healthier, soberer. Either way, there's no guilt. Unlike with other New Year's resolutions, I'm not setting myself up to fail.

This year, I set about breaking my resolutions rather early. Just this week, I headed back to the gym. And no sooner did I tromp into the Women's Locker Room (La Vestiaire, if you care), than all the women stared at me with haughty, European disdain. Because I had committed a grave faux pas. I had actually worn my workout clothes to work out.

The Genevoise, I've found, much like the Parisians and the Italians, have a very funny idea about fashion. They seem to be under the impression that when it comes to clothes, form should take precedence over function. You don't dress not to be naked, but to establish yourself in the world as a person of elegance, refinement, and, implicitly, money.

And so, the women here will routinely put on full make-up, an Hermes scarf, and a floor-length chinchilla in order to run out to the store for dishwashing liquid.

We Americans, of course, tend to take the opposite view. Our day-to-day clothes aren't designed for other people's appraising, aristrocratic gazes. Frankly, we don't care what you think. Our clothes are designed for us -- for our personal comfort, for our facility of movement. We are all about casual sportswear. In fact, we take the concept of "sportswear" quite literally. In America, people will weigh 400 pounds but dress like Olympic athletes: track suits, hoodies, jogging pants with racing stripes down the side. We Yankees drive everywhere, but dress as if we're always en route to the health club or the ball park: leggings, tank-tops, sweatshirts, baseball caps. To us, putting on eyeliner and an Armani jacket to buy milk is absurd.

And when we actually exercise, we're even more casual. Barring the Yuppies, singles, and L.A. types, most Americans do not dress up to sweat. Our approach to workout gear goes something like this: Hey, see this old, bleach-stained Chuck Mangione t-shirt I just found on the floor of my closet? Before I rip it up and use it for dust rags, why not wear it to the gym?

Most Europeans here would sooner die than work out in a ratty, oversized tee. When folks here do exercise (and they exercise a lot -- everyone's always skiing, biking, hiking, and hang-gliding here. Switzerland is as kenetic as an ant farm), they wear specific outfits: hiking boots and khaki shorts; high tech ski gear; flourescent Lycra biking outfits that seem to have been designed by gay men in the 80's...every activity has its couture, its special look. Nobody here, but nobody, wears sweatshirts.

Except me, of course. I live right down the block from my gym, and I'll be damned if I'm going to put on heels and a skirt just to cross the street and change into my workout clothes in a basement. And so I show up at my health club already dressed to exercise in -- you guessed it -- stretchy pants, an old t-shirt, and, la piece de resistence, a hoodie with the words "New York" emblazonned on it.

And so the other women eye me contemptuously. They'd sooner be seen naked than dressed the way I am in public. And ironically, they are. Because while European women are loath to be seen in their workout clothes outside of the gym, conversely, they think nothing of being seen without their workout clothes inside it. They lounge around naked in the Women's Locker Room for hours.

Unlike American women, who dash in and out of locker rooms as quickly as possible, and cower behind curtains and locker doors to strip, and wrap ourselves in towels like tourniquets on our way to the showers -- our body language and averted gazes crying Don't look at me! -- the Europeans here feel no compunction at all about standing buck-naked in front of the mirror in the dressing room and chatting on their cell phones. They don't mind if you see them wriggling into a thong, then sitting around topless as they clip their toenails. They'll parade around in the nude as they dry their hair, put on deodorant, apply their lipstick. They have little of the Puritanism or body shame that we Americans do.

They are who they are. Voici: their bodies. To them, nudity is no big deal.

Just don't walk outside in sweatpants.


Anonymous said...

I think some photos should have accompanied this post! Having lived in Paris, I can tell you it's the same for Euromen. Bon COurage!

Molly said...

I could never conform to that. I just went out and moved my car wearing my pajamas and a parka.

Miz K said...

An American living in Fribourg here - and I know exactly what you mean. My grocery is in my apartment building and it never fails - each time I hop on the elevator in a hoodie and jeans with no makeup (just going to grab some milk afterall), my 80 year old and devastatingly stylish neighbor pops out her door to head downstairs at the same time. We then share the elevator ride down as I attempt to make conversation in my broken French, all the while facing the floor to ceiling elevator mirror and marveling at being outdressed once more by a woman 50 years older than me. The best is when she and her husband are both on the elevator with me and dressed to coordinate with each other - all tan fur and deep burgundy silky looking scarves... he even wears a cravat. At least they're really sweet people. My personal fashion-favorites are the girls in the spiky heels hobbling through 2 inches of ice...

Kristin said...

One of my clearest memories of a trip I took to Norway with my soccer team to play in a big tournament involves the showers at the school we were all housed in. There were all these girls of all nationalities running around all over the place, but you could certainly pick out the Americans in the shower in about two seconds: We were the only ones wearing swimsuits to shower. That proclaimed our country of origin more clearly than if we had been singing the national anthem and waving American flags in the shower room.

Melissa said...

Please forgive the random-stranger-comment, but I just wanted to say, this post was pure hilarity.

FernieGirl said...

This reminds me of the summer (late 80s) I spent in Geneva, working at a Migros and trying to learn French. I lived in the fabulous old part of town, and delighted in putting on my enormous 501 cutoffs tied with a rope, a ripped t-shirt and jog bra, and my splatter-painted (by me, of course) Converse high-tops to go for a run. Mind you, I'm not, and never had been, a runner. Yet there was something delightful (and, ok, I was 20, and wanted nothing more than to leave everyone I encountered with a mixture of confusion and disgust) about running, sweaty, stinky, and looking like nothing one ever saw in all of Europe, running (which no one in all of Europe did/does in public) around the fashionable shopping/dining district. I trust they're still talking about me...