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Men in compression tights bend gender norms

Compression tights are the latest trend in men’s fitness, and fashion
Men wear various form of athletic tights. (Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani)
Men wear various form of athletic tights. (Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani)
Men wear various form of athletic tights. (Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani)

Compression tights are tougher than leotards and sleeker than long johns. They grasp the groin, pressurize blood vessels and enhance muscle definition. Thus, in every athletic context, men are squeezing themselves in sub-torso stretchiness unparalleled since the time of Robin Hood.

“It brings attention to the sculpting,” says Dominique Duncan, a 21-year-old student at Western University. “You work on calves, you can look and see what’s going on.” Without tights, Duncan worries that his muscles get hidden by leg hair. He wouldn’t shave them—grisly texture feels masculine when he’s not working out—so he suits up in compression tights to spotlight his sinews to his gym buddies. “It all comes down to aesthetics,” he says.

Obsession with compression is shifting gender norms. Now that Under Armour, Nike, Everlast and other companies have rebranded tightness as “compression,” men are wearing tights to work out, play football, practise basketball and go for coffee. “What was seen as feminine is being recoded as masculine,” says Ben Barry, an associate professor at Ryerson University who studies masculinity and fashion. “What’s seen as a superficial trend actually asks crucial questions and moves us closer to gender equality.”

The new tights are equally popular across genders. “For the university CIS [Canadian Inter-University Sport] league, I don’t know any player who doesn’t wear them,” says Will Ratray, equipment manager for the men’s and women’s varsity hockey teams at Mount Royal University in Calgary. A 19-year-old hockey player himself, Ratray estimates he owns 10 pairs of compression tights and shorts. “The only thing [we] don’t like about them is the price.”

Averaging $50, compression tights are marketed as technological marvels. “They’re not just for looks,” Under Armour reminds online shoppers. Supposedly, their compression products quicken blood flow, and rather than trapping sweat inside, suck heat away from the body and dispel odour with a “water transport system.” Duncan doesn’t notice such benefits but appreciates the comfort in the crotch: “It keeps everything together, if you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing wagging all over the place.”

Psychologically, compression gives impressions of security. Marco Walker-Ng, a personal trainer in Vancouver, recommends athletes wear compression T-shirts, compression underwear and compression socks; if they’re basketball players, add compression sleeves for their arms. “It feels good to have your muscles wrapped up,” he says. “You almost feel locked and loaded and ready to go.”

Tights have been validated as manly because they originated in athletics, but they’re sneaking beyond the gym. When Ben Barry entered the wardrobes of 50 men for his research, he learned that they had adopted compression tights as an “everyday staple”—meeting friends for coffee, fetching children from school, and grocery shopping all with their calves squeezed into Nike’s newest number.

Men’s office clothes and streetwear are also tightening. While women have started wearing billowing bottoms called “parachute pants,” men’s outfits are narrowing. “Fifty years ago, nobody would’ve thought men’s suits would be so slim and body-revealing,” says Barry. He adds that men’s casual tops are “also playing on the feminine silhouette.”

The problem with tighter clothing, sometimes called “body-conscious clothing,” is exclusivity. Barry criticizes the terms “slim fit” and “skinny jeans” and urges society not to tease anyone for trying tights. “Which men’s bodies are allowed to wear these tights?” he wonders. “The bodies we see are certainly not fat bodies, not disabled bodies.”

Neither do we see all body parts. Men still tend to wear baggy shorts over their tights—“the waist, the butt, the crotch are being concealed,” notes Barry. “There’s certainly a private/public distinction.” However, time may pull back the curtains, and men may start letting tights accentuate their sculpting in entirety. Barry assures, “Anything is possible.”