Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ladies & Their Running Clothes: The Scuffle Over Skirts

I'd like to say something to the active ladies out there.

If you need to insult, mock, or make disparaging remarks about how other women dress for their run / exercise, you are doing it wrong.

I'm addressing the ladies specifically because, in my experience, men are usually not the ones engaging in this behavior. Just about everything I can remember ever hearing or reading in that vein came from women, directed at women. (Sure, we've all furtively giggled at Short Shorts Guy at one point or another, but it's the rare lady among us that's actively nasty about it.)

I won't get into the infinitely more complex world of insulting/mocking/etc. lady clothes in general. I've tried writing that post (not on this blog) over and over and over again, and I can never quite get it right. But surely we can leave each other alone when it comes to a shared hobby where we're all just trying to have fun, get strong, & feel good about ourselves?

You don't have to look far to find examples of female runners getting judgey & mean about what other female runners wear, and there is certainly no dearth of this behavior on the internet. But since I'd like to publish this post sometime before the next millennium, I'll start with just one that seems to come up over and over again, and we'll see how efficient I am about follow-up posts about others.

Case Study #1: Running Skirts

In certain circles, the running skirt has become the latest whipping boy/girl in a seemingly endless parade of running blog posts about "Things I Hate." I've lost track of the number of posts I've read complaining about this particular item of clothing and the women who run in them. They've stuck with me not because of the posts themselves (because, hey, your blog; write whatever you want), but because of the way they fit into a larger pattern of complaining about other ladies' running clothes choices in general.

The criticisms I have most often heard about running skirts include:

  • They are dumb-looking;
  • They are un-tough/wussy looking (and running is about being tough);
  • Girls wear them because they want to look cute and/or feminine while running;
  • Running is about looking/being tough and and strong, not cute and feminine;
  • They only exist in the first place because of the relatively recent influx of slow, non-tough, girly-girl runners to the sport.

I say to you: bullshit.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

First, we're all obviously entitled to our own opinions about what is and is not dumb-looking. I think a lot of trends are dumb-looking. I'm sure I wear things all the time that other people think are dumb-looking. Hell, I probably wear things sometimes that my friends think are dumb-looking. But please recognize that a) this is your personal opinion, not objective fact, and b) when you inflict that opinion on others, nothing is accomplished besides making someone feel bad and/or confirming that yes, you are indeed an asshole. That's all. No one is going to be like, "Wow, you are so right! I never realized how dumb I/they look! How observant and wise you are!" No. You get to think running skirts are dumb-looking, but please also try to be a stand-up human and keep it to yourself.

Second, although the opinion that running skirts are un-tough/wussy looking is also one you get to have if you want, it's a much less neutral, more insidious one, because it's rooted in gender stereotypes that have been doing women more harm than good for generations. It is absolutely true that traditionally female attire like skirts have historically been associated with traits like weakness, demureness, kindness, subservience, etc., because those are the traits that have historically been associated with and expected of women.

Fortunately, many people--men and women--have worked extraordinarily hard to begin undoing these associations. Many of us are gradually learning to uncouple a) a person's gender from her character traits, and b) certain character traits from traditionally gendered clothing. Women now give us ALL *KINDS* of opportunities for judging how tough they are if we insist on doing so, without resorting to their wardrobe. Ladies change tires, wrangle children, broker multi-million dollar deals, and win at boxing, sometimes in skirts, sometimes not. When you make a statement like "Running skirts are/make you look wussy/un-tough," you're aligning yourselves with a brand of sexism that says it's okay to judge a person's character based on YOUR interpretation of THEIR clothes, and also that things associated with girls/women do and should continue to symbolize weakness. If you really do insist on judging the character of someone you don't know at an endurance event, *at least* have the decency to do it based on her performance, not her clothes.

These skirt sportin' ladies all placed in their age groups.

Nicole Deboom won Ironman Wisconsin in 2004 in a hand-sewn
running skirt, then went on to found the wildly successful Skirt Sports.

Elite ultramarathoner Lisa Smith-Batchen ran 50 miles in each
of the 50 states in 62 days, rotating through 4 Nuu Muu running dresses.

