T-shirts, YET AGAIN.

Are we really doing this again? I just tried to register (as a speaker) for an upcoming tech conference. One that prides itself on its woman-friendliness, no less: they have an anti-harassment policy, a track devoted to women in the field, and photos of women on the front page of their website.

The registration form asked me what sized t-shirt I’d like, and offered only straight-cut shirts: the kind that are often sold as “unisex” but, in fact, only fit people who have approximately the same chest, waist, and hip measurements — a group disproportionately made up of men.

So, with a sigh, I left the t-shirt field blank and submitted the form, only to receive an error message. I wasn’t allowed to register without taking an ill-fitting t-shirt that I didn’t want. I’m told this was a bug with the registration system, and has now been fixed so that you can opt out of the t-shirt altogether, but I’m saddened by the whole process and it’s making me reconsider whether I want to attend this conference at all.

Event t-shirts are something that stress me out EVERY SINGLE TIME. Endless indignities and insults. Every time I go somewhere, I have to go through a process that reminds me that I’m different and don’t fit in, because I have a female body.

It goes something like this:

What sized t-shirt do you want? Oh, no, we don’t have fitted/women’s sizes. These are unisex! They fit everyone! As long as you like wearing a tent that chafes and chokes you, and why wouldn’t you? THEY FIT EVERYONE.

We have girl’s sizes! They’re designed for actual pre-pubescent girls, but they’re nice and stretchy! They’ll show off your breasts REALLY WELL. Oh, and the logo we’ve printed across them will just serve to make the guys stare even harder. You won’t find that distracting at all when you’re trying to concentrate on the conference, will you?

Your breasts aren’t that big. Let me just look at them a bit and assess them. Hmmm. Mmmm. Yup, pretty sure you can wear a unisex tshirt. I, man, have spoken!

Are you sure? Please provide me with your measurements. Because that’s not creepy or undignified at all. While you’re at it, we’d like your mother’s maiden name and social security number.

Well, you can take a men’s shirt and wear it to sleep in! Because everyone wants to sleep in big ugly t-shirts, and needs dozens of them just for that purpose. Anyway, why would women want to wear a t-shirt AT THE CONFERENCE where they could actually, you know, be part of the in-group and feel like they belonged?

Staff must wear the shirt. You’re working the registration desk, staffing a booth on the expo floor, or giving a talk, and we want you to have our logo emblazoned across your chest. Obviously feeling comfortable and self-confident, being well groomed, and giving a good impression to others, are less important than that.

Group photo time! Let’s get everyone in their t-shirt! What do you mean you don’t have one, or don’t want to wear it? Why aren’t you participating? You obviously don’t want to be part of our community. Here, borrow one, and SMILE! Now everyone can mock you online for how ugly you look.

Oh look, it’s a newbie. She doesn’t even have a geeky t-shirt to fit in with the in crowd. She’s probably here with her boyfriend. (If she were wearing a shirt from that great conference five years ago, we might have at least thought twice before assuming that.)

I’m fucking sick of this. Don’t tell me you “worked hard” to get fitted t-shirts when you didn’t look at more than one supplier, or ask people who might know anything about it (for instance: other conferences that managed to supply fitted t-shirts, local women-in-tech groups, this very blog.) The Geek Feminism Wiki has a page full of t-shirt related tips and recommended suppliers for starters. THERE IS NO EXCUSE.

25 thoughts on “T-shirts, YET AGAIN.

  1. rebecca

    At both environmental education centers I’ve worked at, the staff T-shirts we were required to wear for work only came in unisex sizes. This despite the fact that the majority of the teaching staff at both places was female. So frustrating.

  2. k

    Don’t forget “And they’re thin, white cotton.” Just in case you feel like showing off your undergarments in a professional setting.

  3. K00kyKelly

    It’s always been confusing to me when someone seems to define fitting as being able to physically put it on. Yeah, thanks… too bad that I’m embarrassed to be seen in it. Ugh.

    The best way I’ve seen this issue handled in a work setting is to have the option to bring your own polo shirt to have custom embroidered with the team’s logo. Still a bit irritating to have to find time to shop for such a shirt or sacrifice one you already own.

  4. warble

    The GF wiki page doesn’t seem to suggest venders that sell unisex shirts that are actually unisex. This seems problematic for smaller events with limited budgets, especially ones that don’t typically have a high rate of female attendance, as being forced to buy multiple T – shirt types seems like it would be a large financial hindrance for a small budget event. Are there any suggestions of venders who’s unisex T’s don’t make women “chafe and unable to breathe”?

    1. Skud Post author

      The problem is that everyone is a different shape, so it’s unlikely to find any one t-shirt that fits everyone. If you’re a smaller event, it’s probably better to either a) ask attendees to specify their shirt size beforehand so you can order the exact numbers in each size, or b) have something other than shirts.

  5. lesleyb

    T-shirts are becoming a bit of a nuisance.

    Why can’t we just have messenger bags instead?

    I have been at a workshop this century where the idea of a women’s tee was okay for the petite small-busted class of women that so predominates the human race. Having read this article I kind of wonder if that style is just completely inappropriate for anyone over the age of about 14.

    I’m glad for the heads up about the American Apparel sizing in the wikia link. The workshop I’ll be at in the near future has a sponsor providing free t-shirts – we just have to select the size we want. I will now find out what T-shirt provider they’re using but I suspect it is American Apparel and I’ll be left with the blokes version again.

    Highly apposite post for me at this moment.

  6. SA

    Can I recommend Bella shirts be added to the list of recommended suppliers? Their slim-cut shirts are both stretchier and longer in the torso than many other “baby doll” shirts (ugh) so they accommodate breasts much better (as a size 18 40D anyway) and they don’t ride up and expose your stomach when you’d rather not have them do so.

