Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

Where Have All the Strong and Mighty Cowgirls Gone?


I have had a string of observations lately that I think might be interesting to put here. Just as back story, I currently own a home in southern New Hampshire, and I work just a few miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. So generally speaking, I live amongst a pretty open-minded population. This makes me pretty happy. Kids with dreads and tattoos, lots of skinny jeans and interesting mop hairdos, also some peacoats, schoolish glasses, and Starbucks coffee shops filled with MacBooks. And lots and lots of runners. Runners everywhere. In fact, I drove home tonight from an event in Saugus, MA, and I counted 11 runners before my tires hit the driveway.

What I’m getting at here is that even though I see a ton of runners practically everywhere I go in this very open-minded region of the country, it’s rare to see a pair of bare feet or even minimalist shoes. And to take it one step further: with the exception of personal friends and the few “barefoot” races I’ve attended, I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve run by a woman wearing minimalist footwear. I just…don’t see it.

Hard to tell if it’s the cause of, or the response to, a possibly chilly female consumer climate, but there is a distinctive inequality of selection and style between men’s and women’s minimalist footwear. For example, men’s color choices will often be bright, gorgeous and plentiful, while the women’s colors are boring or much more limited. Not only that, but often the women’s version of a new shoe will come out weeks or months after the men’s one appears, or be a totally different shoe altogether. Almost like it was an afterthought.

Do these companies fail to understand that women in general are fashion devotees, likely to consume any beautiful thing we can use to decorate our bodies? No, I don’t think so.

Do minimalist shoe makers not care about women engaging in the sport of natural running? Very unlikely.

I believe the problem isn’t obtuseness in the minimalist shoe industry. The problem is women themselves.

Think about every time you’ve seen some beefy dude powering down the track or hefting gargantuan weights at the gym. Every time you’ve turned on a football game to to watch colossal men bashing into each other at the fifty yard line, or soccer players bolting across a wide field and deftly kicking a black and white ball towards the goal line. When men perform feats of strength and endurance it’s just another day in the life.

But when a woman shows a high level of strength and endurance it’s like we’re all watching She-Ra battling the Evil Horde. She’s a superhero. She’s a biological enigma. Or better yet, she’s out of her goddamn mind.

Generally speaking, aside from the obvious musculoskeletal differences that  make women physically weaker, women possess just as much strength as men. And in some non-physical ways, maybe even more. Overall, women can endure just as much toughness as men, and we can grow physically strong in the same myriad of ways. And although they will rally and cheer at that last sentence all day long, but most women don’t actually believe it.

I don’t know if it’s a side effect of our being raised on Barbie and princess tiaras, but for some reason I find that most women generally believe they need help with everything. They think that they need help bringing the groceries in, killing the spider in the basement, purchasing a new car.

They are ready and eager to accept that their feet need help, too. In my observation, more women believe they need extra cushioning for their delicate little cotton-candy-pink-painted footsies, and are much more likely than men to jump on the “test my gait” bandwagon at the local running store.

Now, I’m not trying to dump on my gender here. I’m also not suggesting that women are gullible or that all women runners are these high-maintenance pink and purple princesses (although some are). But I do find it an interesting dichotomy to be in when you are a woman and you’re also a barefoot runner, training for an ultra-marathon with all the boys. I mean, there just seems to be this huge divide between the feminine chick and the hard-core runner (who is usually a dude), because there’s almost nobody in between. And since I rather prefer it over on the hard-core runner side, sometimes it’s easy to forget that I’m still a chick.

What I wonder the most is how things ever got this way. I mean, where did all the feminist rebellion go? Back in the late 60’s women would have been wearing Vibram FiveFingers while they burned their bras, if they were wearing any shoes at all (and if Vibram FiveFingers existed). Women had real power back then. And I don’t mean the “man-hating feminist” label that people nowadays like to pin on the Women’s Rights Movement (the amazing time of change, by the way, that included our receiving equal rights to vote, own property, apply for divorces and take birth control pills). For a time, women saw themselves on an equal playing field with the men.

