Sometimes after an exhausting day of travel and working, a good night’s sleep and a solid run are all that’s needed to bring me back to life. I need that time to turn my brain off from all the stimulation of meeting new people, engaging in new ideas and rekindling my values and passions. The Girls & Women in Sport and Physical Activity Conference hosted by the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota gave me plenty of motivation and inspiration on many levels. While there was great information, it is two poster presentations that created the most reaction in me.
Grannies and their swimsuits
Women over the age of 50 often get their exercise from water aerobics classes. I know this from personal experience of swimming at my local YMCA where there are plenty of older women doing all kinds of movements at the far end of the pool while I crank out my laps. But this small study talked to older women about the barriers to participating in this activity, something which is crucial for their physical and social health. And the answer was always one thing: The swimsuit. Older women, especially those who might have issues with their heart, often have difficulty getting out of their wet swimsuits. Not to mention the fear they have of slipping and falling. Heck there are days when I, as a 30-something triathlete, have issues wrangling myself out of my swimsuit without toppling over. One of the women interviewed for the study said there are times when she would rather swim naked than deal with the difficulties of the swimsuit. For the record, they’re not necessarily interested in what the swimsuit looks like or about what cut of suit is most flattering. They just want one that isn’t so damn hard to get on and off.
Girls and their run skirts
Another study looked at the popularity of women’s running skirts and while I didn’t get a chance to thoroughly read the poster, I did get the highlights. The researcher seemed critical of running skirts, seeing them as a way to feminize female athletes. Women who wear them, for instance, like the way they make their body look, perhaps hiding perceived body flaws. This type of thinking, the researcher contended, only played into the dominant themes of making athletes feminine. In other words: Honey, if you run a skirt you’re just playing into the stereotype. You should be better than that.
My conclusions: Let them swim and run in skirts
The study on older women and water aerobics included recommendations for facilities (give more help in the locker room) and to swimsuit producers (design swimsuits that are easier for older women to use). While so much of our collective time and energy in the wellness fields goes toward helping young girls find their way into sport, let’s not ignore older age groups. Granted, designing a front-clasping water aerobics swimsuit and making it widely available might not hold as much interest for athletic-wear makers as using technology to help Michael Phelps set some more world records. But there is value in creating opportunities and removing barriers to physical activity and sport for women (and men) of all ages.
Creating comfortable opportunities to be active is, to me, part of what the emergence of running skirts is all about. As someone who owns and trains in running skirts, I am going to have to critique the research of running skirts. Yes, there is an element of “traditional femininity” in running skirts but one of the values I have around women in sports is their opportunity to participate in sports in ways which are meaningful and true for them. If running skirts were the only option or if female runners were required to wear skirts in competition, that’s a different story. That’s “forced femininity.” That’s reducing the options. If the only time we saw women runners in the media was when they were wearing said skirts, that would be limiting the images of what a female athlete can look like. But it’s about much more than presentations of femininity. It’s about giving women access and opportunity to run.
I think back to the Dirty Girl Mud Run where we all donned pink ribbons in our hair and wore a combination of glitter and eye black. There was no dressing up for the “male gaze” of the researcher. There wasn’t necessarily any messages of “empowerment” or consciousness about “femininity.” We were a bunch of women having fun. We were being outside and active. And in my book anything that helps get people out and moving, that connects them to a place of being healthy and joyful, is good thing. whether they’re running in a skirt or traditional Nike shorts.