Working Out, Looking Good


I would be lying if I told you that I look forward to waking up at the crack of dawn to workout before heading to the office. Nevertheless, in an effort to get/stay "healthy,” I find myself there pretty regularly, doing my best to keep up with the apparent entire population of Manhattan as a bona fide gymaholic (…ish). And, aside from overcoming the morning dread, my major issue has become: how to dress the part?

If we’re being honest—and what are we doing here if we can't be straight with each other—most of us hit the gym to improve the areas of our bodies that we are self-conscious about. And for women especially, gym attire doesn't leave much room to hide bodily flaws, whether perceived or real (ahem, spandex), nor your lack of makeup (hard to work out in sunglasses) or unkempt/unbrushed hair (beanies = too hot), so there is a real art to finding your so-called 'look.' And to make matters worse (and this could just be a fancy NYC gym thing, though I’m assuming it applies to gyms most everywhere), there are likely to be many attractive people—even famous ones—starring at you or mulling about as you do your first and five-millionth weighted squat. It’s really hard to look good while doing those.

As much as I wonder if it’s all in my head, a quick poll of gym-goers at said fancy NYC gym only confirmed my suspicions. For example, a recent New York transplant by the name of Roger told me he loves people-watching at the gym: "I pay attention to what people wear, their workout routines, things like that.” Hmm, ok, so it's not all in my head*… He said, “It’s interesting to see a woman on a Saturday morning wearing makeup to the gym. It’s like, ‘How do you do that? It’s ten o’clock in the morning!’ That’s crazy.” Me? I could never muster a full face at 6:45am, but what if you work out for a living? You're going to want to do something, right?

“I’m not a heavy makeup-wearer in general, but for fitness, having no-to-minimal makeup is better, otherwise it’s just clogging your pores,” says one of the chicest professional gym rats we know, Natalie Uhling, a trainer and instructor at New York's SLT studios. “But there are little things I do to help look a bit more presentable." She continues, "All women look best with a great moisturizer on, so I always use Origins Zero Oil—because it’s oil-free, it sits lightly on my skin. I’m sweating all day long, so I don’t need the thickness of heavy oil on my face. And, for surecurling your eyelashes is the biggest trick. It just opens up your face. Mascara works, too. I love the big brush of Smashbox’s Full Exposure Mascara because it fights against clumpy lashes—the big reason why I don’t like waterproof ones. Occasionally I’ll use a NARS Illuminator on my cheekbones and some Aquaphor on my lips. That’s a pretty standard look for me.” Sounds pretty doable.

As for hair, “Usually, when you wake up, your hair looks pretty amazing in that 'messy' way,” says Uhling, “so a ponytail or a simple braided ponytail looks great.” To steal a line from Matthew McConaughey, “Alright, alright, alright.

With face and head under control, I push Uhling for below-the-neck ideas.

“I love a great pair of leggings, and always in black—true black, not grey-black—because black on the bottom slims everyone down. I’m not a big skin-tight top and bottom person, so I tend to wear big, flowy, cut-off long sleeves or tank top crop-tops and a sports bra. I also like to rotate between two pairs of sneakers, to keep my look fresh. It makes you look chic and maintains your shoes a bit longer, actually, so you’re not wearing ratty sneakers all the time.” Uhling does have one cautionary tip: “I don’t love shorts on women—unless you’re a freakin’ supermodel** with ridiculous legs, of which there are tons, and when I see them, I’m like, ‘Damn, that girl is rocking those shorts,’ but for the most part, it's just not the most flattering look on most of us.” Roger that. No, really, Roger (remember, the NYC transplant?) agrees on that front: “There is kind of a sex appeal to seeing a woman in tights when she’s working out. You are really celebrating a woman’s natural form. At the gym, shorts just seem more masculine.”

As much as we might feel pressure to preen pre-workout, if you want to just brush (your teeth, please) and go, guys like Roger are with you: “When I see a someone who’s just rolled out of bed, I think that exudes confidence. It’s a way of saying, ‘I came here to work out. I didn’t come here to try to catch anyone.’ And that’s sexy.”