But the strong arm of women’s equality has slackened, in my opinion. The widest slice of the female American culture that I’ve seen these days is from women who are perfectly content languishing under the cushy roofs that their husbands put over their heads, with no other ambitions than that of raising perfect little rosey-cheeked babies and baking perfect little pies from scratch, just like their grandmothers did back in the 1940’s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having those ambitions, of course, but it’s disappointing to see so very few women my age in America like me, who feel any kinship at all to those sharp, capable, fiercely independent women of the feminist movement.

Fortunately, I have met a few women along the way who do fit this bill. Most of them have become good friends of mine and I am grateful for this. I was also grateful when I saw Merrell’s new “Pretty Strong” website, launched for the sole purpose of educating women in the barefoot and minimalist running movement (and to sell lots of shoes too, I’m sure). The new site is gorgeous, information-packed and it communicates a message that I definitely dig.

But seeing that site also raises a note of discord for me: Why do we feel we need this separation from men – one that seems to suggest women can’t work out just like men do? Why must we be spoon-fed by a nifty teal and orange marketing campaign (charming as it is), informing us that we can indeed be “strong” and “pretty” at the same time?

My answer is I don’t exactly know. But I’d love to hear what you think.

8 thoughts on “Where Have All the Strong and Mighty Cowgirls Gone?

  1. I too feel the loss of color and individuality in running shoes. My closest running buddy, who has to have stability shoes, loves this one brand. However, EVERY year they come out with the same model in the same silver and blue colors. I have a neutral gait, and can get away with just about anything, and she makes the sad face every time she sees my brightly colored new kicks. I don’t understand why we can’t have running shoes with flare, just like the guys. I actually seek out the colorful ones when I am on the hunt for new kicks, and have been successful only about half the time. It’s part of the fun in running when you can wear something that makes you smile! I typically run in adidas, and they don’t usually let me down. My marathon 10’s have been by far my favorite minimalist shoes in regards to color, comfort, breathability, and femininity. I recently retired them because they had over 500 miles on them, and found a pair of Asics that are white, turquoise and hot pink! I have had more compliments on my brightest shoes than I have on the boring white and silver ones.

    In regards to your loss of femininity when crossing over to becoming an ultra-runner, I don’t think you need to lose the fact that you’re a girl even when you’re running amongst the boys. I am training for my first ultra this December, and I proudly wear plenty of pink and turquoise running tanks and skirts. I’m a girl. I run hard. I train hard. And I don’t want to hide behind boring clothes and shoes. OR the boys. I admit my goal of running this ultra, out loud, and often, in front of many boys (and girls too). As women, I feel we still need to stand up for ourselves, and not be put in the category of “princesses” who are babied or taken care of, even if that’s all we want out of life. We are women first. Make an identity for yourself and add runner as a part of that identity. Don’t lose yourself in the white picket fence concept if you don’t want to. Thank you for voicing your opinion. Too many women are complacent with where they are today, and are not strong enough to stand up for what they believe in or what they want out of life. Running gives me the stress relief and mental and physical strength to reach for each and every goal I want out of life. I hope it does the same for you!

    • Thank you for that! I agree, there is no need to feel ashamed about our femininity amongst the boys, nor about our strength amongst the ladies.

      • You’re welcome and ABSOLUTELY! If you feel so inclined, you can follow my own running adventures and thoughts at my blog too-

  2. You may want to take a look at … my wife and I started the biz, in part, after she took the huaraches I made for her and said, “I love them… now how can I make them CUTE?!”

    About 1/2 of our customers are women and, frankly, we’re looking to cater to women (of all ages) even more.

  3. I don’t know if gender equality is going to come through minimal running. My theory is that programs like Crossfit are going to be the driving force in showing women that it’s okay to be strong. Fun fact illustrating my point: 80% of ALL Crossfitters (men AND women) can clean and jerk over 135lbs. That’s huge. In what other sport is it acceptable for women to lift that kind of weight?

    • I think that’s a big part of my point, too. I’ve kinda always (and almost inadvertently) been one of “the boys.” Not necessarily a tomboy…but I guess when I’m making decisions in life I never really compartmentalized myself into a gender. I often forget that I’m “a girl,” and therefore I’m supposed to be relegated to a certain set of interests, or limited to them, more accurately. It always seemed normal to me to be independent, resilient and to take care of myself, never even considering the possibility of anything else. But that’s what men are raised to do, not women. Women aren’t told that we should be strong enough to lift as much weight as a man. But you know, I never thought for a second that I shouldn’t.

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