Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dressing "Frum" at the Gym

I think I've always been surprised how commonly people (usually women) ask about halacha and going to the gym. But especially about headcoverings and the gym. Yet I don't see men asking about their yarmulkes at the gym 🤷

In short, your mileage will vary considerably. Ask people in your community. If you're in the conversion process or recently converted, err on the side of more conservative. #BecauseDoubleStandards. You'll probably still face double standards as a convert even if you converted long ago, but it's easier to claim the right to follow "only" the community standard when you've been in the community a longer time.

As always, I'm not a halachic advisor. I'm not telling you whether anything is right or wrong, simply sharing the variety of answers I've seen other people live out in their daily lives. Communities and individuals within those communities have a wide range of practice, regardless of whatever Internet Rabbi tells you is "the halacha." I can assure you there is no one "halacha" answer to these questions for "the orthodox community" (nor is there to most Jewish questions). And people being people, they may not conform to what their community would say is "the answer." This is why you need to understand your specific community.


Here are some of the questions you might consider and some of the answers you might see:

Do I need to go to a single gender gym?
If you're male, this option doesn't exist for you, so no. You're stuck with gyms where there may be women exercising. Just as you would if you chose to exercise in a public park. I've never seen a man ask for such an option, but I don't know whether that's because they know they don't exist or because it's not something that would even occur to them to ask for.

That said, it seems very standard that men keep their shirts on while exercising, and often while swimming too (though less common in swimming). People don't often talk about it, but there are "tznius" clothing standards for men too, often cited as being mid-bicep to mid-thigh. Whether or not a community officially "holds" by that or another definition, it's not something that is commonly discussed, so I don't think many men even know there's an idea out there that they should wear a minimum amount of clothing. I could be wrong, but that's my impression, and my impression is certainly colored by the obsession with speaking publicly about what women should or should not be wearing at any available opportunity. #NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk 

Women, you have this option, and honestly many chose it for reasons of sexism, not religious reasons specifically. Women who don't want to worry about being propositioned, stared at, touched, or harassed. Or who want to wear clothing they find more comfortable for exercising but worry would attract more male attention (especially the bustier ladies). Many orthodox women choose a female-only gym so they can wear clothing that doesn't comply to their "public" standard of tznua, since those rules only apply in mixed gender scenarios (according to most, I'm sure there are people who say you must be fully dressed to tznius standards 24/7). The reality is that even most female-only gyms often have male trainers and instructors. Some women treat them like doctors, physical therapists, and other professionals who see us in less-than-full-dress for health reasons, and that means they wear whatever they think is most appropriate for working out.

Many women (like myself) end up a co-ed gym. I purposely considered the fact that even the "women's only" gyms I had access to were not actually single-gender. Orthodox women wear a whole range of things even in a co-ed gym. Just like with swimming, some wear clothes that comply with their normal standard of tznius and some wear what is considered "normal" in those situations either for safety reasons (more fabric, more that can get caught in a machine or tripped over) or because they believe that avoiding standing out too much is also part of being tznua.

Women who want to wear "skirts and sleeves" to the gym have many options. A common choice is a long-sleeved exercise shirt, leggings, and a running skirt. I've found a cotton-elastic pencil skirt works just as well. I use a plain one from Old Navy that I bought almost 10 years ago. Here are some items I've personally used or similar if they're no longer available: Underarmour long-sleeved shirt, Columbia 3/4 length sleeve shirt (beware the collar bones! The horror!), leggings, running skirt, pencil skirtskirt with leggings attached. Again, be very aware of the potential safety risks of wearing more clothes while exercising, especially loose fabrics (which is why I prefer a pencil skirt). Also, you need to consider how comfortable you are with your skirt blowing up in the wind, riding up, or blatantly falling up, like in a yoga class. Pencil skirts and some other skirts can also limit your range of mobility, especially in weight lifting and classes. If you can't safely do an activity in the clothing you choose to wear, please choose another activity rather than trying to "make it work." 

For swimming, you can find a wide variety of "burkinis" available. Or if you can pronounce it (I can't), it's called a shvimkleid in Yiddish. I don't know of any other names for them, but I'd love to hear if you do! They come in many options: Full-length skirt, knee-length, and mid-thigh skirts all with leggings included underneath. Long-sleeved and 3/4 sleeve, and t-shirt style shirts. Mix and match! As someone with a high risk for skin cancer, I appreciate these swimsuits even more! I even took the "plunge" and always put my kids in a rash guard and board shorts. My only criticism is that the skirt is a LOT of fabric and it (not surprisingly) doesn't stay down in the water very well. Apparently some burkinis marketed to the Muslim community have buttons to help hold the skirt to the leggings, which seems like possibly a good idea. On the other hand, my friend is a swim instructor and rightfully points out that the skirts (buttoned or not) can be an added safety risk, especially since many of us in communities where wearing these is common have not been raised to be strong swimmers. Use burkinis with caution and stay aware of their risks to mitigate them as best you can.

What kind of headcovering should I wear to the gym? 
Whatever makes you comfortable. 

As I said, I've never heard a man ask this question about a kippah, but it would be a reasonable question to ask. Baseball caps are the most common choice I've seen, but beanies/knit caps/toboggans/whatever you want to call them are also common. 

I've also seen men who just don't wear anything while running or playing a sport. This is an understandable and accepted reason in many communities. They keep the kippah nearby, often in a pocket. This is analogous to unexpectedly windy days, when you'll often see men carry a kippah in their pocket or hand to get home still owning a kippah.

Married women who cover their hair is a more complicated question. I've seen very few sheitels, none that I can remember honestly. However, I don't know how that plays out in communities like Chabad, where sheitels are considered the halachically superior method of haircovering. You will see a wide range of decisions here, depending on the person and the community. I've seen:
  • Normal tichel, like any other day, even including a shaper
  • Baseball hat
  • Baseball hat with a simple tichel underneath
  • Pre-tied tichel or other simple tichel
  • Bandana
  • No covering at all (more common than you might expect)
  • Swim caps for swimming
As always, keep safety in mind when deciding what kind of headcovering to use. If you lose it while running across an intersection, you could stop and get hit by a car before you think twice. It could fall into the parts of an exercise machine. And more prosaically, it could be blown away by the wind and then where would you be? Try to focus on methods of keeping your choice on your head. A velvet headband under a bandana or tichel is very helpful, for instance (Amazon or Wrapunzel). I would recommend skipping shapers/volumizers/whatever you want to call them.

Try also to choose fabrics and styles that can be washed because of sweat and grime.

A last heads-up about hair coverings for women. People seem to forget that haircovering and clothing are two very different areas of halacha/minhag. They're based on completely different things. So they don't always "match." You may think it's weird to see a woman wearing pants and a tichel, but that's a perfectly reasonable possible outcome if you've studied the Jewish teachings on these ideas. On the other end of the scale, you could go to a womens-only beach and see a woman wearing a bikini and a fully-covering tichel. These are the outcomes of different approaches to the ideas of haircovering and tznius and are not contrary, though many of us do a double-take when we see "levels of observance" (as we think of them) that "don't match." I tell you this because it's easy to get judgey when you see something like that and don't understand why (ask me how I know!).


These are just some of the options you might consider with the gym. Be aware that people can and do change over time and as their exercise regimes and locations change. We do the best we can within the options we have and with the various safety concerns in mind. But if you take nothing else away from this, remember to consider the safety concerns for more modest exercise wear and take appropriate precautions. 

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