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Nike: Why Are They "Men's Shoes"?

12/07/2012 04:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2013

Question: If girls and women can "fit" into "men's shoes," if they are "game" doing so, if they like them, if they earn money to pay for them, if they buy them, what exactly makes them "men's shoes"?

You might want to get comfortable.

This weekend my daughters needed to buy indoor soccer shoes. I'll be honest: I would rather wrestle a 15-foot shark in a fight to the death than go shoe shopping with three teenagers arguing about teams, players, kits and on and off-field behavior, all while trying on dozens of shoes provided by a sales person who isn't sure if my identical twins are one person or two, because everyone's moving and talking at the same time. That being said, we headed over to a giant, new NIKE store in Washington, D.C., because, well, it's the giant new NIKE store. Brandi Chastain, of 1999 World Cup women's soccer fame, was at the opening. In addition, the first thing you see when you walk in is a giant photograph of "the greatest female goalie the sport has ever seen," Hope Solo.

All of this suggests you could buy soccer shoes for women here. However, in a 31,000 square foot store, you can't. But, surely, we would find shoes "Right upstairs!" in the Men's Department. "Which ones do you want to try on?" "What size do you wear?" "Let me go check in the back," and then, "Too bad, we don't have your size in stock today, we'll get a shipment soon, and you can check online." This all implies "Equal Opportunity" to a reasonable person. It was only during our fourth trip that I asked, with a dawning realization, "What is the smallest men's size you ever have in stock?" "Usually a men's size 7." Meaning, a female with an average size 7.5 shoe would be able to buy a shoe exactly when? NEVER. (I subsequently spoke to a store manager who said it depends on the style.) Humour me in an exercise of gender absurdity that is life and reverse all the genders in this in-store lifestyle experience. Done? Not yet? Here's a mouth guard you can give to Satan when you're finished.

Out of mercy for my children I resisted the urge to regale the manager with a moving rendition of the feminist classic A Tale of Two Norms. Instead, I suggested that NIKE's decision seems economically irrational. There are a minimum of 1.2 million soccer-playing girls in the immediate region. Soccer is the fastest-growing college sport and there are at least five major colleges within spitting distance of this store. Also, one of the eight new Women's Professional Soccer League teams is based in D.C.

What does NIKE do? In store: ZERO "women's" soccer shoes with at least 24 for "boys and men." Online? Three girls/11 women's soccer shoes; five boys/76 men's. This is confounding in a domestic market where country's 14.1 million soccer players, 41 percent of all soccer players are female and growing. What's the big deal? If the shoes fit, buy them.

Besides, that's okay, there is a fantastic, huge picture of Solo when you walk into the store. This visibility is important... you know, you can't be what you can't see. So, what are girls (and boys) seeing when they look at her photo?

First, Solo's prominence is great. In addition, I bet the number of women on the web site is even disproportionately high given gender imbalances in professional sports and product offerings. There are more women on the landing page than men, for example. And they're muddy. This is important because coverage of women's sports on television has declined since 1989: Between 2004 and 2008 media companies reduced the percentage of women's sports broadcasted from 6.3 percent to 1.6. percent. A 2011, 20-year study reveals that 100 percent of lead stories are about men's sports and 72 percent of all stories. I won't get into dismal details about women commentators and experts, except to say that ESPN, which has a predictably depressing representation of women, actually had this as a customer feedback dropdown on its: "Commentator -- dislike female commentators." Humour me again and substitute "female" with "male," "Black," "Jewish," "Gay."

So, Hope Solo good.

But, second, qualitatively, what is Hope Solo's picture for? So you can buy her "look of sports." NIKE has a featured Solo line of clothing and a great profile of her on its website, emphasizing her skills, hard work and the double standards she experiences. One of the reasons I like Solo is because she doesn't appear to CARE if I like her. So, this is not to belittle her or the fact that she and other women athletes are getting important NIKE endorsements. However, her branded products are not part of the NIKE Soccer Collection, but marketed as a style and fashion line for NIKE Women. Likewise with track and field superstar Allyson Felix (who has a "gravity-defying look,"), the similarly "sophisticated silhouettes" of diving phenom Paola Espinosa and the "natural style" of the talented soccer player Alex Morgan, all of whose "signature looks" are featured in the 2013 NIKE LookBook. (Do I have to say there is no male LookBook that I could find?)

Third, I know that NIKE has amazing portrayals of women athletes, including all of the women above, and also that men are featured sometimes as style icons. But, consider:

If you are not one, pretend you're an athletic girl. Even a stylish one. Do you find this undertone in messaging insulting? If not, why not? If you ask my children, they will tell you they could not care less. Like boys, they're ambitious. They love their sport. They want good shoes. Shopping online is fun. Talking about "objectification" at dinner? Major buzzkill. But, kids don't know what's good for them or how to understand corrosive media messages and subtle, aggregating slights. I suspect they'd also enjoy cocaine, as would most people, if it was supported by broad cultural norms, like sexism is. After all, cocaine makes people feel good, powerful, elated and like they can do anything. It's only later that the systemic, negative effects kick in. So to speak.

