When I order shirts during the registration process for a race, ninety percent of the time, I end up with something I can’t wear—well, I end up with something I won’t wear because it doesn’t fit. If it’s unisex sizing, the shirt will most likely be too wide for my frame in addition to being too long. I will be able to fit two of my arms into each sleeve. It isn’t because I’m ordering a size bigger than I normally would. If the race carries both women and men sizes, I try to figure out which would be better—the awkwardly hour-glass, skin-hugging women’s size or the usual “unisex” look. If I go with women’s—do I order a size up? If it’s a race shirt, it might be super tiny. But if I order a size up and it’s too big, I will regret it. This was my thought process as I filled out the Chicago Marathon registration last spring. I went with my normal size, in women’s. I thought it might be a little tiny, but I also hoped that after marathon training, I too would be a little tiny.
My fiancé has a similar problem with sizing. She is a petite woman as well, who prefers the shape of men’s clothing. She orders the men’s option all the time, except when men sizes don’t go down to xs. (And what is that about anyway—there are PLENTY of tiny runners, both men and women.) She is happy when she does have the option of ordering the xs, which will most likely be only a little large on her. However, ordering a size and that size being available when she goes to pick it up are two different things. We are not fools.
The Chicago Marathon did not have a men’s xs, so she too was wondering: will the men’s small be too big or just right? Should she go with the women’s instead?
When we were finally home after spending 1.5 hours getting down to the Expo, 2 hours in the Expo, 30 minutes getting out of the parking garage, 30 minutes trying to find a way back north to Wrigleyville—it’s like the city had a few closed streets or something—and then another 30 minutes driving back up, we spread out like kids on Christmas morning. “Home” base was actually Jean’s apartment. We sat around her coffee table and went through the goodies in our race bags. One of the first things I pulled out of my bag was a temporary tattoo from Naked Wines the size of a half dollar coin. A few minutes later, Jean found her tattoo. Drew didn’t have one. It made sense to me: “It’s because you got a guy-bag.” Because Drew had signed up for the men’s size in shirt, she had gotten a “men’s” bag.
She kept pulling things out, and eagerly asking us if we got it too. The answer was always: yes.
“I just want there to be one something that I have that y’all don’t.”
The three of us, like Strayed opening a resupply box, carefully took each item out one at a time and triaged it—keeping for tomorrow (race day); recycling; keeping for later. The tattoo ended up being the only difference. The only one.
This was curious. First, the tattoo was from a wine company. A wine company with “naked” in its name. The tattoo is a reminder that women are supposed to like wine, while men are allowed to like beer. It is a reminder that I should want to put something on my body that says Naked! because it will make people think about me in a sexy way. Because as a woman, I must always be trying to make other people think I am sexy. It is a reminder that men are supposed to not want something that says Naked! on their bodies because to be naked is to be feminine.
It makes me think of Titian paintings and Barbie, how deep our western roots cling to the expectation that women, being feminine, should bare all and men, being masculine, are supposed to be covered up.
I was actually really excited about the Expo. Before we went, my schema was about all the different shoes and socks and interesting samples of running food I would see and experience. Drew couldn’t wait to get her hands on some race gear. Jean wanted a pair of running sunglasses, which she had been training without. All of us were planning on spending more money than we could afford, simply because we expected to love everything that we saw. We expected to want it all.
After getting our bibs, on the way to get our shirts and bags, we passed the Nike official race merchandise “booth”—a full Nike store on the floor of the Expo. I was drooling. Everything we could see was a bright neon green with black accents. There were a lot of people, and we promised ourselves we’d come back. I actually started getting excited to purchase marathon gear! What a cool color for the race. I was silently very impressed that they were able to choose a bright color—because its for runners—that is “suitable” for men and women alike, especially because many of the women I know are constantly complaining about how the men’s athletic gear is always so much cooler than the women’s styles. I didn’t have enough money to spend on a Chicago Marathon shirt, and I hadn’t planned on buying any clothing, besides socks, but as I went to get my bag, the calculations in my head argued otherwise.
By the time we made it back, the place was still rocking with people. It was hard to move through. We went straight to the green and black jackets and tanks. Fifty-seconds later, I understood I had been mistaken. The sizes I saw at first were all Ls. Then I saw an M, and finally an S. I saw no XS. Pulling the S off the rack was a tiny blow to my heart. It was a men’s small—way too large for me to pretend to wear running, when smaller clothes are more efficient. I went to another rack, scouring the whole place for women’s sizes.
