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.