Hello & welcome to Part 3 of Ladies & Their Running Clothes. If you missed parts 1 & 2, you may want to check out "The Scuffle Over Skirts" and/or "The Brouhaha Over Booty Shorts" for a bit of context before reading on.
Case Study #3: Sports Bra, No Shirt
So back when I first started having Strong Feelings about this issue in the early 'aughts, there was a LOT of bitching about it online & IRL, directed *at* female runners, *from* female runners, which just broke my heart (as it still does). Ten or so years later, it makes me incredibly happy that this isn't as much the case anymore, certainly not to the extent that it seems to be with running skirts or booty shorts. With sports bras, the majority of women runners polled on the topic seem to mostly just shrug their shoulders & go, "Dude, it's HOT out there!" or, worst case, "Well I wouldn't, but if you feel confident, more power to you, lady!" This is awesome news.
No; the main difference I've noticed when it comes to criticisms of running in only a sports bra vs the first two posts is that most of the criticism seems to come from non-runners. Certainly not all, but for the most part, female runners seem to get it, even those who don't feel comfortable going sports bra-only themselves.
By virtue of the fact that running in only a sports bra instead of a T-shirt or tank shows more skin / curves, many of the complaints tend to align with those about booty shorts -- "She only does it to get attention / look sexy / feminine / etc." or "That's not a flattering look for her / nobody wants to see that" or "It's slutty / trashy looking." We already covered a lot of that ground in the booty shorts post so I won't repeat it all here, but there are some points in which I feel like the discussion plays out a little differently.
So what new and different arguments are people bringing to the table when they tsk-tsk about ladies going sports bra-only?
- It is distracting to "some people" (and from context, it is usually clear that "some people" is men) + if you do it, you are complicit in the objectification of women (generally by men)
- You might offend people who have different modesty standards than you and are not expecting to have to have to "deal with that kind of thing unexpectedly," ie, a mother out with her child, an elderly person with traditional views, someone with strict religious beliefs around modestly/women's bodies (I am not even kidding that the statement in quotes is in fact an actual quote and the examples are basically cut & pasted from a popular running forum)
- You could be making other women with less confidence in their bodies than you feel bad.
- A sports bra is still a bra, ergo it is still underwear. Would you go out in public in just your regular bra? Would you go to the grocery store in only a sports bra? Would you go to the grocery store in just YOUR REGULAR BRA??
I'm not going to lie to you. Every time I read or hear this kind of crap, I feel like I'm about to channel Feminist Hulk (HULK SMASH!!). If the choice is between attempting rational, civilized discourse and investing in stretchy purple shorts, though, my way seems clear.
So let's get started.
"She only does it to get attention / look sexy / feminine / etc." + "It is distracting to 'some people'" + "You are participating in the objectification of women by 'some people'."
Part of this is just a matter of re-capping what we discussed with both running skirts & booty shorts.
- Unless she specifically told you that she wears x thing for y reason, then no, you don't know that that's why, and just because two or ten or two hundred women tell you that's their reason does not make it the reason for everyone.
- If it is the reason, so what? Big freaking deal. Some ladies like looking sexy / feminine / getting attention when they run. No one is making you do it, so chill.
But there's this other argument that seems to come up when people rail against sports-bra-only but oddly enough not usually with the booty shorts, and that's the one about distracting "some people," ie, men (I'm not saying non-man people might not also be distracted; I'm just saying that the subtext when I've heard or read this complaint has pretty much always been in regard to straight men), plus the yucky corollary that if you go sports-bra-only you are somehow participating in the Objectification of Women and Ruining Feminism and if men only like you for your body after that it's Your Own Fault.
|2012 Olympics: These slutty slutty sisters better put on some real clothes around the menfolk; otherwise SEX OBJECTS 4 EVA.|
- Can I ask you why you're wearing just a sports bra?
It's probably because you want to get noticed, isn't it?
You see, by wearing that sports bra, you're getting attention, no doubt! But is it really the kind of attention you want? I'll be the first to admit that when I saw you, my first thought wasn't, "Oh, she looks like a wonderful human being with a kind heart and a great personality, I should get to know her!". It was more like, "Man, look at that body".
