Running skirts and sexism

You’ve seen them, I assume. Maybe you even wear them. They’ve entered the mainstream, now available at Mountain Equipment Coop and Lululemon (complete with butt frills for added cuteness). You can browse them here at home of the running skirts where you can buy ruffly black tanks to go over your leopard print skirt.

Cute but I do think they make women look more cheerleader, less serious runner. Arguably I just need to change my view about what serious runners look like. And I do know that cheerleaders can be serious athletes too.

As you can see, I go back and forth on this issue…

In the end, I think they’re a bit much.  But are running skirts sexist?

The philosopher in me cringes at this question. Skirts aren’t moral agents, they aren’t even rules or regulations or states of affairs. They’re things. Can a thing even be sexist, just on its very own?

seems to think so. Here’s what she says in her piece Why Running Skirts Are Sexist And I Would Never Wear One

“While these skirts have been around for at least the last four years, apparently, it’s becoming more of a trend to want to look stylish when we work out (Runner’s World even nicknamed such females as “stunners”. Get it? Stylish runners?) But to me, nothing could be more detesting than trying to look cute when it comes to running. I just couldn’t take myself seriously while donning a frilly skirt all covered with sparkles and shit.

What’s even worse than the skirt itself (and I do get that some women swear these are totally comfortable), is the fact that they can create a sexist atmosphere on the road or at a race–places where women should be seen as athletes, not girly girls trying to look all adorable.”

Now I’m with Dunham on athletic fashion and preferences and I want to cheer her on when she asks, “When did running become all about body image and “hugging the right curves”? Can’t we just put all of that aside when we hit the road and embrace our bodies for what they do versus how they look? We’re not out there for others to gawk at. We’re out there to get shit done. And for me, that’s in a basic pair of black shorts and a tank.” And I’ve written as much here in my post Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness.

But I recognize that lots of women do care about looking good while working out. See past posts on padded sports bras, and on body conscious sports performance attire as a barrier to entry for women in sports.

So here are my worries about running skirts:

  • I worry that they contribute to yet more pressure on women to look good at all times–even while running marathons.  Triathlete  Nicole DeBoom even won an Ironman competition in a skirt. Can’t athletic events and training be times for other values in women’s lives? Can we get a break from caring about our appearance? Please.
  • There’s also a note of modesty and body shame about them I don’t quite like. The ad for the tri skirt, in hot pink of course, says “Slide this one over a tri one-piece. It holds your race number and gives you the psychological edge of wearing something cute and carefree.” But it’s an added piece of clothing. Why not just run in your tri one piece? In transition between the swim and the bike, seconds count. No added function, just fashion and a bit of modesty.
  • And there are a few too many sports with skirts for the girls and shorts for the boys. Think about the recent debate about skirts for women’s boxing in the recent Olympics. Think netball in the UK, Australia. and New Zealand. Tennis, of course, too.

But I disagree with Dunham on two key points.

First, I start getting angry when I hear people claim that the skirts play a role in a sexist male behavior at races.  This sounds a bit like blaming men’s predatory behavior in nightclubs on the clothes of the female patrons. My clothes are my responsibility and if I want to have fun with them, I will. Your behavior is your responsibility. Let’s draw some clear lines here.

Second, I would also never judge another person’s choices of running attire. You want to run in an evening gown, a tutu, some fishnets? How about stilettos?  Go for it.

I’m also with the coach quoted in the New York Times article below who says if the skirts get more women out running so much the better.

In the end I’m happy pluralist. You want to run in a skirt? Cool by me.

Take the extra seconds to put it on in a triathlon? Fine.

I’m living by the Underpants Rule as explained here: “The Underpants Rule is simple: everyone is the boss of their own underpants so you get to choose for you and other people get to choose from them and it’s not your job to tell other people what to do.”

