But just because it’s not Lululemon or Athleta, Gap’s high-end entry into the activewear field, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Quality, long-lasting, butt-squeezing, sweat-wicking materials can be very expensive, but lower-cost imitators will do just fine if you’re on a budget. And if you’re seeking out activewear’s positive psychological effects, anything that amps up your confidence will do.
“I think it doesn’t matter as far as price point, if you feel good about yourself,” Burke said.
The desire to look good at the gym is nothing new—just look to the neon leggings of Jazzercise yore. But athletic clothing today does more than make your butt look good at the gym: It’s carefully designed to fit into your lifestyle, inside and outside the gym. Sure, wear it to workout. Then to the grocery store, where they promise you won’t look out of place. If the trend holds, soon you’ll never change out of your gym clothes, throwing on compression leggings for work and for trips to the mall. Rudnicki says the change is stark—fitness classes today are much more fashionable compared to the first ones she taught five years ago.
But if you’re buying more into the brand than yourself, it might be a matter of fitting in, not getting fit. Lululemon has been called “cult-like.” In one interview with Business Insider, an employee says new employees are indoctrinated with motivational CDs and Malcolm Gladwell books, and to succeed, “You have to drink the Kool-Aid a bit, and if you're not going to drink it, you won't do well and you probably won't like it.” Even their approach to commission is communal, with every employee getting their share of the store’s sales.
Controversies aside—and there have been many—the business model has been immensely successful. Lululemon is the first company to figure out how to wheedle athletics into the lifestyle of your average Jane. And as it turns out, your average Jane likes feeling sporty. Gym clothes are no longer hidden away in a bag, they’re proudly on display in your street, your office, your grocery store.
Granted, just because you’ve stocked up on tight pants and breathable tees doesn’t mean you’ll become a robot, slave to the gym. Rudnicki advises just picking up a few items at a time. “People who get a totally new wardrobe—that’s never a really good sign. Too much, too fast to accommodate your routine and lifestyle,” she says.
The transtheoretical model of behavioral change, developed in the mid-’70s by University of Rhode Island researcher James O. Prochaska, outlines five stages to making successful changes in your life: Precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Originally applied to smokers attempting to quit, the cycle now is applied to all sorts of change, from eating habits to job-searching to fitness routine. There’s a difference between someone in, say, the precontemplation or contemplation phase and someone in the preparation or action phase. The former is just thinking about it—they’re barely motivated. Enclothed cognition isn’t a substitute for intrinsic motivation. It’s unlikely a new pair of pants will inspire you to go to the gym for the first time in six months.