When a girl wears revealing clothing, she doesn't get noticed...her body gets noticed. If you want to stop being treated as an object for sexual pleasure, then you can do something about it! I'm gonna be real with you for a second: When you dress immodestly, it makes it really hard to see you as a human being, and easier to see you as just an attractive body. The more skin you reveal, the further a man's imagination can go in thinking about what the rest of your body looks like. If you want to be treated as a human being and not just a body, then you need to do your part and dress in a way that reflects that. I'm not saying you're the reason that men objectify women. But I will say that if more women started dressing modestly, more men would stop objectifying women, and start loving them as human beings. It's a team effort, we both have to do what we can to help each other become the best version of ourselves.
I won't blame you if you had to go vomit once you finished reading that.
There is a profoundly dangerous & damaging myth operating in the world that goes like this:
- Straight men are animalistic creatures ruled completely by their libidos, which they are only *barely* holding in check at the best of times, and when they are around pretty ladies, they just *cannot* be held responsible for what their eyes/brains/hands do, therefore:
- It is the job of women to control the sexual thoughts/actions of men and not tempt/distract them with sexy clothes/body parts/facial features/hair/make up/words/movements/generally being a woman in public.
Not to get too heavy here, but when girls & women get told that it's on them to "cover it up" so they don't distract boys/men / "send the wrong message" / "attract the wrong kind of attention," the same societal standard that blames women for their own rapes or sexual assaults ("She wore a short skirt!" "She let him buy her a drink!" "She went off alone with him!") is in operation.
(*Catholic men: I don't mention he's Catholic to suggest you all think this way. I only mention it because his blog is centered around his religion, and he ties a lot of the modesty talk back to it. There are many lovely Catholic / otherwise religious people in the world who don't blame the decline of the western world on the bodies of women, and plenty of atheists who are patriarchal dicks.)
I am here to tell / remind you that that is the worst kind of bullshit.
Learning to deal with distraction is part of learning to function as a grown-up. Sometimes I work in my local coffee shop & the folks at the next table are engrossed in a fascinating conversation on a subject I have strong feelings about. Sometimes at races there are people wearing crazy, boisterous costumes. Both of these things = SUPER DISTRACTING!
But I don't get to regulate those behaviors. As a grown-ass adult, my distractibility is my problem to deal with, up to & including going somewhere else / looking somewhere else / not going to places & events where I'm likely to have to deal with them. Those are choices I have.** It is not the job of these other folks to solve this problem for me, nor is it the job of women to solve the problem of distractible men by figuring out what exactly those men prefer we wear in order to not distract them. (And let's be real; for some of them, it wouldn't matter anyway. Men who can only see women as sex objects are going to do that no matter what. Your clothes are not the problem.)
Not only is this thinking unfair to women; it's insulting to lady-loving men. Like just about everyone else in the world, most of them are fully-functioning human beings with all of their cognitive faculties intact. (I personally know many of them! They're great!) They have the same ability to tune out distractions and choose where they focus their attention as the rest of us. Like everyone else, some of them are better at it than others, and we all have some things that are harder for us to ignore than others. But just being a dude attracted to women does not make a person utterly helpless in the presence of a woman in a sports bra.
**(Obviously, there are extreme situations where creating a highly non-distracting environment is expected of everyone present, for the benefit of everyone present. You shouldn't wear a bikini to a funeral. You also shouldn't wear loud colors or belt out "La Copa Cabana." You shouldn't chew gum loudly or incessantly tap your feet in a standardized test. Those types of situations are different than what I'm talking about.)
It's refreshing to hear that the myth of women & girls being "responsible" for men & boys' ability to concentrate is finally getting some legal pushback. Until very recently, students at Stuyvesant School in New York City were subject to a dress code where many, many more of the rules applied to traditionally female clothing (skirts/dresses, tights, close-fitting/sleeveless tops) than to traditionally male or gender-neutral clothing (pants, loose-fitting tops). The rules were also enforced in a way that made girls' outfits and how much of their bodies could or could not be seen about their sexuality. The Justice Department ruled that this constituted violation of Title IX under what is known as disparate impact, meaning an organization is using a neutral procedure or practice (student dress code) that has a disproportionate impact on protected individuals (girls). Because of the way the dress code was written and enforced, girls were essentially being harassed by their teachers and administrators in a manner to which boys were not subject.