More reading:

The One Where I Revisit My Most “Controversial” Post Ever. On the blog Run Angry. Warning: very angry and lots of language your parents might not like

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

40 thoughts on “Running skirts and sexism

  1. angryrunner says:

    I cringed when I saw a link back to my post because as you’ve probably noticed 1. it’s old 2. its the continuation of a pretty muddled post i wrote years ago 3. I’ve clearly pissed a LOT of people off. So I’m pleasantly surprised to read this post. :)

    You’ve articulated WHY I’ve had issues with “skirt culture” since it popped up. – this becomes yet another arena where women have pressure to “look cute!” And that’s just sad. Because frankly, I’m not cute. Nothing about me is cute. And when I’m running? I don’t want to be cute! At the end of the day, others can do whatever they want but I just don’t want a part of it. To that end, I don’t usually wear make up either but that’s a digression for another day.

  2. Maria says:

    hope you’re consistent in your view and also advocate for going out to dinner in the bare minimum needed to enter a restaurant – I mean, the point there is to get fuel for your body – certainly not to look pretty while you sit there and use a fork! As both a woman and an academic I find this post laughable.

    • I would argue that one’s appearance in a restaurant could well affect one’s success in acquiring fuel for her or his body, but I suspect that, for most people, the point in going out for dinner is not to get fuel for their bodies at all. Certainly, if that was the only point, restaurant dining would be a silly pursuit. There are far more efficient ways of fueling the body.

      Those of us who are “serious runners” perhaps could benefit from learning to accept that different people have different reasons for running too. But I think questioning the ways in which discrepancies between male and female attire for the exact same activity might contribute to larger problems within our society is a valuable discussion.

  3. I guess I’ll start with the full disclosure: I own one of these skirts. A Lululemon one, no less. It has a zipper pocket and butt ruffles, and the fabric pulls funny where the ruffles meet the waistband, just like the one in the pic at the top of this post. It is comfortable and it is “cute” and I would never wear it to go running. I do wear it for roller skating, however.

    For me, there are two reasons which make the attire okay for one sport but not for the other:

    1. Performance conditions:

    I run in the rain. I run in snow. I run through puddles and across muddy terrain. My clothing gets wet. And water and mud add bulk which slows me down. When I run, I dress to optimize my performance. So wearing extra clothing which has no functional benefit and will possibly hinder performance by providing extra fabric for the water and mud to cling to would just be silly.

    I skate in dry conditions only. (Moisture screws up wheel bearings.) I also skate wearing a helmet, a mouthguard, wrist guards, elbow pads, and big bulky knee pads. A couple of frills on my butt are not going to adversely affect my performance.

    2. Audience involvement:

    Running is not a spectator sport. Sure, a few people watch. But my high school cross country team were four-time provincial champions, and most of the school barely knew we existed. In contrast: classes were cancelled for a school-wide pep rally when the football team scored its first touch down in five years (no joke).

    Roller derby, on the other hand, is highly theatrical. And it needs to be. Roller derby is expensive. Most of us who participate could not afford to do so without the support of our fans. It’s a highly athletic pursuit too, certainly. Strength, agility, endurance.. all are tested in this sport. But it is a spectator sport and the costumes are a part of the spectacle. I’m happy to wear one if doing so helps me to continue to participate in a sport which challenges and drives my athleticism so wonderfully. (Also: after my high school experience of living in the shadow of the football team, in spite of the fact that my running team was by far the most successful in the history of the school and the football team was, well… not–I like the support of the roller derby audience!)

    But those are my reasons. I agree that clothing is a personal choice and personal responsibility (provided that safety conditions are met) and that one’s behaviour is one’s own responsibility as well. If other people want to run in skirts, that’s their business. So long as people who start races slowly don’t stand in front of me on the starting line, we’ll get along just fine.

    I do have concerns about how these running skirts are marketed, however. Personal choice is one thing. But if this trend starts to become a problem like the padded bra issue and I can no longer find sleek, fast running shorts which fit me, my “live and let live” attitude is likely to evaporate in a big hurry.

