Should You Be Ashamed of Your Gym Bulge?
In mostly whispered conversations at your local gym, you may have stumbled upon the term "VPL," aka visible penis line. Or, put more simply, the bulge created by the presence of male genitalia. The bulge you might see through any style of pants can be especially accentuated by fitness-focused apparel like compression shorts, tights and even run-of-the-mill mesh wares—hence the term, "gym bulge."
If you happen to have a penis and testicles, there's a good chance you've seen what this looks like in a mirror: Shorts meant for exercising, which may not have a liner to cradle your package, will tend to show off more than the standard straight-leg jeans or khakis (especially if you're wearing said shorts without anything underneath).
If this sounds like your kind of workout attire, there's a chance you've already been shamed for your VPL behind your back. A fierce debate recently raged on Reddit and Twitter when a man revealed that he wears only compression shorts to the gym, and that two women recently walked up to tell him that his outfit was inappropriate for "exposing" his genitals.
Should you have a bulge in the gym?
The online response was staggeringly, and surprisingly, against compression shorts guy (CSG), who was portrayed as the "asshole" in this situation for making others "uncomfortable" even if he didn't mean to. Worse, others presumed he was intentionally "showing off."
I remember a similarly passionate discussion on this subject in the work Slack chat of a men's magazine for which I was editing at the time. Opinion was decisively against men wearing just compression shorts or tights at the gym—most staffers agreed that standard shorts worn over compression shorts is the way to go. I was in the minority in saying that I really don't care how revealing people's gym outfits are. So why do so many others?
I'm a regular at my gym (brag!), and while I don't wear compression shorts or tights—mostly because I'm just not that fancy or that dedicated to my workout wear—research from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) has shown that compression gear results in less strain on muscles, in addition to other health benefits.
"Compression tights and shorts can help circulate blood back to the heart, minimizing fatigue," wrote Melissa McLane, D.O., of UPMC's Lemieux Sports Complex.
While not a compression shorts guy myself, I have empathy for CSG. I work out in basic Under Armour navy blue shorts, no undies. But since replacing a previous pair of gym shorts, I've noticed that my bulge is, well, more noticeable. The proprietary, sweat-wicking UA Tech fabric is thinner and clingier, and, crucially, there's no inner netting as there was with the old pair.
It's important to note that these new Under Armour shorts feel great: They're incredibly light and less encumbering than my previous pair, and that sweat-wicking tech is doing something right, because they're never drenched at the end of a workout (even though I'm a very sweaty man). They're nearly restraint-free, aesthetically neutral and worth the mild genital flopping that comes with their construction.
What you're looking at ultimately is a lump, the totally normal contours created by genitalia pressing against fabric.
What to do about a gym bulge
If you're concerned about what others might think of your VPL, thin shorts over compression shorts or tights is a sensible move. There are also compression pants designed with more support to smooth out the appearance of a bulge, including Lululemon's Surge tights and the unfortunately named Matador Meggings. With any workout wear, keep in mind that certain colors will display more than you may hope or intend—especially lighter gray—and liners or extra material in the crotch help if you're trying to be demure, too.
If you don't want to go to the trouble, though, you shouldn't have to. In shorts or tights of any kind, a man isn't exposing himself—fellow gym-goers can't actually see his dick, however clear the outline of one might appear to be at certain angles and in certain lighting. What you're looking at ultimately is a lump, the totally normal contours created by genitalia pressing against fabric.
Yet both in comments sections and in mainstream media, the gym bulge is frequently characterized as a "problem" to be solved. I'm not sure why this should be, since genitalia is a normal part of the human body, and it's easy enough to look away. (Unless you don't mind a peek, in which case, possible gym perk! But, please, no staring.) Sure, some people are uncomfortable with visual reminders of sexual anatomy—for reasons ranging from prudishness to histories of sexual violence—but that's ultimately an aversion that needs to be addressed internally, rather than by curtailing men's workout comfort.
I can't give every compression guy at the gym a pass: If you're wearing this relatively skimpy garment for attention-seeking rather than its exercise advantages, you're in the wrong venue. And if you find yourself becoming erect, you're creating a legitimate distraction.
But a visible outline of a flaccid penis, big or small, is simply what happens when men exist in the world. Much as Elaine's nemesis on "Seinfeld," the "bra-less wonder" Sue Ellen Mischke, didn't deserve hate for ditching constraints on her natural gifts—and leggings-clad women have no reason to feel self-conscious about "camel toe"—male fitness enthusiasts shouldn't be shamed out of their compression shorts or tights because they happen to have a visible appendage underneath their clothing. It's just a dick. Now get back to work on your deadlift technique.