The thinking behind the Stuyvesant dress code sends a dangerous message to young women – that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them. To quote the principle, “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go...The bottom line is, some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.”
Say it with me now: "It is not the responsibility of female students [or females runners] to mitigate the male gaze. You find female bodies “distracting”? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice."
Mainsplainer extraordinaire Catholic helper man, that is exactly what you are doing in your blog post. She is not making running in a sports bra about sexuality; you are. The fact that you think only about her body when you see her, and are driven to distraction imagining what the rest of it looks like, and have trouble thinking of her as a human being and not a sex object is YOUR PROBLEM, dude, not hers. It is not the job of women to mitigate the male gaze.
The flip side of that coin: Ladies, you are not responsible for the thoughts of people who look at you, regardless of what you are wearing. You can't 'make' anyone objectify you anymore than you can make them not objectify you. Men (or whoever) who are going to view women as sex objects are going to do that regardless of whether they are looking at ladies running in sports bras or not. Men who look at women as whole people who they also may possibly find sexy-looking will behave that way no matter what you're wearing. You are not ruining feminism. It is not your job to mitigate the male gaze.
Which sort of brushes up against "You might offend people who have different modesty standards than you." (As an aside, how much do I love the comment from the super-conservative mom who was like, "What if I am out with my child and not prepared to deal with that kind of thing unexpectedly???" I can just see her rounding a corner with her five-year-old in their perfectly respectable neighborhood and OMG MIDRIFF AMBUSH!!!!!!!)
Again, I say: People just can't be responsible for how their clothes make people feel when they're just going about their business in a public space. (Can you imagine trying to manage this? For everyone you might encounter? All the time?) The lady in the sports bra probably didn't KNOW you feel that midriff / visible boob contour is amoral and specifically PLAN to ambush you & your child with it. She isn't going topless AT you. She's probably just doing her thing, in a way that makes her comfortable. The midriff-terrified mom and her kid are not a captive audience.
Note that this is not the same thing as "Everybody wear whatever you feel like all the time with complete disregard for others!!" Attending a funeral? Visiting a country with strict cultural norms? Absolutely, in those situations respect for the occasion or culture is clearly warranted. But people in your own city who are terrified of/can't deal with the female form? They don't own All of Outside. They don't even own the park where they take their walks/their kids play. No one has ever been scarred for life by bare midriff/boob contour.
On the flip side, just because you don't owe it to others to dress a certain way doesn't mean that you can't choose to wear something different out of consideration for them if you feel so moved. In college I had a friend who often ran sports-bra-only in the summer. She also occasionally ran with a group from her church that included several slightly older, more conservative women and on those occasions she chose to always wear a tank top in order to make them more comfortable. She was not obligated to do this; she didn't owe it to them (and I feel pretty sure that if they'd ever tried to institute some kind of dress code she would have been out of there in a second). She just felt like it was worth a marginal bit of discomfort to her on warm days in order to maintain good relationships with a group of women whose company she genuinely enjoyed.
While we're on the subject of not being responsible for other people's feelings, let's maybe slay the beast called "You shouldn't go sports-bra-only because it might make other women feel bad." At its heart, this objection seems to be less about the clothing involved and more about how some women feel about their own bodies, particularly in comparison to the bodies of others.
Ugh, this is such a hard one because we've ALLLLLL been there. At some point in our lives, we've all had the experience of looking around and comparing what we are or have to what others are or have. How do I stack up? Is my thing/situation/whatever better than his/hers/theirs or worse? How much better or worse? If I'm not extraordinary, am I at least pretty good? Am I at least not abysmal?
When you feel like something about you is not as good as the people you see around you or like you don't measure up, it never feels good. It's particularly bad when it's something about our bodies, since we live in a society that is constantly judging people by how they look against a fairly narrow, mostly unattainable standard of physical attractiveness.
without your consent."
Read it. Memorize it. Repeat it to yourself every morning and every night. Feelings of inferiority require a willing victim. It takes a lot of practice, but you can choose not to be one.