  4. Caitlin says:

    I have worn running skirts in the past but I don’t really care much for them. The more I run, the more I find they just get in the way. I want as little fabric as possible on my body when I’m running, and a skirt tends to be a whole lot of fabric that is unnecessary for me.

    That said, I can’t really get worked up over them. I actually know women who prefer them, not necessarily because they want to look cute or whatever, but because the shorts underneath protect from chub rub while giving them some extra cover so they don’t feel self-conscious.

  5. G says:

    I feel like running skirts are the product of marketing… “Run and look cute while you do!” Which is fine, if that’s your thing. (It’s not mine, though I’ve always fancied putting on a tutu and galaxy-print running tights and hitting the road, just for shits and to see if I can get *more* strange looks.) I can see how for some people they might be more comfortable, especially without shorts underneath in hot weather.

    But I’m also not one of those people who wants to look pretty while working out, you know? And I am resistant to the idea that I ought to have to, as if the quality of my exercise depends on how many boners I inspire while doing it.

  6. Sam B says:

    Love the tutu idea. :)

  7. Lisa S. says:

    One thing that bugs me about the skirts is that they’re just not comfortable (unless it’s winter and I’m wearling running pants, I don’t like something clinging to my skin and thighs). But a lot of women (including some of my serious runner friends) seem to like them. And some have told me that the clingy built-in underwear actually prevents their thighs from chafing. So while I don’t see the attraction, I guess I’m not that bothered by them (though I do see your point about the marketing–that is pretty awful!)

  8. 3zigs says:

    Just purchased a running skirt a couple of weeks ago – but more for function. It’s a fleece lined little number that keeps my tush warm on long winter runs. I love it, but wouldn’t wear one in warmer temps.

  9. paigesato says:

    i’m in the “no skirt” camp. But I’m also a self-diagnosed slave to fashion. i’m self-conscious about my upper thighs and actually considered a skirt to “camouflage” this area. After trying one on, I realized that it just drew attention to my insecurities. Taking a clue from Clinton and Stacy (what not to wear), wearing clothing that fits actually de-emphasizes problem areas. adding extra fabric never does. so i’m a devotee of tights and capris

    • Sam B says:

      I like tights and capris too. I tried on a running skirt that had built in tights but a) it looked silly and b) the extra fabric seemed unnecessary. Why not just wear tights?

  10. wolfshowl says:

    I loooove my work-out skirt! Although I call it a skort because it has built-in shorts. It feels flirty and fun and lets me “dress up” for working out.

    I actually originally bought it for zumba because the extra material makes dancing more fun but I enjoyed wearing it so much that I started wearing it for all of my summer work-outs.

  11. Emma says:

    I guess each to her own, but I’d rather wear bun huggers. Surely having a skirt flapping about increases with resistance and slows the werer down?

  12. I know this post is old, but I have to say, I love running skirts. I like snug fitness attire but I get awful camel toe. I love that running skirts let me wear snug shorts without being on show to the whole world!

  13. [...] part of the story about what made running skirts so popular. (Read about running skirts and sexism here.) Bike shorts are safe (phew! ) since the chamois crotch padding covers up that part of [...]

  14. Kathleen says:

    I know that this comment is very late, but I will leave it anyway. I am 54 years old and have been running for many years. My running clothes have changed throughout the years, as have my body and my attitude about what I want others to see. I embraced running skirts a few years ago as alternative to running shorts and tights because I just don’t feel comfortable running outside in those any more. I buy skirts that are comfortable and give me good coverage. I am still in fine form, but now I prefer to keep my shape private. To each his own.

  15. [...] femininity be optional? (I know I worry about this a lot. See past posts Play hard, look cute!, Running skirts and sexism, and Padded sports bras and [...]

  16. Jane says:

    I know that this is an older post, but for me personally I’m meh on shirts, specifically running ones. I’ve tried 2 kinds based on people’s raves and they are ok. I wear them but probably won’t buy anymore.