It was clear: the green and black attire here was only men’s sizes. But there was hope: I had missed a whole other side to the store. I raced over to find sizes I could actually try on with some expectation of fitting.
I went through a doorway, created by a gap between two makeshift walls, and was greeted with rack after rack of salmon-colored, lower quality attire. I double checked—scanning everything in a slow 360 pan. No green. (For the record, I’m not against salmon as a color. I just don’t understand why both men and women couldn’t have both options.) I did find one jacket and then another I thought would fit, but they were all so overly “feminized”—some puckering around the zipper, others with infantilized pockets—that they weren’t worth a try on.
After going through our bags, we took duct tape to our outfits and put our names on the front and back of our racing shirts. None of us were going to wear the blue Chicago Marathon tech-t we had received that day at the Expo. Jean would wear her Red Cross shirt, Drew needed to wear a tank top; I had chosen poorly—the race shirt fit, but was too much like skin to feel comfortable for the 5+ hours it would take us to run.
My Nike tank top was orange and magenta and white. Jean had white tape so I put NICK on both the front and the back, in the magenta areas so it would stand out. I’d never worn my name on my shirt for a race, but had been jealous many times when seeing that others had.
Wearing your name actually makes people want to cheer for you. Volunteers are awesome, and if you’ve ever volunteered, you know that for the duration of the event, you are stuck with saying the same handful of phrases, over and over again. It is nice to be able to shout out someone’s name and know that they know you are speaking directly to them.
I don’t regret putting my name on my shirt. All of those tiny interactions with stranger after stranger after stranger were a huge part of why running the marathon was so much fun. And yet, I still got called the wrong name by 30% of the spectators who were cheering me on. I will allow that sometimes it’s hard to read names on shirts, and that if you see the first part of my name, without getting a clear view of the whole thing at once, that you might jump to the conclusion that there is a Y or an I at the end of my name. But 30% suggests that it wasn’t all reading/viewing error. In my life outside of running, I get called Nikky all the time—by people who should know better, and by people to whom I’VE JUST INTRODUCED MYSELF AS NICK, especially by people to whom I’ve just introduced myself. For some reason, looking at me, and saying “Nick” is hard. For a lot of people.
“Keep running, Nicky!”
“You’ve got this Nikki!”
“Go Jean! Go Drew! Go Nicki!”
When I think about gender and the marathon, I wonder if the three of us are aware of our gender in ways some people may have the privilege not to be. I don’t mean to imply that there are people who don’t worry about their gender. No one escapes that. That moment, standing in front of your closet a few days before a big interview. That moment, your eighth-grade eyes lock with someone across the gym floor. Running into someone you haven’t seen in a while. Going out for drinks casually with new friends. Going out for drinks with old friends, with old friends and their new partners. People watching on the Metro. The weekly meeting with your staff. Family gatherings. And yet, some people may not be as bothered, have not ever felt boxed in, when it comes to hair, clothing, expectations. They are few, they are mystical beings in my mind, but I have to believe that there might be two of them on Earth.
In actuality, I think we are all running a long-distance race with gender expectations. We are all the master and makeup of our gender; we are all the victim. Even so, society still makes it easier for girls who like pink and boys who like black. Being queer doesn’t make me any more worried, any more the victim, any more the victor of my own situation. But it does strike a particular chord. I recognize that I’ve been training for the race my whole life. Most people who are prejudiced against LGBT folks manifest that prejudice in forms of gender discrimination. (For an example, consider all of the boys in middle school who get called fags daily for not being muscular or sporty enough. Consider all the girls who are whispered about because they don’t wear makeup or because they can out-throw the baseball team.) Indeed, this focus on being the right kind of feminine and the right kind of masculine is what pulls the Trans communities so close to the LGB communities in the first place. The hurt stems from the same place: a boy who isn’t boyish, a girl who isn’t girlish.
Thinking about the feminine and the masculine is such a common occurrence in my life that I’ve grown accustomed to feeling it. I don’t think about gender anymore. The implications beat me rhythmically like the tide on a primal level. The consequences of gender have become an insider joke between my close friends. On our last long-run of training—the Magellean 20-miler—Jean pointed to a Gatorade stand, signified by the two large flags on either side which read: G-endurance. She had been seeing them all summer and was tickled to finally show us. Drew and I were equally as nerdy, giggling back.
During the marathon, these flags became a beacon, a lifeline: not only because of their practicality—providing electrolytes—but also because of the spiritual affirmation of what we all do, all the time.