Which brings me to the take-away point: working out is supposed to be about you, not about everyone else. It is a time to focus on self-improvement in the physical (and at times, emotional) sense. If you, like me, find it hard to abandon your “style” even while working up a sweat, perhaps hold onto a piece of your everyday self and rock your signature red lip, an all-black outfit, or your collection of twenty-plus bracelets (it adds a bit extra weight, good for toning your triceps?). Yes, Roger and Natalie may not love you in shorts, but if you like to bare those legs, be your own supermodel and wear your shorts with gusto! Maybe you are one of those rare people who can be on the StairMaster for hours with fully straightened hair down your back, a perfectly contoured face, and feel like the hottest piece in that gym. Or maybe after reading all this, you think, “Who gives a fuck? The gym is for working out, not looking good.” Well, whatever your attitude, keep on keeping on/keep on keeping going to the gym (it's good for us?) and do you. What do you wear, on your bod and on your face, to work out?

—Elizabeth Brockway

*Some of it might be…

**While at my gym to shoot the story, we did in fact see a supermodel working out with her trainer in, you guessed it, shorts. And yes, her legs did look amazing.

Elizabeth Brockway photographed by Emily Weiss at Equinox in New York on June 26, 2013. Elizabeth is wearing an American Apparel top, Under Armour sports bra, Lululemon tights, Nike sneakers, and many of her own bracelets. 

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  • Nomadic D.

    Great article. I always get a little freaked out when I see women in full-face at the gym. Or even crazier to me, at the pool (!!) It's just not the place for it, and feels wildly inappropriate and tacky to me. I get that we want to look decent, but I totally agree that a little mascara and some solid workout clothes should be enough to get us there. I also think that workout clothes are best when they're One Tight, One Loose, so if you have leggings on your top should be more relaxed, and if you're wearing a skin-tight top your pants should have a little ease to them, something like this:

    But in the end it's just about being comfortable and confident enough to get the job done. And ok, also feel a little bit like a superhero maybe ;)

    • Guest

      Why on earth do you care what someone else does/wears as long as they are not hurting you?

      • Lisa

        Absolutely agree with you on that! If I feel good wearing make up and tight clothes to the gym why should I care about somebody like you, Nomadic D.?

  • Cay

    Ugh, this. I have a fancy Equinox membership as my monthly splurge on myself (or so I say. I have a lot of monthly splurges), and while I don't wear a full face of makeup there because I believe that skin needs some time to breathe and sweat, I can't quite bring myself to work out alongside all of the Brooklyn Heights moms with perfect blowouts and head-to-toe Lululemon without at least some concealer (I do not need my dark spots broadcast to the world). I hate that it's something that I think about, but it is.

    I'd also disagree about the shorts thing. I don't have amazing legs and am certainly not a model, but I definitely look better in a pair of nice running shorts than skin-tight leggings that cling to everything. The looser fit of shorts makes my legs look skinnier.

  • Guest

    To each her own.

    I don't really care about what I wear to the gym as long as it's clean. I don't like the way I look in shorts, so I never wear them -- to the gym or anywhere else. And I never go anywhere except to bed without makeup. Ever.

  • Terry

    I love my small workout studio (not gym) where our trainer pushes us. Some of my favorite quotes from him, "Feeing lightheaded is GOOD. If you don't feel the burn you are wasting your time. Your muscles are changing when you are feeling that pain. Do as I say, not as I do!" Our group, which on any given day can range from 10 to 2 + plus our trainer, is more focused on the workout than the outfit, although Lulu and Stella and Nike are favs. I love the personal environment and I love the results. And I love the positive vibe of all the women. Big gyms aren't for me unless I'm on vacation... Give the smaller environment a try. You'll build relationships, your ego and fine tune your body at the same time! ;)

    • Nic

      Where do you go? I have been searching high and low for a place like that!

  • Jenny

    Gosh. This makes me glad to be living in San Francisco, where I think people are a lot less image and self-conscious than the NYC/LA folks. Don't get me wrong, I do see some women at the gym with a full face, but these folk tend to be in the minority. In general, the people are a lot more relaxed and insouciant here, which gives me the latitude to dress any way I want to. I invariably wear my Nike leggings (gosh, I must have more than 40 of them) teamed with a baggy cotton T-shirt, with not a spot of make-up and bad hair. I guess, now at 25, I've learnt to accept the way I look (i.e., imperfect) and I tend not to obsess about my pigmentation or spots or my bad gym hair. I look even worse when I complete my workout, but the post-workout feeling is just so unconscionably gratifying that I just don't care how I look. That said, I can never imagine myself in a pair of tiny running shorts, even though I've seen some absolutely stunning women in them, and no, they are not 5'10", 125lb supermodels but just athletic and fit women. My legs are too pale and skinny (and unlike with my face, I don't feel confident exposing them), and look much better in pants.

