On Unisex Shirts

A woman in an oversized shirtRecently at the expo of a very expensive marathon, I was pretty pissed to discover there were no women’s medium shirts left and you know what the volunteer said to me? Oh, this really steamed me.
“You should be happy there are women’s shirts at all. They could have just ordered unisex shirts.”

UNISEX? Has there ever been a unisex shirt that was anything other than a man’s shirt? Has there ever been a unisex shirt with boob darts? Has there ever been a unisex shirt designed with women’s bodies in mind, a shirt men were supposed to just deal with, in spite of fitting completely wrong? Would any woman put “unisex shirt” on her Christmas list?

After that exchange I boiled over into a shrieking, red-faced ball of anger, mentally hurling expletives at the race director. The very suggestion that an event costing $216 could entertain the notion of… UNISEX! BAH! How many freaking square heather-grey or navy-and-white men’s shirts have I gotten from races over the years? Only about a thousand. Or, okay, probably 40. But still! That’s FORTY ill-fitting, unflattering, and often just-plain-unwearable shirts that did not have to be put on this earth.

When race directors deliver “unisex” shirts in their packets, it’s as if they say, “You’re lucky you get a shirt at all, sweetheart! You’re lucky you even get to run the race!”

But it’s just a shirt.

Maybe you thought that. A lot of people say that to me when I explain my exasperation about this unisex thing.

imageImagine you approach the registration table before a race and the person across the table hands you a bib that says, “Howard Goldman, M, age 47.”

“Oh,” you say, “there must be some mistake. I’m not Howard. I’m not a 47-year-old man.” The volunteer smiles and says, “Oh, all the bibs we have here are for men. You can just run with one of theirs. No big deal, right?” What would you do? How would you react?

That’s how I feel when I get a “unisex” shirt from a race bearing some atrocity of graphic design in colors only the most dudely of dude-bros could love. Sure, it’s no big deal, except yet again it’s a subtle message that this race isn’t for me. I’m just a guest here in this man’s world, so I have to take whatever scraps of consideration are tossed my way and be glad that I get anything at all, or risk being petty and ungrateful.

Can you imagine a man getting an XXL ladies-cut t-shirt and being cool with it, even if it were navy and grey? Seriously, think about the backlash that would cause. Would it be petty? Would women or other men call him bitchy or accuse them of having hormonal problems? Or say he’s making something out of nothing? Would they say, “Oh come on, Howard! It’s just a shirt”?

I know it’s hard to be a race director and that race giveaways are often the least of an RD’s worries. My criticism is not of a lonely and overworked RD struggling to put on his local charity 5k year after year. Rather, this unisex shirt phenomenon is symptomatic of a deeper issue that permeates our racing experience as women.

It’s really not about the shirts.

ohohioWhile participation is divided almost evenly between genders, decision-maker and stakeholder roles in the industry of our sport are not. The IAAF (the governing body overseeing international track and field) must hold a special women’s election just to get a woman on its council. Major marathons are almost all overseen by men. While it’s true that Mary Wittenberg was the president of NYRR for ten years, during her tenure she was one of three women race directors of the largest US marathons (NYC, Chicago, Boston, Marine Corps, Honolulu, Walt Disney World, Los Angeles, San Diego, Twin Cities and Portland). Not to mention, she’s the only woman to have held her position.

Of course, we are at a temporal disadvantage here. Officially, women weren’t even allowed to compete in an Olympic marathon until 1984 and no marathons at all until just a few years before that. How many of our fathers were competitive runners? And how many of our mothers? When I think of the archetypal runner I think of Pre’s contemporaries, men who have become what I affectionately call “the old beardy guys in the split shorts.” How many women over 60 do you know who race?

Even after FloJo and the fitness craze of the 70’s, running for women was about staying in shape and looking good, and competing was the realm of men. And that has pervaded the culture.

Even at the top levels our elite sisters are essentially afterthoughts in a great deal of media, and they basically race in bikinis (not that I mind racing in briefs, but if it were just a comfort thing, you’d think all the men would be cramming themselves into tiny briefs too). We still have to translate training science and theory over from the men’s versions, even when we know our bodies are shaped and perform differently. We are sold smaller, pinker versions of men’s gear and expected to LOVE it, because don’t we want to be feminine? Garmin’s cute little pink FR10 is nice and simple for us ladies to use. None of those confusing technical features. Phew.

