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Dublin: 22 °C Friday 7 August, 2020

'Why can't I find comfortable, sweat-resistant, appropriate sportsgear? I'm a woman'

‘I wonder if my O’Neills tracksuit from P.E. is stashed away anywhere at home?’, writes Sarah Geraghty.

Sarah Geraghty

“IS IT ALL sequins and cropped cut-out tops?” – A friend’s reply to a Whatsapp sent from the fourth sports shop I drove to in a day as a naïve search for marathon gear spelt doom.

“Worse! There’s just nothing. No shorts for women in any of these places!”

In the week leading up to the 39th Dublin Marathon – the first one celebrating female participants with Constance Markievicz on the finishers’ medal – I covered two cities, three counties, four shopping centres and eight major sportswear retailers.

My needs were simple. Boring, even. A black vest and shorts, preferably black. 

“No sorry we’ve nothing like that,” said one sales assistant.

Pointing vaguely to a corner where the pastel pink and earthy green “neutral sportswear” was housed – well away from the serious men’s stuff – another offered unhelpfully, “That’s all our women’s stuff there.”

Right, no choice but to hit the city centre. The week of a hugely popular sporting event that sold out months in advance and draws thousands to the city, of course there will be (competitively priced) black tops and shorts to beat the band. 

“All our shorts are gone. Yeah, summer’s over, it’s gone very cold enough you know?”

“We have loads of running leggings though?”

Let’s be honest, ‘running leggings’ are tights by another name. Ones which promise to do things to your body like ‘sculpt’ and ‘distort’ it.

Meanwhile, the men have an unlimited selection of joggers, sweatpants, flow pants, winter fleece pants. Handy enough for keeping warm on the way to the start line and afterwards for the exhausted, emotional reunion with loved ones.

I wonder if my O’Neills tracksuit from P.E. is stashed away anywhere at home?

Hero products on display include soft grey wraparound fleece cardigan (yoga?), a long-sleeved khaki green creation with a crossover design at the neck that allows for a triangle of cleavage (yoga again?).

Push-up sports ‘bras’ sized unhelpfully for most women in S – XL. Dinky t-shirts cut to reveal taut, tanned, sweat-free midriffs. Tights which will inevitably become see-through when stretched (i.e, worn) with sneaky, revealing mesh inserts you didn’t know were there until you were too far from home to do anything about it.

Tank-tops with a giant swoosh screaming across the chest. Upsellers of skinny hairbands and tiny socks with the same logo. Would onlookers think that I was a non-elite distance big brand ambassador?

Because I’m not. I just want to run the miles – planned and prepared for over six hard months – without worrying about my bra rubbing my back raw or my upper arms chafing or having to keep tugging my top down.

Finally found shorts. Halleluiah. The last forgotten pair at the back of a rail. I didn’t try them on, just paid (€30) and left.

Ok, just the top now.

Another big store, another ‘sculpt’ top. This one was not unlike the pilly vest you wore under your primary school uniform. Except it was €65.

The next one, looser and longer, was so white and silky that I sent a selfie to the same confidante as four days previously, declaring it would be, “lovely for work”.

I reluctantly settled on a black ‘more movement’ one (€56) and walked to the runners’ bag drop at 8.30am that cold marathon morning thankful for layers of old Munster Rugby gear – menswear – handed down from my dad.

The shorts? Too short. In the end. Tested in my bedroom the night before with a light on-the-spot jog, I had zero confidence that they wouldn’t creep up my inner thighs by the time I reached the Phoenix Park and my mum would have to save my honour with a pair of tights.

PastedImage-34962 Source: Instagram

Athleisure vs Sportwear

The challenge for females in finding comfortable, quality, sweat-resistant, reasonably priced, temperature-appropriate activewear is not marathon specific.

The wishes of a thirty-something recent golf convert are basic:

I just want to be warm. I need a top that allows me to move and doesn’t have baggy arms. It’s impossible. Seven zillion options for men.”

Another is a three-time half ironman participant and conqueror of Nepal’s 5,644m Kala Patthar. Like many sportswear shoppers, she goes to outlet stores for her gear, “even though the choice there is really limited compared to men’s”.

And if you want something that looks good and performs well, it’s expensive.”

In terms of layering, experience has shown that the t-shirts you get when you finish a race are good, if not better, technical quality than what’s available to buy. A triathlete adds however that a possible pitfall here is that as they’re often designed for men’s bodies, the arms tend to be too wide, especially cycling jerseys.

Hover over ‘Men’ on one popular sportswear site.  

By contrast, they’re not encouraged to sculpt or distort their bodies, but rather “smash” their PB with the brands on offer. They have 10 categories – 3 subcategories – to choose from. This includes Performance Footwear and Performance Clothing.