Hope Solo isn't a fashionable, soccer playing Smurfette. There is nothing "naturally stylish" about Alex Morgan, or anything "supernatural" about these athletes' talents. These women, and these, work hard and accomplish greatness. There is no shortage of places to get "looks" if you are a girl or woman.

What they, and the girls and boys that admire them need, is their fair share of glory in return for their sacrifices and hard work. (And, not to be crass or put too fine a point on it, professional opportunities and compensation would be good too.)

Women athletes deserve more in terms of recognition and visibility for their athletic talents and prominence as athletes. If NIKE and others are going to engage them as representatives for products and as ambassadors to girls, then as a consumer I am demanding even MORE than NIKE currently does. The nerve of some people.

Why does it matter?

Obviously, this isn't about shoes. Or soccer. Or style. I could have chosen any number of sports or companies. In the U.S., soccer is actually probably is the most gender balanced. It's about cultural currency: imagery, visibility, value and parity in media, sports and culture. Isn't NIKE all about transforming culture, imagination, inspiration, lifestyle and innovative branding? I know, I know, don't you wish they had just stocked the damn things??

Why it is considered audacious to suggest that girls expect and demand more? Some girls withstand micro-aggressions like the ones above and others don't. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, despite the tremendous changes of the past 40 years and the trends listed above there is a disturbing fact: by age 14 girls are now dropping out of sports at twice the rate that boys do.

As the documentary Miss Representation well-illustrates, our culture's malign focus on girls' appearances is intensifying a well-established cultural predisposition to distrust women as leaders, with authority in the public sphere. Obviously this is not NIKE's fault. But NIKE -- with its massive market presence and seductive messaging, might be hurting, not helping.

The well-documented, beneficial influence of sports on athletes' lives extends far beyond fields and courts and into life. Participation also affects self-confidence and leadership.

Ask Julie Foudy, as seriously impressive an athlete and leader as imaginable. She is the former USA Women's Soccer Team Captain, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time World Cup Champion. In 2006 she and her husband launched the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy for girls. The Academy is a leadership skills development program that uses sports as its starting point.

"We organized our curriculum around the idea of broadening the definition of leadership so that it is personal, not positional," says Foudy. "From what I have seen and experienced, girls are disproportionately filled with self-doubt and risk averse, so I asked myself, "What made me different? Why was I not inhibited in these ways?" And the answer was sports."

Girls need spaces where their ambitions, the work they do and the capabilities they have, like glory, athleticism and leadership, are taken seriously. What they especially need are spaces where what they work to accomplish is not pervasively entwined with how they look and where their successes are perceived as central and not peripheral. Despite completely mind-numbingly fatuous suggestions to the contrary, sports provides the ideal space. The fact that girls are dropping out should cause everyone concern.

Why NIKE?

Nike has power over imaginations. That's why. NIKE is a unique position to create this space for girls, not as a charitable endeavor but as a profitable one. Do you think companies like NIKE are neutral? 'Cause I think, despite some well-meaning, but superficial forays, NIKE's current merchandising subtly but squarely perpetuates male athletic dominance, suggests that girls lower their expectations, erodes their confidence, and undermines a promise of equal opportunity that is used mainly to generate profits.

Consider the tremendous work that The NIKE Foundation does, especially through its initiative, The Girl Effect, dedicated to improving the lives of more than 250 million adolescent girls worldwide. As they put it, "When a girl in the developing world realizes her potential... she brings her family, community, and country with her. It's a leverage strategy that can't be beat. That's why adolescent girls are our exclusive focus." There appears to be a classic gendered, sales/marketing disconnect between NIKE and the NIKE Foundation. What the Foundation does is vitally important, and by comparison (shoes? Lookbooks?), what I am saying here might seem trivial, but it's not. We need to move forward on all fronts and consider the degree to which we have an untapped Girl Effect in the U.S. Just as quick examples, we rank 80th in the world for women's political representation and our media representation of women's voices is pathetic and deplorable. NIKE is not in the business of tying compensation to these problems. But, NIKE clearly is committed to transforming cultures through social change and the empowerment of girls. Taken to its logical conclusion, we have a parallel, more subtle, situation here, only at a different stage.

Boy have a privilege: They grow up never thinking about the fact that their sex is the iconic representative of all humanity. Allowing girls to do the same isn't oppressive to boys, it just rectifies an imbalance in this privilege. And sports are an important component of that. Men's sports aren't more popular because men are "faster and games more exciting.". They're more popular because we glorify men (and their competition) and because we don't have the imagination or will, as Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, an analyst for ESPN and MSG Network put it, "understand how to optimize what women can do and put that in a light that is exciting."

So.

Answer: Imagination. That's what makes them men's shoes.

If there is any company well situated, indeed poised, to consider this it's NIKE, which has already demonstrated interest, desire, ability and success in matters related to gender and innovation.