So, Graham Holmberg — a guy who it’s hard to find a photo of with his shirt on — announced that his gym is now enforcing a new dress code; one rooted in “modesty.” From now on, no one can take their shirts off, and women can’t wear booty shorts.

Ignoring a few obvious things — like the fact that men presumably can still wear booty shorts if they want to, and that loose running-shorts show way more crotch “pit” than booty shorts, or that leggings leave little to the imagination — we’re left to wonder what the point is of telling grown adults how they have to dress.

It’s not a safety thing. It’s not a function thing. So, what is it?

First off, it’s his gym; he has the right to have whatever rule he wants. I hope this dog whistle helps him attract the crowd he wants. I always encourage business owners to put their values front and center, for exactly that reason. That’s why we have rainbows all over the place at Rocket CrossFit, we’re telling you what we’re about.

But this question of dress codes is a different beast, because it is driven by the fallacies of modesty culture. The underlying idea is that people need to not be “sexy” in order to not inspire impure thoughts and actions in others. The logic being that if Jo is attracted to Jack, then Jo will be distracted, or have impure thoughts, or…. 

Grown adults should be able to handle their own responses to things without having to have the environment crafted for them. This is like child-proofing a room for adults.

The problem with this is that it is not Jack’s job to protect Jo from their own feelings and impulses. Grown adults should be able to handle their own responses to things without having to have the environment crafted for them. This is like child-proofing a room for adults.

The logical extension of this way of thinking is to make sure that we just remove from the world anything to which someone could be attracted. That is obviously absurd.

It is extra absurd in gyms, especially CrossFit gyms. We work so hard, every day, to help people be proud of their bodies. Yes, we’re working hard on strength and fitness, but also on combating horrible cultural messaging that has told us we can only be proud of our bodies if they look muscled and thin. (You know, like all those topless photos of Graham Holmberg that are all over the internet.)

Our gym, Rocket CrossFit, happens to be in a small, one-story, brick building with very little air flow. It’s a pizza oven in the summer, no matter what we do. Shirts come off quickly. A few years ago, one of our members noticed that the only people who felt comfortable taking their shirts off were the people who fit that narrow definition of “buff.” So this member proposed a “Shirt’s Off Sunday,” during which everyone could feel comfortable taking their shirts off.

We live in a society that tells people they should be ashamed of their bodies. That shame is, paradoxically, one of the things that keep people from seeking out our gyms in the first place.

It was glorious. The gym was filled with people of all shapes and sizes, all ages and genders, sweating and working. I was not the only one crying. People told us they had always wanted to do that, but never felt they had the right to. A few people even told me that after that, they put on a bathing suit for the first time.

Think about that. We live in a society that tells people they should be ashamed of their bodies. That shame is, paradoxically, one of the things that keep people from seeking out our gyms in the first place. It is one of the things that pushes people to abuse their bodies out of shame rather than nurture and strengthen them from a place of love.

Body shame has no place in a gym. To this day, I’m always very quick to take my shirt off, because I think it is literally important that people see a pudgy middle-aged woman with stretch marks being proud of her body.

But back to protecting people from their own impulses. That is the justification that has been used for millennia to say that someone was “asking for it.” That way of thinking is what lets people off the hook when they behave badly, because someone else “caused” it.

We are about building strong people and empowering community. At the root of that is personal responsibility…for working out. For counting your reps right. For what you eat. And for treating people with respect, no matter what they are, or are not, wearing.

It also perpetuates the idea that bodies are exclusively and always sexual things. Bodies are not sexual unless they are doing sexual things. Sexualizing a deadlift is as misguided as sexualizing breast-feeding. Bodies do amazing things; we need to be able to do that without having everyone around us sexualizing them.  We need to be training people to know that just because you had a sexual thought doesn’t mean it’s a sexual context.

What do you do when you notice someone, in any situation, and have that fleeting “oh damn, that’s hot” thought? (Which most of us have many times a day, even when people are fully clothed!) You do what grown-adults do and let it pass right through without saying or doing anything. You certainly don’t expect the other person to change their behavior so that you’ll be less attracted to them.

Don’t get me wrong; if you can’t control yourself around scantily clad people who are working out, I don’t want you in my gym. I’m not gonna ask them to cover up though; I’m gonna ask you to leave.

We are about building strong people and empowering community. At the root of that is personal responsibility. Your personal responsibility for working out. For counting your reps right. For what you eat. And for treating people with respect, no matter what they are, or are not, wearing.

If, has been suggested online, this is really about being a gym based on Christian values, do the honest thing and say that upfront. Be proud of who you are and direct about what you stand for. You have that right, and I will fight for your right to do that freely and proudly. But don’t mask it in “modesty,” be honest. Let the people who want that find you, and let the people who don’t want that know to find a different gym.

Likewise, Rocket is going to continue with our rainbows and half-naked sweaty people of all shapes and sizes. We’re just glad our pizza-oven is in Seattle, and not someplace where it gets really hot.


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