We are the next generation of women runners, a new order, and as the extant community struggles to figure out who we are and what we want, it’s natural that the fit might be off or the color might be wrong. Take heart; this can’t last. We are stepping into leadership and stakeholder roles, voting with our dollars, representing ourselves in media and even asking for race shirts that fit our bodies. If being a part of Salty Running for four years has taught me anything, it’s that women athletes aren’t going anywhere; if anything we are taking over, showing the running industry we can’t be ignored.

In the meantime, I thank running for bringing me all these ill-fitting grey-and-navy or grey-and-maroon or grey-and-white or navy-and-white or navy-and-blue sacks of cotton. Each one is a gift. Each one is a little nudge forward, a little push to step up and be a part of the change.


For the previous 12 Days of Running posts, go here!

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Having done some race directing on a very small scale, honestly, I get doing the men’s shirts only. Why? Women’s shirts cause a lot more problems. Because women’s sizing isn’t uniform, probably half the women at our race wanted to change sizes. Oy. It’s hard to order for that. Also, for some reason the cheap, bulk women’s race shirts are mostly too short with too short of sleeves. The advantage of men’s shirts are that everyone fits into them (though rather badly, I agree).

    If I ran a more expensive race (ahem- $216?) I would probably want to follow what the Madison Marathon does- they have both sexes of shirts, but link to the manufacturers website where several measurements are given. Just lovely.

    1. I think the sizing issues you reference are another part of the problem Cinnamon is railing against. Those companies aren’t paying attention to what women really want/need, just doing the same old shrink & pink strategy.

    2. The women’s shirt sizing issue is why I (being 5’10) always order the men’s small even there are women’s shirts. Which usually leads to needing to explain why when I’m getting the men’s shirt at packet pick up.

    3. How hard is it to have a ticket you rip off the race bib and hand off for a t-shirt size? Then the onus is on the runner to take the size she ordered. They do it at plenty of races.

      But that’s not the real issue at hand, here. The real issue is that women shouldn’t be seen by race directors as problems. We should be seen as opportunities, and as half of the community they serve.

    4. Hey Kathy!

      I’m an anonymous reader, but I just want to point something out. Just because men’s shirts can fit over pretty much all women doesn’t mean that they still fit, just “rather badly.” It means that they often DONT FIT in the sense that they are too big, not too small. I think part of the point Cinnamon is trying to make is bringing attention to the fact that a giant man’s shirt on a women is still considered “fitting” in a sense, while too small female shirts worn by a man would never be considered fitting. Why is that? A man would find a tiny female shirt just as useless as I find t-shirts that go to my knees. Neither “fit,” neither is functional, and both are a waste of money and closet space. But only females are put in this situation, and regularly.

      Cinnamon..I want to say I personally think your post is SPOT ON. Thank you!! I never post or reply to things like this online but was moved to do so right now because I so much appreciate that you wrote this.



      1. YES YES YES to this response. Too large or too big = doesn’t “fit”.

        But females are supposed to be ok with always being the gender that gets the shirt that doesn’t fit. And I am not being hyperbolic here; name one race where they only gave out women’s cut to men.

        The guys I know say we can sleep in it; um, a ginormous tent that you get twisted in during the night is not super comfy to sleep in – about as comfy as you wearing a super small shirt to bed that nearly chokes you.

        Or use it as a rag; because the way I like to commemorate a race is by cleaning up something super gross – you get to wear your shirt and I get to use mine to clean up your mess?

        The original article and this response comment just really speak to me.

  2. As women become an ever-larger presence in the running world – for example, they’re over 60% of half marathon participants in the US these days – marketers are trying to tap into our market, but the problem, to a large extent, is that these marketing initiatives are largely not led by women, so they often fall flat. On one hand, I don’t want anything to do with something that’s marketed with tutus, tiaras or the word “diva.” On the other, that big-ass Garmin with all the functionality I needed to train physically hurt my small wrist. So, traditional women’s marketing techniques, the shrinking and pinking, etc. don’t do shit for me. But, the traditional performance-focused runner marketing techniques fail too. So us performance-focused women are in this (heather) gray area.