A dedicated Boot Room for each of three major sports.

Women, you can shop the hottest styles.

But, before you spring up from your purple yoga mat, you only have five categories from which to choose.

There’s no performance wear – that’s sweat wicking fabric, breathability – and your chosen activity can only be running, training or swimming.

What about the under-13s Metropolitan Girls Soccer League?

No Boot Room for them. But they already knew that.

That’s why they get their boots and astro runners in the boys’ Boot Rooms. And their training shorts and premier team kits in the same section as the lads in their class too.

What does it say to girls who love and dedicate themselves to camogie and football and boxing and rugby?  

As the 20×20 movement identified: “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.”

That women’s sports aren’t taken that seriously so why would the clothes you need for these sports be taken seriously?

Their go-to is, a US online brand created by former Division 1 Women’s Soccer teammates, who “aim to encourage the well-being and positive self-image of female athletes everywhere… [and] to establish a sense of unity and sisterhood in the female soccer community, empowering girls to be comfortable in their own skin”.

They find gear here designed for 12-year-old girls who love playing soccer. Some of the comments from these grateful, talented, dedicated players would break your heart. Grateful parents can find unpadded sports bras, long t-shirts not cropped above their daughters’ navals and slouchy tracksuit bottoms, not tights.

Here, girls are not being told that once their boxer braids are neatly in place, they can grab their environmentally-friendly water bottle and they’re all set. To not sweat. Or whatever it is that we’re not meant to do in these materials.

SoccerGrlProbs doesn’t give any impression that our looks, the shape of our bodies – and our superhuman abilities to not jiggle, pant, blotch, redden, get frizzy hair – are prioritised by brands over performance, practicality, comfort, functionality, accessibility.

The rise of athleisure

It looks like a new activewear collaboration is launched every second day so while the choice appears endless – and very pretty – it looks too like brands are confused about the difference between sportswear and athleisure.

The lines are blurred between durable, comfortable sportswear – designed for different bodies and different sports – and cool streetwear.

New labels pop up to fill the niche. But they can be expensive and most women prefer to try this kind of clothing on than shop blindly online shopping.

Form over function

In the past, the only sportswear available to women was smaller versions of menswear – the still-used “shrink it and pink it” marketing strategy.

Now, global sportswear brands are making norm-shattering claims about female empowerment and affecting to open up discussions about gender equality. However, the key message is being healthy, fit, powerful, positive, flexible, active is really important. And, as long as you’re a glowing, pretty, hard-bodied, “gym bunny” whose bralette boasting ‘I Love Sport’ keeps everything tight and in place, you can go from spinning to hiking to brunch to yoga to collecting the kids, you will fit right in. Jaunty ponytail swinging.

Could it be the centuries-old form over function chestnut? The same reason we get so excited when we find a dress with pockets. Or, swoon, a coat with an inside pocket.  

“I’d actually like if women’s sports clothing was still just a smaller version of men’s – they can do what they like with the colours,” says one semi-pro who remembers wistfully when, “everyone wore O’Neills and a hoodie to the gym.”

This nonsense of shaping, sculpting gym gear – they’re gorgeous clothes but why do we need to be sucked in and smoothed out when we’re going to exercise?”  

In 2015, Sport England – in an attempt to twist commercial representations women in sport – launched its This Girl Can campaign based on research which found that one of the strongest factors in women’s significant lack of participation in sport was – along with time and cost – judgment based on their appearance and their ability to take part.

“Most of them were wearing stuff that wouldn’t fit over my big toe”, said a mother-of-two who signed up to a six-week barre class after Christmas and said she felt sick when she looked in the mirror and saw herself. She quit and said it wasn’t for her.  

Another, who enthusiastically committed in December to a New Year Couch to 5K plan, says, “No way, I need to go out a few times by myself with a hood over my head before I let anyone I know see me in those leggings.”

A response to a gentle suggestion to give yoga a go? “I’d be too anxious looking at myself in the gear while people around me were standing on their head to focus on breathing exercises for anxiety.”

No barriers to women in sport? Look again.

So what fun Workout Wear Trends can we look forward to in 2019? What will help us not just push our boundaries this year but break them?

Well there’s Khloe Kardashian’s stare-down from soulless, smoky eyes.

Straight, hip-length blonde hair, matte lips parted as she steadies herself against a wall in a leopard print zip-up push-up sports bra and matching high-waisted, thigh-gap making cycling shorts, we all understandably thought had died in the 90s.

The stuff of most women’s nightmares. 

Sarah Geraghty is a writer, a Kildare woman, a dog-owner, a daughter, a sister, a godmother and a marathon runner. You can find her on Twitter @SarahCGeraghty

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