    However, I have some Orthodox and Hesiddic Jewish female running friends. For them the advent of longer (there are some) running skirts are what allows them to get out an run.

    • Sam B says:

      Yes I was struck by some of the longer skirts and long sleeved running tops at mountain equipment co-op and thought they’d be suitable for someone with religious modesty concerns.

  17. Aero says:

    Is a female any less a female based on what she wears? Isn’t the inherent sexism derived from judging her on her appearance rather than her accomplishments? If a lady wants to run a 5k in hand-me-down thrift store sweats, good on her! If she wants to rock a $60 Lululemon skirt, good for her, too! Both remain females and both are amazing individuals for having the tenacity and ability to get outside and run. What their wearing has no bearing on their feminism, and neither should be judged for it.

  18. pattyannrancor says:

    I love my running skirts, and have tossed out all of my old shorts. With shorts, I always had crawling-up issues and experienced some terrible chafing due to the “chub rub.” The inner liner shorts on skirts just don’t have that problem! My biggest beef about running gear is the lack of pockets for my cell phone – so many skirts, tights and long-sleeve shirts just don’t have any pockets, or only have a small key-sized pocket. More pockets, please!

  19. Maggie says:

    A few things struck me about this post. It’s a bit femme-phobic, though I don’t disagree with considering the larger implications of…everything, really. As a good feminist, I’m all for beating every aspect of everything to death! But I don’t think there’s anything gained by painting a skirt as frivolous and stupid.

    Secondly, as a fat-ish woman — I really don’t see fat women wearing these. They only come up to size 10 (= UK 6). I just got my own pair of capri-length pants with a skirt attached, purely because I do think it’s just genuinely cute. I’m not hiding anything. But I haven’t seen anyone fat wearing them besides myself (and they would not help chub rub on me at all since the shorts in these are usually too short). So this says to me it’s mostly just thinner women in this to begin with. Which is definitely saying something.

    Thirdly — no, men don’t wear cute/fun things to exercise. Because they aren’t allowed cute/fun. It’s not just that women are supposed to look a certain way; men are supposed to look a certain way as well.

    • Sam B says:

      Thanks for your very sensible thoughts. I actually saw some on sale the other day at a local store–from $45 to $19.99–and was tempted. But they are so very much not me!

      • Maggie says:

        I do love me skirts and sparkles and pink, so while I’d be unlikely to wear one for running, there are many athletic-y applications where I love a skort. And honestly, although I dislike Lululemon for a few reasons, I still would badly love one of those damn skorts.

        I am mostly just bummed out at the thought that people might see me in a skort and think that I’m trying to hide “flaws”. Which, now that I think about it, is funny because in my experience they don’t seem to fit big curves very well (like a lot of athletic clothes, really).

      • Sam B says:

        Yeah, I wouldn’t wear it running but I was thinking more of camping, beach wear etc. But the Lulu ones don’t come in my size and they look more my style. This one, on sale, was an XL and would have fit but it had so many ruffles it looked more like a purple tutu!

  20. Rachel Kinsley says:

    LOVE my running skirts!!!, they are light and airy and they cover my butt and chunky thighs I don’t like running in tight shorts cause they show to much (if you know wat i mean) but with a skirt on top i feel comfortable confident and ready to just “giver”. I love capri tights too but I feel they leave everything out there for everyone to see, would love a skirt over my capris too……but I also dislike pants in general and choose to wear dresses/skirts for everyday wear it’s what I’m comfortable in so make sense for my running. I was thrilled when they came out with these ..finally something for me a “girly girl” runner and proud of it!

  21. Running skirts: not for me, but then again I don’t run. A running skirt just doesn’t work in spin class…and it’s get me laughed right out of CrossFit.

    I can’t get really too worked up about it, I guess. It would only bother me if I sensed any significant amount of social pressure to wear one. So far, I don’t.

