Need for New Gym Wear Gets Workout

Leotards. For years, the mere sound of the word produced an uneasy feeling in my stomach, sort of like the sickness that accompanied mention of swimsuits or beach parties.

But to my way of thinking, an uneasy stomach is better than a protruding one. So recently, I dutifully pulled out my ancient Danskins and started showing up for half an hour every morning at my local health spa.

When my friend Ruth, the ex-dancer and aerobics queen, saw what I was working out in, she threw a royal fit.

"You can't go to the gym looking like that!" she insisted. "People will think you wear polyester pantsuits to work. Besides, you won't have any fun in that drab old stuff. You've got to look good to feel good. Well, it's not critical, but it helps. You have a hard enough time getting yourself to the gym; don't make it harder by having to put on ugly, old nylon leotards. They went out years ago. They look terrible and they feel clammy."

Drab Old Stuff

"But Ruth," I countered, "I don't look good in leotards--any leotards. Nylon, cotton, Spandex--you name it, I look miserable in it. Not looking good in leotards is a simple fact that has to be faced by people like me who've made a minor career out of being 20 pounds overweight for nearly all of their adult lives."

Besides belonging to three of the West Side's trendiest health clubs, Ruth is distinguished by the fact that she is perhaps the best saleswoman I have ever known (and I've met some humdingers). She persisted. She harped. And finally, when I met a man at my health club who interested me, I started to listen to her.

One night shortly thereafter, I packed up all my old leotards, T-shirts, shorts, socks and sneakers. I drove over to Ruth's place and yelled: "Help!"

A few weeks at my gym had convinced me that I knew absolutely nothing about how to put together the current look that communicates you're a certified member of the fitness generation. Anyone could see that my old, dark nylon leotards and tights expressed no joy. And the lighter, brighter cotton shorts and T-shirts I tried putting together looked as if they shouldn't be sweat in, Ruth said, adding that they also made me look even heavier than I already was. (It takes a real, true friend to tell you garbage like this.)

After Ruth vetoed virtually everything I had brought over, we set out to purchase my new, improved workout wardrobe.

Few Leotard Styles

We did not shop where I would have predicted: my favorite department store. Department stores are terrific for many things, Ruth advised, but many of them traditionally stock very few leotard styles. She suggested specialty shops that feature wide selections of styles and colors.

I must have tried on 30 or so different styles while Ruth, the store owner and a saleswoman offered constructive feedback on each one. It was a shock, but eventually we found some styles that looked decent on me and quite flattering.

What a revelation! The styles that worked the best on me were not ones that I found particularly attractive on the hangers. After about 2 1/2 hours of trial-and-error try-ons, we deduced that I look best in light, bright colors fancied up with lively patterns. None of which is extremely fashionable, but on me, I have to admit they looked great. Well, at least, a lot better than what I wore before.

No wonder I never before could find leotards that made me feel good. For one thing, leotard manufacturers only recently started making printed styles in bright, happy colors. (And if they made them before, I probably would have missed them anyway because I had always shopped for leotards exclusively in places with very little selection, mostly solid colors or stripes, both of which look miserable on me.)

But our expedition in search of flattering workout wear did not stop with mere leotards and tights. Ruth wanted me to go for the full treatment, and that meant belts and leg warmers to finish the look. I protested, naturally, that such things were simply affectations. And Ruth agreed that, generally speaking, they are. But persuaded by all present to at least try on these accessories, I noticed that the outfits did look better with these additions. Instantly, I was converted to the "look-like-a-dancer-even-if-you-aren't" school of health-club attire.

I still, however, draw the line at makeup, jewelry and headbands, which Ruth tells me are quite the style at some of the fancier fitness emporiums. At one place, she observed, "Some of the women look as if they go to the vault to get their jewels before they go to work out."

If that's what it takes for them to get there and keep their stomachs from protruding, who cares?

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