In Track and Cross-Country in High School, it was almost a sin for a girl to run in just her sports bra and shorts. The problem was, when you run distances in most conditions, you get overheated to say the least. Bigger problem: I attended high school is the scorching heat of Dallas, Texas.
I remember all of us girls would fuss about the fact that the boys could run shirtless, yet we could not run in our sports bras. After all, we were wearing more clothing than the boys were, right? We even went as far as to make picket signs freshman year that read: “Sports bras or Bust.”
We did try it once, to run in our sports bras during practice. Four of my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to rip off our shirts and put them with the boy’s shirts. We thought it was okay, since it was just girls. Boy, were we wrong. Somehow we got caught (apparently a faculty member passed by us in his car) and we were scolded and told that we would be kicked off of the team if we continued our ‘poor behavior.’ Needless to say, we did not make the same mistake twice.
When I advanced to cross country and track on the collegiate level, I expected to find that the girl’s practice uniforms were sports bras and buns, but alas, I was wrong. Yet again, it was too immodest for the girls to run in only a sports bra and shorts.
I began to wonder, was it just my abashedly conservative private high school and college that were so opposed to this seemingly common practice? Or did this act violate some unsaid social norm that I was not aware of? Well, folks, this runner conducted a secret social experiment to find out.
I started my 6 mile run while on a family vacation in the Tennessee Smoky Mountain National Park. I do not think that I have ever seen a place more beautiful and thriving with life. If this place is not proof that there is a God, I am not sure what is.
I departed on my run with this: my handy-dandy dinosaur-aged Garmin watch, worn out running shoes, my running apparel (brand new thanks to a recent influx in my income), and my drive to succeed. As I passed families, couples, fishermen, and explorers extraordinaire, I began to realize that everyone on the trail was one unit; a group of people with shared experiences, loyalties, and interests. While these people identified themselves as their own little units, we, as the travelers on this winding trail, were a group.
These people were all here for one purpose, whether or not it was their family vacation or their backyard, all of these people were here to enjoy the great outdoors. But, I’m rambling on too much. All that you need to know is that there were at least 60 different people that I came into contact with on my run. With this knowledge, I shall begin my experiment.
The trail was a two mile route through the woods and rivers, but it was clearly marked. So, since I was running 6 miles, I ran the trail three times: Up, back, and then up the trail once more.
Less than a mile into my run, my body encountered an awful, but all-to-common phenomenon. I began to sweat. I was not at a school related practice, in fact, I was hundreds of miles away from school. What was stopping me from taking my shirt off now?
As I finished this thought, I passed a family of four; a mother, a father, and two kids. The son was about six years old, and the daughter, who was being pushed in her stroller, was about two. They were a typical American family, and they all gave me a warm “hello” as I passed by.
So, a new thought arose in my head: What would this family’s reaction be to me running in only my sports bra? Surely they would have the same reaction as my schools. But what about the other travelers on the trail? Would they have the same reaction as well? I decided to find out.
As I was running, I passed people that I had seen when I was running the opposite direction, and sometimes I passed people that I had never seen before. Either way, I would most likely never see any of these people in my life again, and I could not think of a better group of people with which to conduct my experiment.
My parents dropped me off at the trailhead, and drove to the end of the trail to walk the opposite way, hoping that we would pass once or twice and exchange a quick high-five or a passing story (I did see a bear across the river, which I informed them of).
So, I embarked on my journey. I ran the first leg of the trail with my shirt on; I figured that I would start off conservative and slowly morph into the blasphemous runner that my high school convinced me that I was (On a side note: I loved my high school very much, so I do not hold any animosity towards them at all). As I passed other hikers, runners, dog-walkers, etc., I made sure to say “hello” or “good morning” to each. I try to do that anyways, but today it was all the more important because of my experiment. I even had brief passing conversations with some about the weather or their cute dog. Nine out of Ten people said “hello” back, asked me how I was doing, or commented on how they could not believe that I was running up hill and not walking. In fact, three out of those nine actually greeted me before I could get a word out. Overall, people in Tennessee and those who had traveled there were very nice. I could not believe the responses I had received. I do not usually encounter that many people on my runs back home, so it was nice to actually have some people to talk to to pass the time even if it was for just a second as I ran past.
I reached the end of the trail, waved to my parents, and started running the opposite direction. Less than a tenth of a mile into the second leg, my shirt was off and tucked into the back of my shorts. Needless to say, I was eager to cool off even if it was just a little bit. I was also eager to see if people would have the same warmth towards me when I was bearing a little more to the world.
The first couple that I passed was an elderly couple. They were the cutest couple; probably in their late seventies. The husband had his pants pulled up to his belly button and the wife had a bee-hive hairdo and was fashioning a very trendy fanny pack. They were each using a pair of retractable walking sticks and laughing and smiling with each other. When I passed by and declared my “hello, how are y’all doing?” I was dumbfounded by their response: nothing. This seemingly delightful elderly couple did not even bother to make eye contact with me. When I had finished passing by, I could hear them pickup their conversation again like they had not even noticed me. But, I knew that they did.
The second and third couples were the same; they completely ignored me. I was shocked. I did not expected to get responses that were this cold. By the time that I was approaching my first family, I was hesitant. I am a people pleaser, so I do not like it when people think poorly of me at all; even complete strangers. As I approached the family of five, I was already kicking myself for starting this experiment. To my surprise, I was not ignored by every member of the family. But, before I did meet them on the path, I saw the mother utter something to her one teenage and two pre-teen children. I could only imagine it was about me, because when they passed, they did not acknowledge my existence. I uttered a nervous “hello,” to which the mother responded with an equally hushed “hi.” The amazing thing, is that she did so without making any eye contact with me whatsoever.
The remainder of the people that I came in contact with on my two mile leg without my shirt on had nearly the same responses. Twelve out of fifteen people that I passed did not make eye contact with me or respond to my greeting. Two people that I passed responded to my “hello,” but managed to do so without looking at me. The final person that I passed was a middle-aged man who was all alone, and he made plenty of eye contact with me.
I conducted an experiment based on the question of past bias regarding modesty in running. Although it drove me crazy during high school that the boys could run without shirts and the girls could not, I think my conclusion was the same deep down back then as it is now. Perhaps, in locations where running is not the main focus, or where families are present, one should not pursue an image that is questionably immodest. But, if you still have a need to run shirtless, by all means, pursue that, but do so with the understanding that the people you come in contact with may not understand why it is necessity to you. I am sure I will run shirtless again multiple times in my life, but I will do so in a place where that is accepted (such as a running trail or track). So, is running in only a sports bra violating a common social norm? That is up to your own interpretation. The important thing to keep in mind is that every action you take is affecting someone else in some way. It is up to you whether you want that to be a positive affect or a negative one.
Here is a picture of the beautiful trail: