How I Found Body Positivity In Midlife

By Laura Scholz
June 06, 2023

As a competitive gymnast and cheerleader, I grew up wearing form-fitting uniforms. Tiny leotards and midriff-baring tops were the standard costumes for girls participating in those activities in my small Southern town during the late 1980s and early 1990s—as much a part of the look as the overly teased hair, glittery eyeshadow, and bright red lipstick.

Back then, I loved the act of dressing up, of putting on the best uniform to maximize my performance. But that ended when I grew breasts.

While my high school peers worried about barely filling out their A- and B-cups, my mom was accompanying me to the only mid-level department store at our local mall that carried bras in my size: 34G. It was mortifying to be strapped into a contraption with four back hooks and cups up to my chin by a kindly gray-haired lady 50 years my senior. Plus, my new chest came with other consequences: I was physically unable to compete in my favorite sports.

Everything from basic tumbling to flips on the balance beam became frustrating and challenging, and it was impossible to find uniforms—let alone regular dresses and shirts—to fit the oversized chest that consumed my otherwise slender 5-foot 3-inch frame.

So I dropped out of sports, swapping low-cut and midriff-baring tops for baggy clothes. I cowered in locker room corners after gym class while changing clothes, mortified I had to put on not one but two sports bras to keep my boobs from jiggling while jogging on the high school track or chasing a volley on the tennis court.

I eventually had breast reduction surgery when I was 18, but the shame and insecurity about my body persisted. When I started training for my first 5K in my early 20s, I clung to the oversized cotton T-shirts and baggy shorts that comforted me in my youth. In my 30s, I began training for marathons, received my Pilates teaching certification, and grew more confident in my leaner body. I added sweat-wicking fabrics, formless black leggings, and sleek performance tanks to my wardrobe, but one athletic look always terrified me: going shirtless.

The way I saw it, a bra-as-a-top was fine for lithe 20-somethings frolicking at music festivals and professional runners with perfectly chiseled abs. It wasn’t for me, a grown, middle-aged woman with D-cup breasts, a slightly soft belly, and super fair skin. Not to mention the fear of drawing attention to myself while running solo in only a sports bra through city streets, given that I get honks and catcalls from passing drivers even while bundled up in the dead of winter.

So I continued to slog through the stifling hot and hilly Atlanta summers wearing a shirt, dousing myself with water to stay cool, envious of runners confident enough to ditch their outermost layer.

Until one particularly brutal Saturday morning in June a few years ago. I was training for the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10K. Running in it has been one of my annual traditions since moving to the city in 2000.

Running up and down the street’s undulating hills is a challenge any time of year, but with the temperature approaching 90 degrees before 9 a.m., it was exceptionally miserable that day. Dripping in sweat and massively overheated, I took off my shirt, tucked it inside of my shorts and kept running. Not long after that, I stopped for water in front of a strip mall before the ascent up the city’s notorious Cardiac Hill. While there, I saw a TV crew, led by a news anchor I knew from my days in public relations, who asked if she could interview me.

Completely forgetting I had shedded my shirt, I agreed, answering questions about the heat wave, my training plan, and the need to stay hydrated—all in just a royal blue Lululemon sports bra and shorts. I finished the interview and kept running up and over the hills, feeling faster, freer, and—most importantly for my perimenopausal, 40-something body—cooler.

I hesitated watching myself on the news that night, but the camera angle had cropped out my stomach, and I finally saw myself as everyone else likely did: a strong, fit person out for a run on a hot day. I ended up running that year’s race in the exact same sports bra, setting my personal record for the course, and realizing why everyone from professional athletes and recreational runners toe the line in minimalist attire, even on the chilliest of days.

Just like putting on those sparkling gymnastics and cheerleading costumes in my youth, racing in only a sports bra on top boosts my confidence and stokes my competitive spirit on race days. Last weekend, I raced a 5K on a 40-degree morning in just a sports bra and compression shorts. As the crowd of people lined up for the start, a guy at least 15 years younger than me sporting a hooded jacket and long pants glanced in my direction and said “I feel underdressed,” with a laugh.

I smiled. And won that race.

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