Sometimes it helps to remember that, as with the conserva-mom & her kiddo, the woman running along happily & confidently in just a sports bra isn't doing it AT you (even if it feels like it sometimes). Most likely she has no wish to make anyone feel bad about their own bodies and would feel very sad to find out that had happened. But, just as she's not responsible for the impure thoughts of distractible men, she is also not responsible for the feelings her clothes or body invoke in others about their own.
It's not possible for another person to "make you" feel good, bad, smart, dumb, ugly, beautiful, fat, skinny, etc. No one else can "make" you feel anything. Ascribing that kind of power to other people is dangerous, because it takes you out of the driver's seat & puts your self-esteem and self-confidence at the mercy of other people. It's victim thinking. It's not the job of others to "make" you feel good about yourself through their choice of clothing. It's your job to create good feelings about yourself in a way that is not dependent on what the people around you are wearing. (I'm not saying that's easy, and I'll fully acknowledge that it's a much, MUCH longer road for some of us than for others. I'm just saying that's how it is.)
And, because I find it just so stinking precious, let us consider the semantic argument against sports-bra-no-shirt: "A sports bra is still a bra; if you wouldn't go out in public in just a regular bra, you shouldn't go out in just a sports bra." I find this logic utterly patronizing, not only as a runner but also as a martial artist. I remember reading about a male martial artist who was not used to training with women, and he was completely taken aback to learn that the women in his dojo wore only a sports bra--not a T-shirt or tank top--under their gi tops (which tend to be a bit floppy & loose). The women were like, "Do you wear an extra shirt under your gi top? "No, that would be hot and uncomfortable." "Then why would we do it?" "But what if your gi top comes open and I see your sports bra? AWKWARD AND/OR SCANDAL!!"
The attitude of these women martial artists was one of complete practicality. They viewed themselves as serious athletes dressing appropriately and comfortably for their sport. To them, a sports bra was just another piece of equipment, like a mouthguard or pads, that they needed in order to participate safely & comfortably. The objections of the male martial artist, on the other hand, were grounded in an idea of women as lingerie-clad-sex objects. At that point he was not capable of interacting with them first & foremost as athletes, of seeing them as anything but women first, as havers of breasts and lingerie & other lady/sex object things that made him completely uncomfortable. Once again, this was his problem to deal with, not theirs. It was not their job to take care of his awkwardness and embarrassment around their female bodies by making themselves physically uncomfortable. (Sensing a theme, here?)
|The first-ever sports bra, made from two jock straps sewn together. Not joking.|
- "'I made a decision early on that this was not lingerie,' Lisa says. 'It was sports equipment, something you needed like you needed your shoes.' But sporting-goods stores saw the Jogbra as a tough sell, and their overwhelmingly male owners reacted squeamishly to sample cases full of sports bras. Lisa was fond of countering, 'You sell jockstraps, don't you?' That always stopped them cold."
I have a hunch that the squeamishness of the male '70s sporting goods purveyors at selling sports bras is not unrelated to the embarrassment of the male martial artist above: A result of seeing women first as female-bodied people with conspicuous, sexualized body parts and being unable to reconcile that viewpoint with women attempting to deal with those body parts in a completely functional, non-sexualized way. I have a hunch that this is why some people can't let go of the idea that sports bra = lingerie.
(I also think this attitude is in play when people try to argue that it's fine for a man to run shirtless but not a woman. If you really push people on that one, it pretty much boils down to women's chests being overtly sexualized and men's significantly less so. Ie, we can sometimes look at the bare chest/torso of a dude & think about something besides ALL TEH SEXXX; a woman in a sports bra? Not so much.)
Would I go to the grocery store in only a regular bra? Of course not. But I also probably would not go to the grocery store in a bikini top, even though there are many situations in which wearing a bikini top in public is completely acceptable. A sports bra is not lingerie anymore than a bikini top is; it's a specialized garment with a specific purpose, and there are absolutely contexts where it's appropriate & contexts where it's not. The fact that it's a bra is completely, entirely irrelevant.
