Running, gender, and the phenomenon of "ladyraces"

Ladies, we need to talk about ladyraces.

Pink fireworks at the Disney Princess Half start line.

Pink fireworks at the Disney Princess Half start line.

This post is about the way women-specific races are marketed.  If you've personally done one of these races -- that's great. This is not a criticism of the women who participate! I do want to know, though, if I'm alone in feeling upset and deeply fatigued by the way "women's races" are sold.

I started thinking about this when I got an email about the Chicago Women’s Half Marathon a while back. As usual, I clicked through and checked out the website to decide whether I was interested. This is what I saw:

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These two photos show women runners next to their reason for running. I noticed that their reasons fall into into one of three categories:

Self-empowerment

  • “To prove I can do it.”
  • “To find my zen.”
  • “Because forty is just the beginning.”
  • “Because I can, time and time again.”
  • “To feel empowered.”

For the swag

  • “For the medal.”

For other people.

  • “To lead by example.”
  • “To show them how it’s done.”
  • “In honor of his battle.”
  • “To share the experience.”

To reiterate: these reasons are 1) for self-empowerment, 2) for race swag, and 3) for other people. I'm pointing this out not because I believe that these are "bad" or "wrong" reasons for racing, but because its so striking what isn't mentioned -- none of these women respond with, "To win my age group," "To beat others," or "To beat my own PR," -- also known as "why everyone I know IRL and on Twitter runs." 

The Chicago Women's Half is a big race, run by elite women hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Yet, their voices, and the voices of other women who are competitive about their running, are conspicuously absent.

The women they chose to represent are consistent with normative femininity: they're supportive and non-threatening. These women uphold traditional constructions of femininity by reinforcing their roles as community-oriented helpers who run to “share the experience," performing a delicate, almost apologetic bargain required by women who "borrow" something from masculinity. We're going to do this race, but it's just for us -- just for fun -- and we promise it won't take anything away from the "real" races. 

That's what I see as the difference between ladyraces and women's races. Women's races are races for women only. Ladyraces are races for women only, wrapped up in all of the gendered language and symbols of a traditional femininity.   

Ladyraces, like IronGirl, Pretty Muddy, Women Rock, and Undie Runs, host events with gleaming pink and purple websites, promising that you can run at "YOUR pace," "declare yourself a winner," and "celebrate women" in the process. 

 

Just to really drive the point home, the race swag includes a makeup bag, a cookbook, and a pink candle.

Just to really drive the point home, the race swag includes a makeup bag, a cookbook, and a pink candle.

Race swag seems to be a common way to signal "Girls! we aren't just putting on a race. We're putting on a ladyrace!  The NYRR More Magazine/Fitness Magazine Women’s Half-Marathon boasts that every entrant will receive "chic" Athleta tech shirt. In previous years, the swag bag has also included:

  • Silk Chocolate
  • Gluten-free chocolate peanut butter bar
  • Tampons
  • Brochures/info for Sketchers Shape-Ups

Chocolate, chocolate, tampons, and "butt-toning" shoes? 

Gee, thanks. 

Possibly the most popular, most famous ladyrace is the Disney Princess Half Marathon.

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Website text: "Fairytales do come true. One mile at a time. Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend brings women of all ages together to participate in a magical event designed just for them. The Disney Princesses are the inspiration for the weekend's events and will focus on the attributes every princess possesses: commitment, courage, determination, fantasy, perseverance, and strength."

Translation: Women are little girls trapped in adult-sized bodies, and at the Disney Princess Half Marathon women can finally live out their fairytales. Every woman is a princess; which princess are you?

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If the Disney Princess Half Marathon is about infantalizing women, the Divas Half Marathon is about trivializing girl power.

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Website text: "The Divas Half Marathon Series is the most fun and glam women's half marathon series in the nation. This series is all about girl power. Get glam at one of our races while enjoying a great run in some of the country's best vacation destinations."

Translation: Girl power is about having fun and "getting glam." "Girl power" is stripped from its feminist-punk origins into its opposite -- it's about frivolity, apolitical gender expression, and a way to associate running with normative female things like "roses, feather boas, tiaras and more."

So what happens when a ladyrace that's co-opted the phrase "girl power" meets one of those trendy mud runs? You get a "sexy mud run," of course:

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Wanna get a little...dirty?! Come lose yourself, along with your inhibitions, in a sea of mud, laughter, and girl power. 

I went to a rowdy state school where fraternity dudes hosted mud-wrestling nights for girls with kiddie pools and hoses. This is basically the same idea, but it costs $60 and refers to that muddy dish soap as a "sea of girl power" -- one where your inhibitions just can't help but get lost.

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I can poke fun at these, but I am more interested in what function these races have in today's running scene, where young women represent the fastest-growing demographic. Title IX was passed in 1972 -- after most of our mothers were already finished with high school. My generation is the first that grew up with full access to sports. Yet, I detect a vague anxiety in each of these ads -- they provide a reassurance about women in sports by offering a "safe," non-transgressive way to be an athletic, feminine women. 

In that sense, these races are attempts to reconcile traditional femininity with running. In the Chicago Women's Half Marathon,  the women face the camera and explain the reasons why and how women can participate in running while still being noncompetitive and selfless. The Disney Princess and Divas races gender the race itself by sprinkling it with princess mythology and vomiting the color pink all over it. Women are even encouraged to dress up like characters from children's cartoons. The Divas Half Marathon emphasizes a kind of empty, depoliticized "girl power" that's about feather boas and tiaras. And the Kiss Me Dirty mud run relies on that old standard -- sexualizing women participants.

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Do know who represents girl power to me?

Katherine Swizer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon before women were allowed to participate.

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The rage and heartbreak in Morgan Uceny’s face when she fell in the 1500:

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Lauren Fleshman qualifying for the 5000m at the Trials after injury.

Lauren Fleshman qualifying for the 5000m at the Trials after injury.

Mary Cain, Lauren Fleshman, and all of the regular, non-elite women who are trying to take down their PRs, qualify for Boston, or achieve a sub-x goal this year.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because I'm in the middle of training for my first marathon, which has me thinking about my relationship with my body, my femininity, my identity as an "athlete" (the term still feels too uncomfortable to not use quote marks), and my motivation for finishing. I'll probably post more about all of that some other time.

Until then, Caitlin over at the outstanding Fit and Feminist put it well (emphasis mine): 

"That connection to past and future is something I have come to treasure the older I get, especially as my understanding of my role as a drop in the larger ocean of humanity becomes more profound.  I love knowing that everything I do is founded upon the efforts of people who came before me, and that my life will be part of a larger foundation upon which future generations will build theirs.  What will the next generation of female athletes look like?  They’ll have grown up watching female athletes on the Olympics and on ESPN.  They’ll know women who have run marathons and half-marathons, or who do roller derby, or who lift weights.  Will they be even less encumbered by archaic notions of what a woman should be like than my generation is?  Will they even think about these things?  Or will those debates have receded so far into the past as to be irrelevant? "

I'd love to hear all of your thoughts on what you think about the "ladyrace" phenomenon.