Are you really saying that the fact that your garment of choice has a visible crotch
makes you tougher than these ladies? Because I kind of dare you to throw down that gauntlet...

That said, the very idea that a girl who is running should look tough (or bad ass, or hardcore, or whatever word you want to use), is somehow obligated to look tough simply because she is running, is also pretty exclusionary. Like most other hobbies, there is no one thing which running is "about" for all people or all women. Running is about all kinds of things. For some people, it's about being tough/bad ass/hardcore. Other runners really couldn't care less about being tough/bad ass/hardcore or about whether others perceive them that way. No one gets to be the judge of what running is or should be "about" for all people, any subset of people, or any one person, other than yourself.

Which segues nicely into the idea that women who wear running skirts do so because they want to look cute and feminine while running. There are two issues with this argument:

Issue 1: You don't know that. Like most other things, it's true for some women and not for others. To my knowledge no one has conducted a rigorous, peer-reviewed study on the topic, so until that happens it's impossible for us to say with any certainty whether or not this is true for many or most or all women who wear running skirts. That means that when you make this argument, you're making an assumption--even if you happened to know one or two or ten or two hundred girls who have straight up told you that this is why they wear running skirts, it's still bad logic to assume that that's the case in general.

Based just on conversations I've had with lots of different women over the years, I can give you a whole list of reasons why some women wear running skirts:

  • They don't like how they look in shorts.
  • They like the fit of compression shorts but want some extra coverage.
  • They want to look cute and/or feminine when they run.
  • They feel they perform better when more people are watching them, and skirts attract more attention.
  • They never thought of wearing a running skirt before, but then found one in a pattern they LOVED.
  • They feel self-conscious about crotch-sweat & the skirt layer makes them feel more comfortable.
  • They are very very UN-girly/feminine & enjoy subverting that stereotype by wearing a skirt.
  • They get a kick out of pissing off people who get bent out of shape about running skirts.

Issue 2: So what? Is some runner girl's desire to look a certain way while she's running personally harming you in some way? How does that work exactly? At what point did this somehow become your business? Is it because you think that running should be about toughness and bad ass-ness and somehow looking cute and feminine conflicts with that? Because that's another opinion rooted in some pretty sketchy assumptions about gender signaling and character. You might decide that you can't feel cute/feminine and tough at the same time, but there are plenty of women out there who can and do. Don't project your stuff on to them.

Finally, this idea that running skirts only exist in the first place because of the relatively recent influx of slow, non-tough, girly-girl runners to the sport.

This. This is my hands-down favorite argument against the running skirt, because it does such a nice job of wrapping all of the others up into a nice, neat little package. Implicit in this argument are the ideas that running is about toughness and performance only, that toughness and performance are in conflict with femininity, that running skirts are un-tough and wussy and purely about looking feminine.

Let me try to explain some things, as gently as I know how.

For a primer in fake nostalgia, I recommend this book. Totally explains why I'm always nostalgic for four years ago.
1) The culture of any group or affiliation, including sports and other hobbies, is constantly in flux. As much as it might feel to you that it's "always" been a certain way, that's a narrative based on personal experience, not objective reality. I dealt with this a LOT when I taught high school. Older students would complain about the new ones & talk about how "it's not like it used to be" and "those new kids just don't get it," and they'd inevitably find some trend among the younger ones to latch that complaint onto--some new band they all listened to, how they wore their pants, some pop culture reference they'd become obsessed with. What it was didn't really matter; if it hadn't been one thing, it would've been something else. I had to remind them that the kids who'd graduated a few years before had said the same thing about them, as had the ones before them.

Part of the change is just perception, but part of it (not to get too zen on you) is just the reality that everything is always changing. Before it was "those girly girls in their girly skirts," it was "those girls wearing girly colors," and before that, "those girls," period. All of us tend latch onto the things that disrupt the nice, comfortable narrative we've created for ourselves about our sport. Adults have to learn to recognize when we're doing this and not act like children about it.