    • Sam B says:

      That’s funny. There are a few women who wear them to cross fit here, sometimes looking extra cute with the knee socks! One woman is a roller derby girl and the other is a serious marathon runner. They look great in them and no one laughs.

  22. […] about the race have nothing to do with skirts and everything to do with men chasing women. Read Running skirts and sexism for my views on the […]

  23. Katie says:

    This is an older post – but I stumbled across it when I was doing a search for ‘running skirts.’ I liked your thoughts and wanted to share mine as ‘newbie’ runner. Let me start by saying, I’m not an athlete. I was one of those ‘music geeks’ in school who ended up many years later marrying the captain of the football team. Go figure. We now have three little athletes and frankly, they can all run circles around me. So… I decided Mom needed to get in shape and I signed up for a 5k.
    Slow but steady, I would get out there every other day, wearing all black and cringing in horror every time a ‘real’ runner came running up behind me. I was so distracted by what my rear must look like that I would seek out paths where I was sure no one would see me. After three kids, my weight may be ‘right’ according to the BMI charts, but I’m not nearly as slim as I once was, and I’m holding most of my weight around my middle. Enter the running skirt. Suddenly, I feel fabulous. I feel fast. And yes, I feel cute. Some mornings… putting on my cute skirt is the only thing that inspires me to get out there. Whatever works I suppose. The bottom line, I’m not wearing a skirt for anyone but me… and perhaps one day ‘feeling’ fast will turn into being fast. That would be a cool thing.

  24. As someone who wear skirts 90% of the time, running skirts are just an extension of who I am. I don’t like shorts. I don’t like pants. I like skirts. I like running. I like bright colors. I like my underwear. ;)

  25. John Miller says:

    Well first off I am a guy, and I wear running skirts. In honesty I wear it for the looks and the feel. I love how it looks on me, I love how much attention I get wearing it. Is it practical for running in, well I think tights/leggings/spandex shorts make the most sense to me. Being in Vancouver, the extra skirt fabric would just get wet and be a soggy mess. Having said that, on a bright sunny day its a nice feeling to have the fabric bouncing around, letting some air in. It just looks adorable when someone is running in one. Is that sexist? Well you be the judge, I am a guy and I am wearing it. It looks equally sexy on guys and girls in my opinion. I agree with Jenna, bright colours, fun underwear, sexy skirts for a fun run. If you want a serious run though I would go with spandex.

  26. Neets says:

    Can’t say I’ve ever been keen on the old skort for running. Perhaps tennis.

  27. shebolt says:

    As a tennis player, I’m already accustomed to wearing a skirt to do something active. I actually hated when they forced me to wear a skirt for a tennis match when I was in high school, but that was back in the days where the skirt was just a skirt and you had to get a pair of “bloomers” to wear under it. Bloomers were just underpants that you wore to hide your actual underpants.

    But today we have skirts with built in boy shorts. I’m hooked! I wear skirts every time I play tennis, match or not. Now, I’m not a girly-girl in any way and I really don’t care about my appearance when I’m working out or playing a sport. I’m there to compete, not to look pretty. Today’s skirts are just plain comfortable.

    One day I was about to head out for a run and thought to myself “why not wear one of my skirts?” It turned out that I also like running in these skirts. Before that, I ran in spandex shorts or pants and got the wrong attention, sometimes, or I ran in loose shorts or pants and got chafed or otherwise annoyed by my attire. The skirt really was a nice option. Now, I’m not a distance runner but the shorts stayed put, didn’t creep, and the skirt didn’t annoy me. I play tennis in this thing so I’m used to it. I’m also not one to choose the super frilly skirts. Just give me a sleek cut, ruffle-free, pleat-free. and I’m good.

    I don’t think this makes me any less of a serious athlete. It certainly doesn’t make me a girly-girl. I’m certainly not wearing it to hide any trouble spots. So, before any else judges a woman who chooses to run in a skirt, maybe they should rethink their conceptions about what “real athletes” wear.

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