I was babysitting early in the morning for a while last summer, in an affluent NYC neighborhood, and I started to stop by the local Trader Joe’s before heading home. I was usually there around 8:30 a.m, wearing sport shorts and a vaguely stained t-shirt left over from high school sporting activities; my outfit was shockingly out of place amongst my fellow early morning shoppers. The women around me — and they were overwhelmingly women — were dressed, like me, for free movement, like me, in sports clothes; but their sports clothes were pristine, modern, lycra in a way mine were not. I was fascinated by this scene I had stumbled upon: high-end, flattering workout gear had become, it seemed, the outfit du jour for at least an early-rising subset of wealthy New York women. Sportswear was acceptable gear (at least, Lululemon sportswear) for running around the city, whether or not these women were actually going to work out.
Workout gear functions slightly differently as an aesthetic choice on Swarthmore’s campus — we get more of the mildly grimy babysitter outfit I was wearing than full-body coatings of Lululemon. But even here, the aestheticization of “health” has crept into what we might consider fashion on campus. It’s cool to look sporty, like you could almost (if you whipped off your turtleneck) be heading out for a run. Admittedly I have no empirical data on this, but glance around Sharples at any given meal and count the number of people you consider “dressed” for the day, i.e. not coming in from practice and looking forward to showering and changing, who are still wearing a few pieces of sports gear; it will be high. We’re talking sneakers (both “fashion” sneakers and sneakers actually equipped to take their owner running), we’re talking sports jackets, we’re talking sleek, slim track pants. The line between items made and/or bought with sports or “fashion” in mind is a slim one that is getting slimmer, so the boy in the faux-letterman is as fair game in your count as the girl in an Adidas sports jacket that genuinely could wick off quite a few layers of sweat.
We want to look healthy, and we use our clothing to express our freedom of motion, our ability to run and to move and to perform. My question is, can we actually use style to be healthy? Or just to look healthy? Some people would probably argue, glancing at this column, that being over-focused on style is in itself inherently unhealthy. But I’ve always thought a good dose of obsession is what gets me through the day; and I can’t help but think that focusing on style does actually have the potential to make us “healthier” (in at least a few of the multiplicity of ways we can take the word).
Here’s one simple fact: wearing workout clothes can actually be a good motivator to work out. I was wearing running clothes to babysitting this summer partially because I had to chase flying baseballs around a Manhattan apartment at 7:00 a.m. and wanted to be able to catch them before they broke anything, but also because I wanted to go for a run later in the day. Already in shorts and sneakers, I was more likely to follow through with that plan: all I needed to do was drop off my Trader Joe’s groceries and pick up my headphones. So, “health” style in and of itself may be conducive to actually working out.
But any style, I think, has the potential to make us healthier. There’s working out health, sure. But other processes that focus on tending to the body as something beautiful — processes that could be categorized, perhaps, as cosmetic “self-care” — can also contribute to thinking about the body in a generous, healthy way. This might mean something like taking the time to steam your face (and your sinuses!) and then moisturizing every morning. The multitude of similar self-care type processes might not all correspond to something we can fairly call style, but they all fit into an aestheticized vision of the body and the mind as interconnected spaces that need time and care, often through material means, to feel “healthy.”
The identity-formation aspects of all different kinds of style make it a major arena for feeling “like yourself” or the person you would like to be, in ways that take the health-style paradigm beyond the arena of purely physical health. When we look like we run, when we look like we are strong or smart or cool or wild and free, we are halfway towards being someone so charactered — right?