The feminine athlete: Breaking barriers

July 28, 2014

I had an interesting experience this morning while popping in to the Triflare tent at a local tri here in Boulder today. (I started writing this article well over a month ago!)  I had done my key run session, threw on my Triflare dress and ran the two miles down to the expo.  It’s always an interesting experience seeing women react and process the Triflare brand. There is really nothing like it on the market: it’s bold, feminine and high performance.  I think some people think the latter cannot coexist alongside with being feminine.  Can you be both athletic AND feminine? YES.



However, today someone came up to me and said, “Nobody fast wears stuff like this”.  My first thought, was “Like what?”.  What about the Triflare clothing was she referencing? After taking a deep breath, I asked her what she meant.  She explained that men get to wear strong colors with strong statements written on them and that people expect women to wear pink and prints.  “Why can’t ‘pink and prints’ be strong?” is what I should have said.  Instead, I responded and explained the brand but never said who I was.  To her, I was just some woman working the tent.  To make a long story short, she bought something. She did get me thinking about why would she say something like that.  Was it because she felt like you couldn’t be feminine and fast? Was it because she felt wearing something with bold colorful prints couldn’t mean you were a serious athlete? Did she think that looking like a girl makes someone a lesser athlete? Or maybe she just really wanted a plain black race kit…but then she probably wouldn’t have bought something.


In my “Love your body” blog post, I wrote that skinny doesn’t equal fast, fast equals fast.  In the very same light, what you choose to wear on race day does not define how fast or athletic you are; wear what makes you feel comfortable and happy.  If that’s a plain black race outfit, or a colorful print, it doesn’t change the athlete that you are. 





If you haven’t had a chance to check out Always’ “Like a girl” campaign, do it now:  It will be worth every single second of the 3 minutes and 19 seconds it takes to watch the video that so clearly illustrates the stereotype that men/boys AND women/ girls continue to inflict upon women/ girls: to do something like a girl and it’s somehow a lesser achievement or even is an insult.  I’m so excited about this campaign because I feel like it highlights that at some point in a girl’s life doing something like a girl, or in a feminine way becomes undesirable.  I think a lot of female athletes strive to do something like a boy, keep up with boys, or beat the boys.  I caught myself in Minneapolis saying that I was trying to race “like a boy” in my post race interview.  I thought to myself, “What the heck Alicia?!”  I was referencing the equalizer that I had won by just 19 seconds, but why did I feel like I had to say I raced like a boy to beat the boys?  I’m a girl and I beat them anyways.  Doing something like a girl is equal doing it like a boy, sometimes, it’s even better. 



As I write this blog post, I’m reading a couple of the article’s written in response to 800m track athlete Maggie Vessey’s outfit that she wore at the Prefontaine classic.  She went fast, placed second and ran 2:00:48.  From most of the comments I’ve read the response has been positive.  Though thanks to IAAF rules, these kinds of outfits will never be worn on the international stage.  Regardless of the rules, why is this outfit so shocking?  They even thought it was important to comment on the fact that she was wearing Chanel earrings.  You might not like the cut or the print, but it’s actually MORE coverage than the traditional two piece that women wear on the track.  I don’t know Maggie personally, but from all the on camera interviews I’ve watched of her speaking about these outfits, she’s having fun with it.  So if she’s happy, performing well and feeling good, any negative reactions to her outfit is the viewers problem, not hers.  Let’s also not forget that she isn’t the first track athlete in history to do this.  American sprinter, Flo Jo, notoriously wore flamboyant outfits while running super fast. 



The Outside Magazine article about Maggie Vessey references a study that looked into how clothes affect perception. They found that people performed better on a test when they wore a doctor’s jacket in comparison to a painter’s jacket.  The article reads, “It has long been known that “clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves,” Dr. Galinsky said. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.”  Based off of these findings wouldn't it be logical in infer that a female athlete who dresses in a masculine race outfit be considered faster or simply better that one who wears a feminine race outfit?  Not only will people think we're faster, we might also believe we're faster simply by wearing something masculine. 



It sure can. In fact, it’s been proven in sport that the fit and color of your clothing can affect your performance.  We know that we assume someone is faster if they wear tight clothing. We know that women underperform if they feel their outfit does not provideenough coverage. We know that the color red, makes athletes feel more dominating and intimidating.  But there is little research on how we perceive female athletes and on how female athletes perceive themselves in masculine versus feminine colors and prints.  I am hoping to change that as I think this is a relevant issue that deserves some study.


To be fair, I used to be a little judgmental of the “overly girlish” outfits.  I felt to be truly considered athletic and fast, there was a certain way you had to look and dress. Thanks to thousands of hours of training, female bodies become leaner, vascular and more muscular. Female athletes often lose the traditionally female hourglass figure, breasts and sometimes even their menstrual cycles in the process of becoming the very best athlete they can be.  It’s very common to desire this more “masculine” body type rather than a "softer" more feminine one because everyone assumes it’s faster. We compare our bodies to the best in the world; whatever they look like we assume we need to look comparable to achieve similar results.  I don’t know if other female athletes have had a similar experience or if I’m projecting my own experiences on female athletes as a whole.  I am unsure if I would have had the awareness of these clothing stereotypes (I was certainly aware of the body sterotypes), if I hadn’t changed from a plain dark-colored race suit, to the colorful prints that Triflare offers.  I got to experience the reactions first hand from the media, spectators and other pro athletes.  I think this is a transformative time; I believe that perceptions are changing and women and men are beginning to accept that racing in a feminine outfit or a masculine outfit does not change the potential result for that athlete.  However, the perception that the athlete has of themselves in that outfit still can. 





To circle back to what inspired this blog post in the first place, Triflare is not about telling women that they MUST look feminine while working out or racing, it’s about giving women the option to.  I think we're also letting women know that it's okay to look feminine in training or on race day, that it's okay to express that side of themselves; they will still be and look strong.  Some women are skeptical, and say things like, “I can’t wear that!” or “That’s too flashy for me”.  We always encourage people to just try it on and see how it feels.  More times than not, there is an incredibly positive reaction.  I’ve seen tears of joy, laughter, plenty smiles and most of all a lot of happy women.  I hope in time, we can change the way people think about clothing on race day and that more female athletes will associate femininity with strength. 


Working with Triflare has been a bit of a transformative experience for me.  My relationship with them began at a time when I truly found peace with my body and began to love myself just the way I am.  Triflare gives me the opportunity to wear a race suit that allows me to project and reflect the strong, female athlete that I see myself as.  I swim, bike and run like a girl, because I am a girl- and I'm totally cool with that.  


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