  • Bird

    Why should we worry about what we look like when we are working to look better? The gym, for me, is always filled with people watching that distracts us from our personal goals. Shouldn't making healthy decisions about your body and lifestyle be something personal? I'm not trying to critique Elizabeth, rather am just curious about gym culture in general.

    • EM

      I kind of get it-- one of the hardest things about working out, especially when you are getting started, is being surrounded by people who look confident, like they belong in the gym and know their shit. And if you're trying to psych yourself up for going or sticking to a workout routine, feeling like you look the part can seriously help with the necessary "fake it til you make it" attitude required.

  • Alissa from ChicPeek

    Great tips to help us out in our workout routines! Personally, I usually end up having to wear the day's makeup to the gym since I usually come after work and it's consisted of some powder foundation, mascara and blush. Never too done up! Hair is always a ponytail, I never know how people get physical with a bun in their hair! It doesn't work out for me.

  • C. Molina

    Just started working out for the first time ever in my life. I do it at home - in underwear, bare feet and a yoga top. I do fantasize about all black workout gear and some kind of nicely designed weights. (This must exist, right?) At the least, I think I better get a sports bra. Another bonus to home workouts - practicing my Beyonce dance moves shamelessly.

  • Bella

    I work out with a trainer 3 times a week.I put my hair in an Alice band or pony tail, wear only my watch and even remove my wedding ring to avoid scratches, and I cleanse and moisturise before and after. Makeup? Lipstick or gloss, so I don't look dead while I nearly die. And that's it.
    I attend a nice, but very middle class gym in a European city. The mayor and several national celebrities go there and most people have pretty good bods, much better than mine! But everyone goes there to work out. And if someone has nothing better to do than to watch the way I look while I go about my life, I can only feel sorry for them!!!

  • hollygoeslightly22

    I, too, am in the SF/Bay Area and I shake my head and laugh at the girls who primp before working out at the gym. I scrub my face clean before working out so I don't clog my pores. I'm not a supermodel and I wear short shorts because I work out hard & sweat, thus the short shorts are practical. I highly doubt that many people are staring you down at the gym. Get in, train hard, get out, then get glammed up.

    • mermaidsdream

      haha, as a Bay Area native, anytime I see anyone dressed up for anything during the daytime (not in SF) I just think "you must be new around here"

  • kate

    I work out after I leave the office, so I'm usually wearing makeup anyway. When I used to lap swim I'd take off my eye makeup if I remembered, but I usually didn't. On weekends if I'm going to the gym early in the morning I rarely bother.

    All that said, it is kind of nice to look in the mirror as you're squatting and not get freaked out by your ghostly visage. I feel the same way about getting my hair cut. If I'm going to be in front of a mirror for 40 minutes, it's kind of nice not to have to stare at my under-eye bags, sunken eyes, pale lips, zits, etc.

  • gym rat

    You know what they say: if you look cute after a workout, you didn't work out hard enough.

  • ElaineR

    As my darling boyfriend/personal trainer once told me, "If your makeup isn't wrecked you didn't work out hard enough". I agree. There's nothing wrong with going into the gym with a full face of makeup, as I often do after a day of work, but if I come out of there looking remotely pretty, I know I've done something wrong.

    And I wear shorts every time I go to the gym. Beware my thunda-thighs!!

  • Emily

    Oh I loved this! I have been an avid gym-goer for about 7 years now (I'm 25) and am also a morning person so I've always gone before work. This means I'm waking up at 5:10 every morning. Even as a morning person, that is freakin' early! Going that early, I see the same people every day. We're all on nodding head terms, and just go about our business. I definitely know everyone's routine though!
    I definitely wear no makeup. Pretty much just brush my teeth, put on my leggings (I don't even own shorts. She's definitely right- they are flattering on no one but the models),and pin back my hair and in a ponytail.
    I'd love to see something on getting ready in the morning at the gym. I feel like there are so many people who do this, but it's so hard to schlep it all around! It took me forever to get a routine going to where I actually felt as decent looking coming from the gym as coming from home.