  3. Great post, Cinnamon, although I might take umbrage with the 60+ runners comment. I ran with those guys who are now “beardy in split shorts” and wore my then husband’s old baggy grey shorts! All kidding aside, as Salty well points out, women comprise more than half the participants in many races. I don’t understand why gear can’t be better determined, especially for the large races where they know who’s signed up many months in advance so plenty of time to figure out how many shirts of what size they need. And the lack of uniformity in size is amazing, sometimes small or even extra small are huge, the cut for wider shoulders never work right, and the colors: why are men’s shirts generally better colored?
    The bigger issue to which you allude, that gear and attitude don’t match women’s capabilities, determination and contribution to running, is what needs to be addressed.

    1. That’s one of the reasons you are so great, Sage, and why you inspire me! You get down with the beardy guys!

      And you hit the nail on the head. This post, at its core, has nothing to do with t-shirts.

      It started as complaining about big floppy unisex t-shirts, but as I wrote about it and researched and talked about the topic, I came to realize that I’m not mad at t-shirts. I’m mad at the system, and the t-shirt is just one more reminder that the system doesn’t work. I truly believe we’re getting there, but we have a long way to go!

      1. This is such a great post – great work. It’s only by speaking out, writing about it, and not accepting the status quo as the norm that we’ll ever see change take shape. You rock!

        1. Thanks Sandra! It means a lot to us when we hear back from readers! This one was an especially uncertain road for me to tread and I’m glad to know I resonated with you.

  4. Wait a minute… Why are we discussing sexed shirts? We should be discussing why races feel the need to include shirts no one wants instead of excluding the shirts and lowering the price.

    1. Now now, Jasmine, you stand on your own soapbox about your issues! You know very well that I’m not discussing sexy shirts. I’m discussing unsexy shirts, and it has nothing to do with shirts.

  5. I founded a 10-mile race six years ago and have been race directing it since. We are a small race (around 625 registrants) and have always had shirts available for both genders and multiple sizes from the start. About 60% of our runners are women, so the idea of unisex or men’s shirts is just silly. It costs no more, may take a bit more time in sorting sizes when preparing registration bags, but no big deal. After the first year, we found a label that most of our runners gave positive feedback on and we have stayed with them.
    Re Jasmine’s point, some of us could really care about the shirt (I’m one) but for many runners it is important. And, sponsors (who help to subsidize our registration fees with their generosity) want their name on the shirt.
    Thanks for raising this topic. I have gone to pick up my registration bag on numerous races that have thousands of runners, take a look at that sad unisex shirt, politely hand it back to the volunteer and say ‘no thanks.’

    1. Thanks for commenting, SaR! It is ALWAYS wonderful to hear from RDs on this stuff! Of course I keep saying “it’s not about the shirt,” but the shirts do matter! Good point that sponsors want to see them as much as runners do! Sponsors want their logo on a runner’s back – that’s walking advertisement!

  6. Great post! This is such a sore spot for me. I would rather not get a shirt than one that is a bad size. I was extremely disappointed with Boston2014. I got to the expo on the first day, only to be told they ran out of XS women’s. Then why even ask my size? I also have to think that some of the sizing issue has to do with the larger sizing of America, which is unfortunate. Last year, my husband compared his medium RNR tech shirt to a medium from 4 years ago. The more recent medium was much larger.

    If you think running events are bad… Ironman is awful! Poor quality, and a women’s small is like a dress.

    1. Right!? How hard is it to have a tag where you get the size you ordered and that’s that!

      And sorry to hear that about the Triathlons! Other triathletes – have you had that problem?

  7. This was a great article and I agree completely! I never know what to order, I’m between a women’s medium and large for tech shirts and if it’s a men’s cotton shirt I’m definitely a small. If the registration website or drop down box doesn’t say, it’s even more of a hassle! Also, why are races doing different colors for men and women’s shirts now? I would rather have the men’s color sometimes, but they don’t disclose it in advance. Lastly, why do we have to pay more for running clothes in general? The pink tax on hygiene products is bad enough, but when I have to pay more for my tank that has less material than a man’s singlet I find it ridiculous! Oh and my model of shoes cost more than the men’s same model. :/