2) Disparaging people who are getting involved in your thing because they don't look like you or dress like you or do it for the "right" (read: your) reasons or get the "right" (read: same as you) thing out of it is called xenophobia, and it's just plain petty. Particularly when your thing is a social sport that has such a myriad of benefits to offer just about anyone. No one is hurting you. No one is "ruining your experience." (And if they are you are letting them....Well, if you're out of your teens and still letting other people have that level of power over your experience, I just don't know what to tell you.)

We need to be careful about the assumptions we make about people based on things as superficial as clothes. Just as with a woman in shorts or tights, a woman in a running skirt may be a new runner training to finish her first 5K, or she may be a seasoned veteran gunning for a three hour marathon. She may be just learning to deal with the physical discomfort of physically challenging her body, or she may be tough as nails. Maybe she's a new runner but climbed K12 last year. You don't know, and it's not fair to make assumptions because of a piece of clothing. We also need to think hard about the reasons behind those assumptions. Sometimes if you really unpack them, they come from some pretty insidious places.

And for the love of Yasso, stop acting like you own the sport of running because you wear shorts. Geez.

Tune in next week (or next month, or next year, or whenever I finally get it together) for Part 2, where I take on stupid comments about booty shorts. (You know you can't wait!)

**Post-script:** This is still only my second time writing about something pseudo-controversial on the internet. As a refresher, the ground rules in general are 1) feel free to respectfully & thoughtfully express disagreement, and 2) don't be a dick. I won't delete a comment just because someone has a different point of view, but I will not abide ranters and pool-poopers that insist on making things tiresome for everyone. Of course you guys are the coolest, and I've never yet had to resort to that. :)

Read Part 2: The Brouhaha Over Booty Shorts.

Read Part 3: The Tizzy Over Toplessness.


  1. Thanks for this comprehensive takedown of all the reasons I hate this "debate." I am not a skirt person but I'm also not down with policing other people's exercise clothing choices. I also agree that there is some misogyny in others' critiques of skits and women who wear them. But on a personal level, I, for the life of me, don't understand why "while running" is a time or place someone would want to express gender. I get the skirt-as-subversion thing, which is pretty cool, but I'm pretty sure most people wear them for more personal reasons (they're more comfortable, they think they're cute, other reasons you listed). And there's something kind of stressful to me about a start corral full of tutu'd out ladies when I'm wearing a unisex singlet and split shorts. Like, why introduce this particularly kind of femininity to this space? It also makes me feel a weird anxiety about my lack of gender expression. I know that's not the skirt-wearer's problem, but anyway, that's just how I feel.

    Sorry this comment just turned into a feelings deluge. I really appreciate this post and all posts about gender + running -- looking forward to booty shorts! May I also request "running in only a sports bra?"

    1. Ooohh, running only in a sports bra...I didn't even think of that one!

      I think it's totally normal that we're all going to have our own reactions to how people around us dress--it's hard to avoid that. But I also think it's interesting (and important) to sometimes think about why it makes us feel the way it does. I do think a lot of women get the hey-wait-I-didn't-realize-we-were-doing-that-here feeling when they suddenly find themselves, not particularly expressing gender, among other women who are very clearly expressing it. It can totally feel weird. Now I find myself wanting to think more about why that might be.

  2. I used to not like running skirts until I actually tried one on. I was shocked at how comfortable it felt and how I didn't feel like I was even wearing a skirt. Now this non skirt gal has two skirts that I wear all of the time. I even wear them to crossfit. I say don't judge what anyone else wears until you try it out.

  3. You had me at the second sentence, and I spent the rest of the blog post saying, "Yes, exactly!" Why on earth should it matter what someone wears, if it doesn't affect you personally? If they're wearing a massive dose of perfume that affects your breathing, yes, you have the right to be upset. But a skirt vs shorts? That's not going to make ANY difference in the outcome of your own run.

    This summer I met one of the two co-founders of Running Skirts. She has won races while wearing skirts. She has run sub-3-hour marathons while wearing skirts. I saw her take 3rd place in a tough marathon, a week after a hard hit to the face messed up her neck, while wearing a skirt. Anybody judging her was just jealous.

