A fellow grad student recently pointed me to an article over at Tenure, She Wrote. In this article, Acclimatrix recently wrote an article that outlined tips for male academics to be more supportive and respectful of female academics: “Don’t be that dude: handy tips for the male academic”. Among the advice Acclimatrix offers for male academics is included the following point that struck home for me, as a female grad student in a particularly stylish department:

2. Don’t comment on a woman’s appearance in a professional context. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are; it’s irrelevant. Similarly, don’t tell someone they don’t look like a scientist/professor/academic, that they look too young, or they should smile.

As a feminist, I wholeheartedly agree with the point. As academics (especially in the humanities), our jobs are about intellect and argument not our physical appearance; we should be more interested in a person’s ideas than in what they’re wearing: the content of our research and our ability to teach should be weighed above our ability to put together a cute outfit. I’d suggest that both men and women should seek such a goal, but as a woman interested in fashion and – admittedly – looking professional and polished at my job, I find putting this laudable idea into practice more difficult.

As a female graduate student, I’m always concerned about the way I dress.  In professional circumstances, I like to think myself well put-together. Dressing appropriately is a factor we can’t ignore as academics, as much as we like to pat ourselves on the back for our devotion to the life of the mind.* The options are much more complicated for women than for men as academic professionals. Women have a wider variety of professional options that can make decisions about appearance simultaneously more freeing and much more fraught than those required of men. Is this outfit appropriate for teaching or is this skirt too short or top too low-cut? When presenting at a conference, do I have to wear a skirt or can I wear pants? Does wearing jeans or failing to wear make-up to a particular department event give my professors and colleagues the wrong impression of me?

Particularly, Acclimatrix’s point got me thinking about the relationships I have not only with male colleagues but also with female colleagues – mostly with other female graduate students. Grad student friendships are often difficult to characterize, because they involve three important and sometimes conflicting factors: (1) you’re friends, given the close bonds that form in the face of graduate school’s many trials and oddities; (2) you’re colleagues, often offering advice and encouragement and commiserating about research; and (3) you’re competitors, as you fight for recognition from your department, grants, faculty members, etc.** Due to this unique relationship and the blurring of lines between friends and colleagues, Acclimatrix’s suggestion above seems difficult to enact, as valid as it is in theory. Some of my friends in my department, like me, are interested in fashion both personally and professionally, and this personal interest and professional concern flows into our relationships. We talk about it frequently. We compliment each other. We analyze each other’s ensembles. We strategize outfits for conferences, job talks, department events. We shop together or for each other. Not talking about appearance, when it is such a part of our lives seems difficult, although it’s something to strive for.

*A great example of the backlash against female academics in fashion, Elaine Showalter writes about the derision she receives for cultivating a fashionable appearance in “The Professor Wore Prada,” where she writes “[A] passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life” for female academics.

**I don’t mean to say that this competition is always negative. The competition is most often good-natured and friendly, but the truth is, there are often only so many grants to go around, only so many faculty members to serve on committees, etc.

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Princesses, Divas, and Gender Essentialism in Races for Women

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I recently came across an article on Facebook discussing a race for women in Florida, the Divas Half Marathon and 5K. In an article for the Cultist blog at the Miami New Times, B. Caplan highlights the problematic prize package given to winners of age group awards in the race. Caplan writes:

There are 14 different age groups for competition. (Pity the race official who dares ask a diva her age!) First place in each group will win Botox. Second gets laser hair removal. Third place gets laser teeth whitening…While the youngest age group, 14 and under, is not eligible for any of the cosmetic procedures, the next age group up — children between 15 and 19 — are able to win the teeth whitening and laser hair removal.

This part stopped me short. Cosmetic procedures as race prizes? Who thought that was a good idea?

