Recently 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.
Imagine 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.
While 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!