  4. Thank you for such a well written and honest post. After having a child, my uterus moved a little further south than the rest of me. Anyway, I started wearing running skirts to avoid any 'embarassment' when running races and quite frankly, they're comfortable. I wrote a controversial post on this and you wouldn't believe how many emails I got from people who said I should just stop running. Of course I also got alot of supportive comments but it still pisses me off when I'm racing or running with other people and I overhear some of the snide comments other women make about running skirts, so once again, Thank you! Great post.

    1. Wow, some people have a lot of gall. I'm glad to hear that you get supportive comments as well!

  5. I love wearing skirts, I have simply found them more comfortable than shorts for the most part. To be perfectly honest, now that I have lost weight, I am equally as comfortable in shorts, but before it was only partly about how my butt looked as it was the comfort. They just felt better to run in. Now, even though I'm not overweight, I still love them.

  6. So, I don't really care what other people wear and you're right, it doesn't matter, everyone should just do whatever they want to do. I was trying to figure out, then, why I find running skirts annoying. What I have come up with is that I think it has to do with the way in which they are marketed and pushed onto other women: it feels the same way all female clothes seem to come in pink. That's fine if that's what you like (and I have lots of pink clothes), but in a way it just furthers the stereotype out there that women need skirts and pink clothes and to have their nails done (something a lot of female athletes do pre-race) before they can run/race/be athletic. That we're all just trying to shout from the rooftops: See, we're feminine and athletic -- which just feels a little obvious. It feels like by doing that not only are we, as women, becoming our own stereotype but -- if we want to get into a whole psycho-social thing -- we're only playing back the social messages that we've been programmed to believe, instead of subverting them like we think. Why do women feel uncomfortable in shorts? Why do they think a skirt will make them feel more feminine? Why do they think they need extra coverage? Is it just because that's what we've been told?

    1. I think you are absolutely onto something--among the lots of different reasons women might be running in skirts, I feel like the feminine apologetic is very likely to be one of them, which is unfortunate. (I'm sure that's also partly where the race primping comes from too.) And I do agree that the marketing can sometimes feel a little weird--just as I think people shouldn't be like, "Running is about being tough! No skirts!" I also hope that the skirt companies are careful in their marketing not to send the message that "You should be cute while you run! Skirts for everyone!" Because it's the one-note "this is what running is / should be about" that really bothers me.

      And the body image / comfort thing....yes. It's too bad that so many women get to the point of feeling self-conscious about their bodies or like they need to cover it up. It's absolutely a problem. But, I also feel like it's not one that's likely to change any time soon, and I don't want anyone to feel like they can't wear the thing that makes them feel comfortable enough to get out there & run.

      So yes....I do agree that just as there are many great and positive reasons why women might be wearing running skirts, I'll admit that there are some not-so-positive ones as well. I think we just need to be careful about making assumptions about what any particular woman's reason might be (and assuming it's the same for everyone).

    2. I 100% agree with sunnyrunning's comments. In slang terms - are we the player or getting played?

  7. OMG Angela! I could have written this post (perhaps not so eloquently) myself. I love running skirts for all the reasons others hate them. I do not engage in any of the pre-race primping though, but something about wearing a skirt while I am running (like having color coordinated duds on race day) makes me feel like a girl. A non-makeup wearing, hair all busted up, no toenails, etc...runner, but a girl nonetheless. I don't give a damn if others don't like it. I don't run or wear what I wear to please anyone except me.

  8. Great thoughts! I run in skirts in warm weather if running outside, but that's because of the combination of rubbing thighs + self-consciousness. Need compression shorts to keep my thighs apart, but don't want the rest of me being viewed in tight shorts. (I will wear just shorts when running in my apt complex's small gym - so few or no spectators.)

    I think sunnyrunning hit on a good point that it's about how they're advertised. Although I don't feel weird in my running skirts, I do feel like a bit of a traitor towards feminism when I wear pink athletic wear!

