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I Worked Out in Public in Just a Sports Bra and Leggings—and I Never Want to Do It Again

The anxiety set in as soon as I hit send on the Slack message to SELF’s associate editor, Meg Lappe. She had sent out a general message to our team asking if anyone was interested in doing a SoulCycle class on Sunday in Union Square, sponsored by Sweaty Betty and the Movemeant Foundation.

Sounds easy enough, right? I’m always down to volunteer for a free workout. But there was one more minor detail: The event was called “Dare to Bare,” which meant that I’d have to do that SoulCycle class outdoors in one of the busiest parts of New York City wearing just a sports bra and leggings.

The whole thing suddenly sounded scary to me. Yet for some reason, I still said yes. Some women say working out in a sports bra helps them get more comfortable with their bodies and develop better confidence, so I thought it was worth a shot. Turns out that, for me, one topless bike ride did not have the power to undo years of body-image struggles—which didn’t surprise me, to be honest.

Body confidence doesn’t come easy for me—it never has.

I know I’m not alone in the quest to love my body, and that my story isn’t that different from many other women’s stories. Growing up, I was always the chubby girl. Our family doctor told me I was “big-boned” and, because of that, I “wouldn’t blow away in the wind.” True story. At my heaviest—the years between my senior year of high school and sophomore year of college—I hovered around 185 pounds (for reference, I’m 5’3”). To say that I didn’t like my body would be an understatement.

I won’t lie to you: When I made the decision to start eating better and exercising more, it wasn’t so I’d be an overall healthier person—it was so I could see the numbers drop, both on the scale and on my pants tags. Losing 70 pounds (and keeping it off) continues to be the best decision I’ve ever made for myself and my health, but weight loss wasn’t a magic pill for my self-esteem. It’s been nearly 10 years since I set out to lose weight, and while I certainly look different, I still struggle with my body image every single day.

I woke up early on the day of the ride—like, really early—and not out of excitement.

I’m a notoriously late riser, except for when I’m anxious about something. Then, I go through intervals of waking up and forcing myself to fall back asleep, until I finally say screw it and stay up. That’s what happened last Sunday, when I woke up at 6 A.M. (ungodly early for me) and tossed and turned until I finally got up at 7:30 A.M.—even though I didn’t need to be at the event until 10:30.

Sweaty Betty gave everyone participating a sports bra and a pair of leggings for the ride. The leggings they provided were really cute and comfortable. Win! As for the sports bra, well, my immediate thought was LOL. No way. See, another thing about my body is that I’ve got boobs: 32DD ones to be exact. The sports bra they sent—thin straps, low-cut, underwire-free—just wasn’t going to support me. But I had to wear it, so I layered it on top of an old, unpadded underwire bra.

I had a bumpy start my ride—which actually helped take my mind off the whole working-out-in-just-a-bra thing.

The Dare to Bare event, which included other workouts from boutique NYC studios, drew 825 participants in total. My SoulCycle class (the first of two) had 100 riders, many of whom were other health and fitness editors. But, because I was a late entry, they didn’t have a bike assigned to me; I had to wait until everyone else claimed their bikes before I could get settled. Not Earth-shattering, but even the smallest annoyances are amplified when you’re about to be topless in public.

The warm-up had already started when I got my seat number, so I had to sprint to my bike while everyone else was pedaling, slip on a pair of cycling shoes, and try to catch up. Unfortunately, I’m a total SoulCycle beginner, so it took me several frustrated tries, a new pair of shoes, and the help of my neighbor to clip in and start the workout. I was frazzled—so much so that I didn’t think twice about ripping my hoodie off to reveal my shirtless upper body.

My body confidence ebbed and flowed during the ride.

When I was working hard and pedaling fast, I couldn’t worry about whether my stomach was hanging over my Spandex or if I should “suck it in” a little more. But if I slowed down, even just a little bit, my insecurities popped back up—I’d hike the waistband of my leggings up a little higher so it disguised more of my stomach. Or I’d look down at my cleavage and see the top of my breasts jiggling or popping out over the top of my bra and feel a mixture of disgust and embarrassment. The crowd that gathered to spectate the flock of us pedaling in our sports bras didn’t help my body anxiety either.

But here’s the thing: I was so focused on my own body—how powerful it was when I was working hard, and how insecure about it I was during easier segments—that I wasn’t paying attention to anyone else’s performance or body. In fact, I only had positive thoughts regarding the women surrounding me: She’s pedaling so fast! Her back looks amazing in that strappy bra! Then I had a sort of revelation: If I wasn’t picking apart other women’s bodies during the ride—quite the opposite, actually—why would I automatically think they were tearing me down?

OK, so “revelation” might be a bit of an oversell, but the thought that other women were likely paying more attention to how they felt and looked rather than how I did gave me reassurance throughout the ride. Still, the times I felt uncomfortable outweighed the times I felt OK. I decided within the first few minutes that I’d rather stick to exercising in a tank top in order to quiet my insecurities for an entire workout—not just portions of it.

Once the ride ended (and because I knew I’d be writing this article) it was time to take a photo.

My friend Megan, who came with me to the event, had to “remind me” to take a picture for this post. (Left to my own devices, I would’ve skipped the photo op.) We took a few options: me, crouched over, looking down (my idea); me, smiling in a victorious pose with my hands in the air (her idea); me, sticking my tongue out with the “rock on” gesture (my idea). And you don’t see any of those here because I didn’t add them. It’s one thing to participate in an event like this and write about it, it’s another to take a full-body shot afterward and put it on display. I ended up taking even more photos on my own once I got home—only the two above were “acceptable for public viewing” in my eyes.

No, working out in just a sports bra and leggings wasn’t the life-changing, mind-altering moment I had hoped for.

I’d love to say that my body positivity skyrocketed after the event, but that clearly didn’t happen. I’ve spent too many years nit-picking my body for all of those insecurities to go away following one topless bike ride. Body confidence doesn’t just happen overnight, or in one hour-long exercise class. For many women, it takes a lot of time to get comfortable in their own skin—maybe even a lifetime. That’s not to say it didn’t happen for other women who participated in the event; I’m sure some participants felt empowered by the event and spent the rest of the day basking in their body-positive glow. I’m just not one of them.

There was one thing, however, that boosted my confidence: My bike was next to a woman who was clearly a SoulCycle regular. (She’s also the one who helped me clip in.) At the end of the ride, she turned to me: “Was this really your first time riding?” she asked.

“Basically,” I said. “I’ve only been once or twice.”

“I wouldn’t have known it. You were great—you really went hard.”

Excuse me while I brush my shoulders off. But she was right—I did go hard, and I left the class feeling proud of what my body accomplished. Her compliment made me think back to that overweight girl in high school, too—the one who clocked a nearly 15-minute mile because she had to walk it—and how far I’ve come since then. So, no, maybe I don’t love how my body looks, but I do love what it can do, like running a sub-22-minute 5K, or keeping pace with SoulCycle regulars as a beginner, or even just being able to grow and change with me and handling whatever I choose to throw at it. And for me, right now, that’s enough.

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