Obviously, the problem here isn’t that this is a race for women only. Many, many races for women alone exist, such as the Nike Women’s Marathon and Half Marathon in San Francisco, the Dirty Girl Adventure Race Series (which I ran in 2012), and the Disney Princess Half Marathon. What each of these races purports to do is to celebrate women runners, a group that, until about thirty years ago, was restricted from long-distance running in the Olympics due to a lingering belief that women were incapable of such physical effort without harming themselves.* These races tell women: “Hey, it’s awesome that you’re a woman who likes to run or who wants to try running for the first time! Come and celebrate that with us!” These races are generally inclusive of all fitness levels and offer a safer entry-level for women who’ve never participated in such an event before. “See yourself in a new way!” these races seem to say, “You can have fun doing athletic activities as a woman!” The trend, to me, seems inherently positive, as it seeks to get more women involved in running as a sport and to make the experience of running social and fun.

Despite this positive intention, issues with these races arise on two fronts. First, compared to many other races of similar distance, these races are often ludicrously expensive. Like gimmick races**, such as the Color Run or one of the many obstacle races so popular right now, these races usually double (or sometimes triple!) the regular cost of participation. For example, the Divas 5K is $65. Local 5Ks, with less bells, whistles, and aggressive branding, tend to run around $25 at the high end, even as they donate the majority of their profits to charity. Similarly, registration fees for the Nike Women’s Marathon are $200, where the fees for the last big-city marathon I ran were $95. These costs, keep in mind, don’t include travel, lodging and, sometimes, food at the race’s after-party. With the women’s races, you’re paying more for the “women’s race” label and the various trappings that come along with it (the cost of those diamond necklace finishers’ medals has to come from somewhere!).  If you have the money to run such a race, that’s excellent, but the fact is that the costs are a rather high barrier to entry for what claims to be an inclusive race.

Second and perhaps more importantly, these races often over-emphasize a particularly feminized image of womanhood as they seek to attract more participants. In an attempt to claim running for women, the pendulum of marketing for these races often swings too far in favor of a stereotypically feminine runner, rather than seeking a nuanced vision of its female participants. The branding on many of these races leans toward hyper-femininity: princesses, divas, feather boas, tiaras, pink EVERYTHING, diamond necklaces instead of racing medals. Obviously, these different aspects aren’t present at every race, but many of the more prominent women’s races feature some imagery, prizes, or promotion that conform to such an image. This isn’t to say that women who enjoy these aspects of races are wrong, by any stretch. The problem is, that by emphasizing this one particular type of womanhood, these races conform to an essentialized image of who women are and can be, ignoring the differences among women and their experiences of womanhood. What about women who hate pink? Why not emphasize women warriors alongside princesses? Why are feather boas a thing?*** While the races might, in theory, challenge the idea that women are too weak to run long distances by highlighting the power and strength of some of their competitors, many of these races reinforce stereotypes and objectified versions of womanhood, rather than challenging them, as they could.

The prizes for the Divas Half Marathon and 5K only highlight this problem. Offering cosmetic procedures as a prize for an athletic event that celebrates women’s physical abilities seems to contradict the goal of women revising their visions of themselves and their capabilities beyond existing cultural stereotypes on athleticism, particularly because these prizes are being offered to the second youngest age group winners.

Is it asking too much to have these races ditch their hyperfeminized visions of women in favor of a more inclusive view of womanhood? Would races attract less participants with less of an emphasis on traditional images of femininity? I suspect not, given the popularity of races like the Tough Mudder and the Warrior Dash, which are gender-neutral but feature marketing images of strong, not stereotypically feminine, women. The Warrior Dash, for example, features a women’s finisher shirt with a Valkyrie (I want this shirt. Very badly). Seeking greater inclusion shouldn’t be difficult, so while I laud such races for opening running to many women who would not participate otherwise, I want to emphasize that these races have some significant room for improvement.

Why can’t Valkyries, divas, and princesses run together?

Brunhilde!

Brunhilde wouldn’t mind hanging out with princesses and divas. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*One widespread belief, discussed in this New York Times article, suggests that a women’s uterus would fall out if she were to participate in long distance running!

**I don’t use this term as a condemnation. I’ve done a few – the Color Run and the Dirty Girl 5K – and they were ridiculously fun. They simply cost more than the average race.

***They are itchy, ugly, all around terrible, and I hate them.