  • Prenouveau

    I do Pure Barre and there are rules meant to keep you comfortable and prevent rug burn--i.e., legs covered past the knee and no crop tops, but I've felt no pressure related to appearance. Leggings and tank tops are 5 bucks at Uniqlo. I'd much rather spend my money on other clothing. That said, I do love how glamorous Dita Von Teese looks when she does Pilates.

  • Vanessa

    Roger sounds like a creep.

  • Allison

    I have always been a no makeup at the gym person, no point of sweating through it, my roommate on the other hand spends a good half hour putting on a full face before the gym just to wash it off when she is done, everyone is different!

  • srnhrrs

    so now one is only allowed to wear shorts if one is a literal supermodel? good grief.

  • Janet Lee

    You can't work out properly if you have any makeup on, even if it's long-lasting makeup. You only need to brush your teeth. Sweat, grunt, sweat, and sweat some more. Buck what other people think. Let them think whatever they want. Wear whatever you're comfortable in, and allows the most amount of movement in all directions. For ladies - you're not supposed to look 'pretty' when you're working out. That's not the point of exercising. You're trying to get fit and build muscle. If you're wearing makeup, it hinders that process.

    Wear whatever you want, sweep your hair back, and GO!

  • Kallie, Happy Honey & Lark

    I go to the least fancy gym in all of NYC (Planet Fitness) where sometimes I'll see people working out in their work clothes, or my favorite, I saw a girl working out in knee high combat boots and tights.
    I only use the gym for running/biking so I just wear running clothes but I cannot work out without mascara. When your face is all red from working out, its best not to have your eyes look tiny and mouse like as well.

  • Jojo

    My opinion: Wearing makeup when the point of working out is breaking a sweat (hopefully lots of it) = totally fucking ridiculous.

    On the other hand, it's your face and therefore nobody else's business. Same thing goes for the shorts-thing.

  • Emily

    I've also started to get my ass into shape! Feel so good for doing it! Good luck to you!

  • mfergie889

    If you are able to look around and see who is wearing makeup, you are not working out hard enough. Seriously, just mind your own business. I don't wear makeup to the gym, but I sure as heck don't notice (or care) if other women are or aren't.

  • Jacqui

    So ladies can only wear shorts to the gym if they are supermodels or want to look 'masculine'? That is crazy talk Uhling and Roger. I'm all about practicality. In Australian summers it's often unbearable to wear leggings to the gym - but if I'm doing a class with lots of squats and lunges I'll wear tights to spare the instructor crotch action.

    I'm a no make-up, hair-pulled-back-tightly kind of girl and only really examine other people at the gym to judge how hard they're working out, and so motivate myself to push harder. Nothing's going to make me look attractive when I'm red as a tomato and sweating like a hog. The purpose is to look smoking afterwards in the clothes that I love. But each to their own - whatever it takes to get you into the gym and keeping fit.

  • CoCo

    I don't think people truly understand how silly it is to wear makeup to the gym. When working out, you are (hopefully) sweating and opening your pores. Doing this with a layer of makeup on top is begging for a breakout. Ridiculous! Ladies, be confident! Give your face a break and some time to breathe. When I work out, my skin looks so radiant and healthy afterwards, give it a try.

  • Makeuplover

    This post made me want to try Origins Zero oil. I bought the whole line this week. People with sensitive skin: BE CAREFUL! I had the worse reaction to it, pimples and rashes for 4 days... I heard so many good reviews on the cleanser, guess I was unlucky.

  • Elspbeth Hodgins

    As much as the idea that a woman should feel like she has to wear makeup even when exercising, and should also look cute in her expensive workout clothes is unbelievably stupid and utterly crap. The thing that really disturbed me is that, looking through the comments, it seems the only purpose for working out or going to the gym is looking good? What about being healthy and strong enough to have fun, go on adventures and feel safe and happy!

  • Kim



NARS Illuminator
Kevyn Aucoin
Kevyn Aucoin Eyelash Curler
Origins Zero Oil
Smashbox Full Exposure Mascara
Aquaphor Lip Repair
Under Armour
Under Armour Women's UA ColdGear Compression Leggings
American Apparel
American Apparel Mid-Length Tank in Stars and Stripes
Women's Nike Free 5.0+