Here endeth my rational, civilized exposition of how the phenomenon of women running topless except for a sports bra is not trashy, shameful, gross, ruining feminism, or responsible for the Decline of Morals in AmericaTM. If you've been thinking of trying it but hesitated because of any of that, go forth & bare thy midriff. If you've been talking trash about women who do it, I hope you'll rethink why and what it really accomplishes. And if you've been supporting the ladies in your life in wearing whatever lets them exercise in physical and psychological comfort, go on witcha bad self. To quote Diana E. Anderson's Modesty Culture and the Fear of the Confident Woman, "I am an average American woman, and I will dress in what I feel confident in. And that, to many, is the scariest thing I can do."
**Post-script:** Just a quick reminder about the ground rules in terms of commenting: 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 critical question or different point of view (I have gotten some interesting & poignant comments that did just that!), 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. :)
References & Further Reading:
- Men Who Explain Things, by Rebecca Solnit. "Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence."
- A Cultural History of Mansplaining, by Lily Rothman. "The idea [of mansplaining] wasn't political in origin, and mansplaining happens in academia and offices and dining rooms. But it makes sense that politics brought it to the general public's attention. When it comes to politics, it seems men have been talking about the female experience since basically forever."
- Modesty As Fauxgressivism: Co-Opting the Language of Empowerment and Ignoring the Real Problems, by Diana E. Anderson. "It is not because of willingness to be objectified that women dress immodestly, nor is it because of an inability to stand up to sexualization that we wear miniskirts. The very concepts of what is modest or immodest extend from a patriarchal, cultural male gaze. As such, whether or not I wear a bikini or a one piece to the pool this summer has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I will be objectified...I am not responsible for men deciding to objectify or sexualize me, just as I am not responsible for making sure they do not have lustful thoughts. The power to change the male gaze lies not with my clothing choices, but with the men who choose to see me as an object."
- Targeting 'Slutty' Students, by Jessica Valenti. "In addition to the violation of female students’ rights, the thinking behind the code sends a dangerous message to young women – that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them...It’s not the responsibility of female students to mitigate the male gaze. You find female bodies “distracting”? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice."
- If You Don't Want Girls Judged by Their Hemlines, Stop Judging Them by Their Hemlines, by Amanda Marcotte @ Slate XX Factor. "Telling women to cover it up is just as surely a form of sexual objectification as telling women to take it off. Either way, you're reducing a woman to her sexuality instead of considering her as a whole person. Either way, you are, to quote Maya Dusenbery of Feministing, "looking at a woman and instead of seeing a full, complex, and multifaceted human being, all you see is ALL TEH SEXXX.""
- Stop telling girls their hemlines are too short, by S.E. Smith @ XOJane. "The hyperfocus on what girls are wearing with a healthy heaping of judgment sends precisely the opposite message, underscoring that girls should be constantly concerned about what they are wearing and who might be judging them for it."
- Your Body Is Never the Problem, by Hugo Schwyzer @ hugoschwyzer.net. "Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and—especially—if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone."
- Seven Ways to Love Your Body, by Heather Corinna at Scarleteen.com. "This is not another diet guide. It will not show you how to lose ten pounds by Thanksgiving. It will not introduce you to a new set of "miracle ab crunches" or rave about the latest liposuction advances. And there will be no butt pads, silicone, or fat-free recipes to share. I'm writing this because I, like many women, used to diet until I was dizzy. I looked at my body and hated the parts that stuck out, and the ones that didn't stick out far enough. And I believed that having the so-called "perfect" body–at any expense–would guarantee success and eternal happiness. Do I need to say it? I was deluded."
- The Scarleteen Do-It, by Heather Corinna at Scarleteen.com. Scroll down to "Put a kibbosh on comparing & dissing."
- Modesty Culture and the Fear of the Confident Woman, by Dianna E. Anderson @ Faith and Feminism. "By not kowtowing to the male gaze, by asserting that she sees herself as worthy in ways that modesty proponents think she should not, modesty culture exacts a harsher punishment by demanding not only that she cover up those assets which are impossible to hide, but also reinforcing that she should do so precisely because she is exhibiting a confidence in herself that is not dependent on the male gaze...I am an average American woman, and I will dress in what I feel confident in. And that, to many, is the scariest thing I can do."