Well Being

Activewear Companies And The Tyranny Of The Toned/Tan/Tiny Fitness Model

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Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 10.50.57 AMBy: Emilie Littlehales

In January, Skirt Sports—a women's activewear company and “creator of the original running/fitness skirt”—unveiled its first pair of running shorts. On its website, the shorts are modeled by women with your typical fitness model physique—toned quadriceps and hamstrings, smooth abdominals, enviable curves—and they look great. If wearing Skirt Sports' “redemption run short” could make my legs and butt look that good, I'd order a pair for every day of the week. And I'm pretty sure that's exactly the way Skirt Sports wants me to feel.

Not long after the shorts were released, I noticed a picture on Pinterest of the Redemption shorts, modeled by a size 14 Skirt Sports employee; the caption said “A short for all bodies!”

Judging by a Skirt Sports blog entry, the picture was posted in response to some criticism the shorts received. On the employee model, the shorts don't look nearly as clingy and short as they do on the fitness models featured on the Skirt Sports website. The employee model looks happy and comfortable, the way any runner would want to feel in a pair of shorts. And if wearing the Redemption short could make me feel that good, I'd order a pair for every day of the week.

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 10.49.49 AMBoth photos seem to do a good job of selling these shorts—but you won't find the size 14 employee model on the Skirt Sports website. In fact, you won't find a size 14 model on the retail site, period, unless you dig deep: Under the ‘by activity' tab, there's an option to see “extended sizes,” and it's here that you'll find a banner image with a woman who, by modeling standards, would be considered plus-size.

Rather than actively promote the idea that they make a “short for all bodies,” Skirt Sports has buried their sole plus-size model a few webpages off the beaten path, segregated to the euphemistically named “extended sizes” section. The whole thing implies that being larger than a straight-size model is something to be ashamed of—you can be a size 14, and we'll sell to you, but keep it a secret.

Ultimately, Skirt Sports probably isn't too worried whether I buy shorts because I hope they'll make my legs look good or because they'll make me feel comfortable and happy—all that really matters is whether I buy the shorts. Skirt Sports, and women's sportswear companies in general, are much more comfortable selling aspiration than inspiration. It's hard to sell something as intangible as feeling good; it's a whole lot easier to create a lifestyle image—young, thin, attractive, affluent (oh hello, $98 yoga pants!) and with enough leisure time to fit in ample working out.


This mythical Workout Woman can do it all without breaking a sweat or getting flushed and always has perfect make-up and great hair. Who wouldn't want to be just like her? And hell, if it's only going to cost $98 to get all that, then sign me up! Of course deep down we know that buying all the $98 yoga pants and $52 sports bras in the world isn't going to get us anything more than a slimmer bank account. But somehow that doesn't stop us from hoping, and our aspirations create more fuel for the advertising fire.

Wouldn't it be great if we could break that cycle? If we could make our apparel decisions not based on how we hope to look in the future but on how we look and feel right now? We wouldn't be buying shorts with the the hope that they'd be the item that would finally bring in that promotion, or run that marathon, or lose those final five pounds.

Instead, we'd buy them because we like them, plain and simple. And activewear retailers would employ models of all sizes, because our idea and experience of happiness would extend so far beyond the narrow window of sizes 2 through 4. It would be revolutionary.