If you were watching the Commonwealth Games marathons this morning – or indeed, any elite athletics event recently – you might have noticed this; women’s running kit seems to be shorter and tighter than men’s running kit.
Even among sprinters, where tight gear is the norm for both sexes, women sprinters wear crop-top vests and expose more skin than men.
Is there a physiological or performance-based reason for this, or is this all down to fashion and our cultural demands on what women wear? And does this have any implications for the objectification of sportswomen and the reinforcement of body image issues?
Or should we turn the question on its head and ask why distance-running men seem reluctant to wear shorter, tighter gear?
For example, if there are performance benefits in running with your midriff exposed, surely male runners would all be doing it. Some men have tried it – German middle-distance runners like Olympic champion Dieter Baumann wore crop-top vests in the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason it didn’t catch on. (Baumann’s career of innovation includes one of the all-time great excuses for a positive drugs test: he blamed his toothpaste.)
What’s more, skimpy kit doesn’t seem to be essential for success in women’s distance running – double European cross country champion Fionnuala Britton usually wears a loose, full-length vest and longer shorts than her competitor, for example.
So, are there any substantive reasons for women runners to wear skimpier running gear than men? I posed this question on Twitter this morning, and got some excellent responses. Here’s an overview:
Comfort was one reason: one woman said that the close-fitting gear was just more comfortable for her to wear while running, which is fair enough. However, the other side of that argument is self-consciousness about body image; is short, tight gear the standard form of women’s running apparel? Women runners get enough leering looks and sexist remarks in public as it is, so how many of them would feel comfortable running in short or figure-hugging gear? (Even as a male runner, on my very first run all those years ago, I felt self-conscious about running in a fairly standard pair of running shorts.)
Coolness in warm weather was another suggestion – in fact, this came up in a conversation I had with a nutritionist recently, who told me that men and women dissipate heat differently due to factors such as body hair, muscle mass and sweat rate. But then surely men would benefit from having less sweat-soaked fabric, no matter how breathable, rubbing and chafing them. Even in the heat and humidity of Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, Dieter Baumann’s crop-top vest was the exception among male competitors.
Of course, men and women can wear what they like. And perhaps men’s reluctance to wear short, tight running gear – for fear of ridicule, say – might be their loss. But it’d be a shame if body image concerns exacerbated by running fashion deterred women from running, especially at junior level.
Women are better placed than this male runner to discuss these issues, though. Feel free to leave a comment below, or to take me to task if warranted.