Sweat in heels and lipstick: Lost in Cheeseland 'Gyms in Paris'

Sweat in heels and lipstick: Lost in Cheeseland 'Gyms in Paris'

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Lost in Cheeseland feels the culture clash after sweating in a old shirt and yoga pants between a Fishnet-Fashionista and a Naked-Pilates Woman.

I grew up buying into a notion that there was a time to get dressed up (aka make an effort to look good) and a time to be comfortable. I didn’t realise how American it was until I came to Paris where looking good is an art form, an innate ability that we sartorially inferior beings lack. It goes far beyond good grooming and fashion sense.

Nowhere was this made more obvious to me than at the gym in Paris (the French are late adopters, fitness being no exception. Indoor exercise is a relatively recent phenomenon). To a certain degree I can understand how looking good for your workout might contribute to a positive body image. I refuse to believe, however, that I should be spurned because I left the house in running shoes, stretchy yoga pants, a t-shirt and a trace of the previous night’s mascara.

However, looking sporty in Paris is a major faux-pas, one that provokes looks of disdain steeped in judgment – as if I’m not only inferior but about as stylish as a bag lady. The only context in which athletic-wear is permissible is for running outdoors but let’s be honest, this also confuses some Parisians. Why would anyone subject themselves to such sweaty torture?

I was immediately astounded by the get-ups women would sport to the gym, women that I would quickly learn were either stay-at-home trophy wives or stay-at-home mothers. Even at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, these characters would show up to the gym in heels, skinny jeans or a skirt, a painted face and an aroma that could only come from an entire bottle of perfume, and not the pleasant kind.

All of this just to head straight for the locker room, gossip with their girlfriends, change (into what can only be considered in appropriate gym-attire) and, presumably, sweat off their liquid foundation.

The first time I saw some of these women I thought I was stuck in an '80s horror flick convinced that a crazed killer was going to storm through the gym and ravage one of them. Leotards, fishnet stockings, brightly coloured spandex, scrunchies (gasp!), jewellery, lingerie, converse sneakers – all have made up the Parisian interpretation of athletic-wear. Yet somehow, in my City Sports Philly tee, yoga pants, pro running shoes and a slicked back ponytail I am the evil-doer, the one who merits the looks.

And when I head to the weight lifting room where the smell of sweaty socks fills my nostrils and hits me like a brick, I am the outsider among virtually all men. Some hopelessly scrawny nerds, some beefed-up meatheads, some flirty homosexuals in short-shorts that leave little to the imagination and a lot of excessive staring. As a female, I breach the male-dominated muscle fortress the second I sit down on the hip-abductor machine.

Because of this, these surly representations of French masculinity feel the need to comment on how I use the machines, remarking that muscles aren’t attractive on women. Luckily, I have perfected my look of death and am able to shoot them down without even opening my mouth. I have also learned not to take this personally and have concluded that French men are merely unaccustomed to seeing women with a little meat, muscles and tone (aka real).

Photo by Lost in Cheeseland.I thought I'd share with you some of the characters with whom I've had the unfortunate pleasure of sharing a tight space:

Beach-Blonde Bimbo Babe: Mid to late 40s, lizard skin from years of sun exposure, breast implants which are always on display in her sports bra that is about two sizes too small, a bare midriff, spandex pants and makeup.

Disappearing-act girl:
Over the last three years I have seen this girl get skinnier and skinnier to the point where her tiny lingerie tops barely stay on her shoulders. She's guilty of wearing large, gaudy hoop hearings, regular bras and scorn on the elliptical machine (which she remains on for well over 60 minutes).

Algerian-Stepper fiend: Also a fan of wearing lingerie underneath a child-sized tank top with cleavage just begging to jump out and play, trading her sneakers for stockings, spending almost two hours on the stair climber hunched over the machine and chatting to anyone with a pulse about chocolate and sex parties.

Fishnet-Fashionista: Never misses a step class in her fishnets, thong leotard, high-top Reebok’s, ankle warmers and pin-straight hair in the tightest ponytail I’ve ever seen. She barely goes through the motions in the class and looks like she has forgotten how to smile. Mega tall, and in her mid 50s.

Argentinian Rico-Suave Minus the Suave: Argentinean trainer, personality of a wet mop, overheard telling a fit member that she was still fat and would need to cozy up to crunches to lose the mid-section flub. I kid you not.

Two Cents Jean: Looks like he could be a rapist, speaks/flirts/harasses women and puts his two cents where it doesn’t belong. When I come in late to the gym on weekends, he smirks at me, gestures at his watch and shakes his finger like I was lousy at personal maintenance. He has also offered the compliment that it looked like I had lost weight. I didn’t know I was ever overweight.

Naked-Pilates Woman: Never before had I witnessed a nude woman demonstrate pilates positions on a locker room bench to a fully-clothed woman looking on with intense interest whilst other women look on slathering their bodies with lotion and anti-cellulite cream. The amount of gratuitous nudity never ceases to shock me. No privacy, no sense of personal space.

Yes, these seemingly bizarre clothing choices and social behaviours could be attributed to a difference in culture (didn’t their parents ever teach them not to stare and judge?), but it really speaks to a much larger issue in the Parisian gyms, the idea of spectacle and prestige.

Photo by Lost in Cheeseland.


It’s all for show – the outfits, the blatant yearning for perfection, the condescension, the visual competition. A great number of these Parisians are not there to lose weight, get fit or stay healthy (besides, any health benefit is negated by the smoking the moment they leave the gym) but to socialise and show off.

For the most part, the women don’t have “play clothes” because, well, you never know who you might run into on a quick trip to the market or pharmacy so looking your best is imperative. I’ve had to completely change my habits and approach to dressing and I fear my American nonchalance is being quickly replaced by Parisian snobbism. But as much as I become more French in my style, I will always follow my mother’s logic and wear my “play clothes” to the gym. I can take the looks.


Reprinted with permission from Lost in Cheeseland.

Lindsey is an American expat from Philadelphia who moved to Paris for love and adventure. You can read about her musings on Paris love, life, food and more on her blog Lost in Cheeseland.

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Carly posted:

    on 27th April 2011, 17:34:31 - Reply

    And @Paris, you're not stereotyping? I think the whole point of writing blog/opinion pieces is to state one's opinion, and have other expats share with her. This is Expatica, not The Economist! While some of this article seems to be true to me, I really don't care what others think of me at the gym, or when I'm exercising, or popping downstairs to the market. I've been living here to long to give a **** as to fitting in to the middle class French social fabric, as it's something that, I'm sorry, will never 100% happen unless you give up different parts of yourself. I have, however, gotten the "muscles don't look good on women" from random people at the gym. To which my reply is: "I'm sorry,I didn't realize that you could tell me what to do with my body!"...
  • Paris posted:

    on 11th February 2011, 05:55:17 - Reply

    wow the only thing she forgot to say is 'and they don't speak English!'. Her stereotyping is so much worse than any imagined staring.

    Complete journalistic trash.