    1. Heh....I used to feel that way & would actively avoid it, but now I've decided that it's just another color, and although I don't seek out pink stuff, I also don't avoid running gear that I otherwise like if it happens to be mainly or partly pink. I know that some women are clearly realllllly into it; that, I don't really get, but hey, whatever works for them!

  9. Interesting that you reference that book. I thought I was the only one on the planet who'd ever read it. As to running skirts...I'm always reading blog posts about people reacting to people who criticize them, but I've never actually seen or heard any of that criticism first hand. On the contrary, my friends and I often joke about a guy we overheard at an expo remarking about how "hot" running skirts are. I've never gotten any negative feedback from wearing them. Then again, I probably wouldn't care if someone had an issue anyway. I like the way they perform and the way they look. Other people's issues are their own.

    1. Lol....How funny. That's the first I've heard of a guy having any opinion at all. I've heard a few comments / overheard conversations here & there, but yes, I do think most of this gets spewed online (just because in general I think people are more willing to say things online that they would never say in person).

  10. Thanks for an excellent post! And I am ALL EARS about the booty shorts post -- they're pretty popular on the derby track, so I wanna hear what you have to say about it.

    But really, shouldn't we, couldn't we, just be happy that the sisters are out exercising and sweating and being themselves? It's so much better now than it was 40 years ago. Let's cheer each other on instead of putting each other down.

    --The lumbering, skirt-wearing runner

  11. This. I could not agree more. I am a woman who enjoys running. I enjoy skirts. I enjoy running in (but not exclusively in) skirts, but don't feel a need to aggressively assert any particular version of femininity either way. I have rolled up to the start line of races in colour-coordinated outfits and nail polish because it makes me feel stronger and more powerful..if perhaps not necessarily more aerodynamic. I have toed the starting line in ratty old shorts and a t-shirt I slept in the night before. The outcome was the same - I enjoyed myself.

    Skirts as subversion - I am personally entertained by this and sometimes do this, but it can cross the line into gleefully 'chicking' the guys, which I don't think is an entirely healthy thought process. (Ok fine, I am competitive and like passing people, regardless of what their gender tells me my training's working.)

  12. I think you've really hit the nail on the head with this well-stated analysis. I won't do any runs over about 15 miles without a skirt because of the bum-hiding compression shorts that don't ride up thing, but I tend to be a stiletto/pink type girl anyway, so I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy dressing up to run. I feel like a lot of the arguments against running skirts (that, like you said, are all coming from women addressing other women) suggest that in order to look serious, I need to be dressing more like a male runner..almost to the point of saying women can run, but only if they wear the clothes that the men are already wearing. I could truthfully care less about what people wear or why they wear it (unless they are wearing those 5 fingers...then there is a little bit of judgement). Great post!

    1. Haha, I was just about to comment about the time I got judged for wearing 5-fingers, Amy! ;) But it wasn't from you (obvs), it was from 2 ladies I passed at a trail race. They must've thought I was out of earshot when they started making snide comments about "those shoes" and how people who run in barefoot/minimalist shoes are nuts. I think it's in the same vein of the Angela's argument -- sure, you have a right to your own opinions, but how does another person's choice really affect you? That said, I've definitely been guilty about being judgmental in the past -- not really at skirt-wearers, but at women who are caked in make-up and have full-on accessories in their hair for a race. I'd like to think that I'm an equal opportunity judger though -- that if a guy was wearing something I deemed inappropriate for race day, I'd have similar thoughts. (yes, I know, this still makes me a bad person. sigh.)

  13. I love this post that you've written. I was shouting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" at each paragraph.

  14. Great post.

    I started wearing skirts this summer, I now own two, and I really love them. They DO make me look foxier when I run and as someone who generally looks like death when she runs, I appreciate that :) But I can honestly say I've never been bothered by what people wear when they run and if I bother them?...oh well!

    You should def touch on running in a sports bra (esp. when you don't have awesome and)...guilty...and also my favourite who run bare chested!!

  15. Post-HMB addition ...women running with their hair down.

    I admit it. I judge. TIE IT BACK.

    1. Lol - you are the second person to bring that up! I'll have to do some research into it. ;)

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