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Woman in activewear

Activewear: are you under the influence?

You needn’t go anywhere near a gym or a yoga studio to know that active wear or ‘athleisure’ wear is more than just a passing fashion trend.

The savvy marketers behind international retailers such as Lululemon and Lorna Jane have tapped into the ‘fit-spirational’ communities that have thrived in social media and made shiny patterned leggings more than just desirable workout wear. Such garments are symbolic of the new look that women should aspire to: strong, fit and radiating health. Whether these threads are worn for their intended purpose or as a fashion statement, they have certainly attracted robust debate.

The burden of healthy living

In 2016, Lululemon’s share price rose 20 per cent in the last three months of the year and had a projected sales forecast of $695m in the final quarter. It’s not a surprise to Deakin University Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Kim Toffoletti. ‘Athletic brands are looking to expand their markets by selling fitness as a lifestyle. For a growing number of women, wearing ‘athleisure’ can be a way of conveying a particular kind of ‘sporty’ or ‘fit’ sensibility, even if the gear is being worn at the café rather than the gym,’ she explains.

Many women mightn’t realise it, but they are, in a way, conforming to new social expectations that women not only be empowered and independent, but also make healthy lifestyle choices. ‘In a world where women are encouraged to ‘love themselves’ and have a body positive attitude, active wear can be a way that women manage these kinds of messages – by buying gear that may help them meet these expectations,’ Dr Toffoletti says.

Although it might appear to be a lifestyle choice, in some respects conforming to this style of dress could send a message about the pressure to ‘have it all’ and do it with athletic style. ‘Amidst the many demands placed on women in and outside the home, active wear can be understood as way women invest in care for themselves. Even if they might not always have time for exercise, the outfit suggest that they are making an attempt to look and feel good,’ Dr Toffoletti argues.

'In a world where women are encouraged to ‘love themselves’ and have a body positive attitude, active wear can be a way that women manage these kinds of messages – by buying gear that may help them meet these expectations'

Dr Kim Toffoletti,
Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Deakin University

Pushing the feminism limits

Dr Toffoletti also points to research by Tasmania-based academic Meredith Nash. In conducting extensive research into activewear label Lorna Jane, Nash found that while Lorna Jane promotes a ‘sisterhood’ and associates this with choosing empowerment – which on the surface appears to support post-feminism values – the company’s marketing materials indicate that ‘white models that embody normative feminine body ideals’ represent the sisterhood.  ‘Women of colour, “older” women, and “fat” women are absent from representations of “sporty sisterhood”. Given the role that socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity play in health status and opportunities to exercise, the lack of representation of women of colour or “other” body types in the “sisterhood” is problematic,’ Nash writes in her article.

In 2014, Australian woman Megan Sauer created a petition calling for plus-size options at Lorna Jane. More than 2700 people signed it and the brand added an XL size to its range, but this only equates to a size 16, which barely meets plus-size standards. Nash concludes that although Lorna Jane markets products from a ‘pro-feminist logic’, ‘Lorna Jane is not interested in addressing the social dimensions of health and fitness and therefore has no feminist role in advocating for social change.’

How strong is the influence?

While a fashion chain such as Lorna Jane might choose to cater to one demographic over another and wear the backlash, at the very least there is evidence to suggest that choosing to wear certain kinds of clothes, like activewear, can have a positive influence on our decision-making. Researchers call it ‘enclothed cognition’. It’s something that athletic lifestyle labels have successfully tapped into. You mightn’t become a star athlete if you pull on some designer leggings, but you might be more inclined to go for a walk instead of staying inside binge-watching Netflix – that can hardly be a bad thing.

Interested in the sociology of fashion? Consider a Bachelor of Arts at Deakin University.


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Dr Kim Toffoletti
Dr Kim Toffoletti

Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Deakin University

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