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Women Runners Make Strides--in Fashion?

When I received my August 2011 issue of Runner's World magazine in the mail, I glanced down at the cover and my face fell a bit. The cover image features an obviously athletic female runner decked out in bright pink designer running clothes--skirt included--with a link to the article title "Fastinistas: The Flashy New Gear Culture and the Women Who Love It."

Frankly my feelings are split on this matter of fashionable athletic wear. On the one hand, I believe women (and men) should be able to wear whatever they want when they run. On the other hand, I can't imagine a similar cover story about, say, "MetroMilers: Chic New Running Apparel and the Men Who Dig It" (can you?).

One thing that bothers me about the article is that it focuses on women's desire to stand out and get noticed--but treats this as a positive aspect of women's running, as if bright colors and flattering fits demonstrate pride. And while I can't argue with this viewpoint in theory, I don't quite understand why we must celebrate a form of recognition that, in my opinion, is image-based and undermines the performance value of the sport. One so-called "fastinista" interviewed for the article does not help matters (either for the past decades of women's movements or for the article) by saying that her style is "somewhat naughty Catholic school girl meets running mom," and then finishing with, "If I look good, I feel good." Ugh. Have we regressed back to that? Even in running? So much of what I love about this sport is its freedom from equipment and gear and constrictions--even, and perhaps especially, mental constrictions. I don't want to worry about how I look to other people while I'm hitting the pavement with all my might and sweating out buckets of effort to reach my goal, and I feel like this article subtly suggests that I should. Another woman interviewed for the article says, "Five years ago, when you got dressed for a run, you dressed in what you needed." Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Do I not only have to feel competitive as a runner, but now also as a fashion model? How about the mantra, Notice me because I'm focused, or because I finished a race strong, or because I ran a new PR, or because I never thought I would be a runner and now I'm weeks away from running my first marathon? Where is that mentality endorsed in the article?

I feel like the article perpetuates the stereotype that women are overly concerned about fashion in what can be a very gritty sport, and they have only found a more comfortable place in running in recent years because they have more style options in running apparel. What this further suggests to me is that men, who are less focused on their clothing choices, are more concerned about performance.

Granted, the article does mention that many elite female runners are donning the new digs and making waves--both for their athletic accomplishments and for their wardrobe choices. One woman is quoted in the article as saying, "To show up at the starting line of the Boston Marathon and see women running in skirts is definitely a shift in style"--um, a shift back to the 1950s, perhaps. Personally I don't understand the desire to run in a skirt, and I realize that I simply don't have to run in one if that's my choice. Unless it promotes functionality (and I can't imagine that it wouldn't catch extra air and prevent aerodynamism), I see the running skirt purely as a way to make women look more feminine in the sport--but why is that necessary? This isn't to say that men and women should wear the same running gear; obviously that wouldn't be practical. I like variety and nuance as much as the next person. But my complaint centers on the focus on fashion, and only on fashion for women, in this issue. It feels like a step backward somehow, like a new way to separate the sexes in a male-dominated--and previously women-restricted--sport that women have fought hard to join the ranks of. The guts-and-glory factor of women's running is undermined by the more flippant and aesthetic arena of fashion.

But what I do understand and further gleaned from the article is that women have greatly varying body types--more so than men--and some of the newer lines of athletic wear that are geared toward women accommodate that variety. This is something women appreciate tremendously. I get that. And at the same time that I can lash out against the running skirt, I can also see the other viewpoint. We, as women runners, do not have to wear skirts, nor do we have to wear the same attire as men. We can choose to wear skirts or whatever we want, and that in itself is a freedom.

So I suppose that, in the end, I shouldn't grumble too much about a movement that seems to help motivate women to get out there and get their run on. But please no more pink skirts on the cover, okay, RW?


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