    This is great, thank you – I’ve been complaining to geek-oriented places like TopatoCo about how printing on American Apparel excludes a lot of geeky women from buying their products. Sadly one of their staff sent me a REALLY snarky email saying “well the women in the office like them” and basically telling me it was too bad. I wrote to a couple of individual content creators who were much more polite in their replies but didn’t seem open to considering other shirts. I’m going to send them the Wiki page.

    (Shirt.Woot is utterly unresponsive in this arena. Think Geek’s shirts generally fit except for random ones printed on some other shirt stock for no reason I can discern, which have the choking/bagging problem only they’re shorter than “standard” tees??? And of course their women scientist shirts are mysteriously printed on pastels. Pirate Mod always fit me well though I haven’t ordered from them in a while. )

    1. Skud Post author

      The wiki is generally editable. If Bella shirts fit, please feel free to go ahead and add a link.

  7. Lex HT

    Thanks for writing this. If I were in a position to make descisions about this, I would just have had straight cut t-shirts. When I was a female presenting person, I hated women’s cut tshirts. (Once somone assumed that I wanted the “men’s” shirt to sleep when I wanted to wear it and chose it because of the colour!)

    But, I’m not actually female! Which explains my issues there. I just hadn’t quite put two and two together re: shapes of shirts for others. I absolutely agree that one of the top priorities for shirts should be comfort and total wearabilty (including happiness/confidence of person wearing it).

  8. JaneO

    Ahhh – yes indeed. We had a launch event a couple of years ago for a new department and we had to have t-shirts. I remember having to request a large and hoping against hope that it would fit me. It looked horrible. I had forgotten just how humiliating that experience was and will now remember to either veto the t-shirt idea if I ever come across it again. Urgh.

  9. Charlotte

    OMG, me too, me too, me too.

    I once worked in a place where they did bowling style shirts so that us women techs would be able to fit in – that was very cool (and the direct result of a clueful manager). Everyone loved them.

    Every single time – I usually end up giving them to my brother, who thinks the Internet is made of Facebook. How fair is that?

  10. Ian Osmond

    Interesting . . . as a guy, I would never have thought of those issues. And I noticed my brain starting to come up with Reasons You Are Wrong And I Am Right About T-Shirts (“but lots of women like t-shirts! And it’s too much trouble to do it any other way! And it’s always been done this way! And . . . “)

    Then I noticed what my brain was saying, and I told it to shut up.

    So, thank you. This is something that never even occurred to me

  11. Catherine

    I know this will be a dumb question to many of you, but why is a conference giving out T-shirts in the first place? My field is library science, so the closest I’ve ever gotten (so far) to a tech conference are the techier sessions at library conferences. So, I’m gathering that the T-shirts are a big thing, but I have to say it sounds bizarre to me that a conference would give out clothing or that anyone would actually want to wear it anyway. (Maybe it happens at some library conferences, just not ones I’ve been to?)

    I understand the problem–there are T-shirts, and not everyone who wants to wear them can, and some people are required to wear them–but would it just be easier to not have T-shirts? It seems–and I am really coming at this from an outsider viewpoint here–it seems condescending to me that people have to be given shirts to look like part of the group. Like they couldn’t dress themselves appropriately unless they were given something to wear. I can tell I’m missing something here, and I’d really appreciate being filled in a little more about what the shirts are all about (and why it’s important to keep having them).

    1. Skud Post author

      I don’t know, somehow tech conferences just decided, somewhere along the line, that giving out free t-shirts with registration was a thing that happened. Same with dot-com companies: very normal for them to hand out shirts to staff, customers, anyone who doesn’t run away fast enough. I suspect it’s a combination of a) the casual workplace environment of most tech companies, b) the predominantly male staff (who mostly choose to wear t-shirts as casual wear, and are easily catered for wrt sizing), and c) the cheapness of t-shirts as advertising.

      The only reason it’s important to keep having them is that people expect them, now. If you try and do a tech-related thing and don’t have t-shirts, people will ask you for them.

  12. L

    Oh my goodness. It is one of the joys of the online feminism communities that I can read an article like this and have that wonderful feeling of “it’s not just me!”

    Two conference-shirt stories:

    -I was a student volunteer at a conference about embedding computation in clothing. The conference shirts were these atrocities and yes, volunteers had to wear them. If you’ve never encountered one of those shirts in person, let me just say: 1) the base shirts are cheaply made and ill-fitting. I suspect even on an average-size male person they would fit poorly, with a too-tight neck, wide shoulders and short length. 2) The part that lights up is rigid. It’s about as flexible as cereal box cardboard, and it’s sewn to the chest. 3) Did I mention that it lights up? I’m still cringing thinking about it, and this was three years ago.

    -Later at the same conference, one of the sponsors is giving out shirts. He asks me my size, and I say small, since in men’s shirts (these were polo shirts) that is usually true. He looks at me dubiously, does an extremely protracted up-and-down, lingering on my breasts and gesturing to them, and says “Oh no honey, you’re definitely a medium. A very lovely medium. A very, very lovely medium.” This guy’s company is local to me, and a mutual friend has encouraged me many times to apply to work there.

  13. Yael Tiferet

    Babydoll shirts are the only ones that look really good on me (though I require a size XL or XXL in them) so I would hate to see them go away completely–but they shouldn’t be the only option other than men’s shirts!

  14. Donna Benjamin

    Skud – I’m really sorry this is all happening again. I really am. Actually, I’m kinda devastated this is happening, because I’m partly responsible.

    So, I’d like to clarify some of the facts in this case.

    It is incorrect to accuse the team of only approaching one supplier.

    Many suppliers were consulted, many samples were tested, and whilst women’s shirts were available, they could not provide larger sizes for women – the largest available was a very tight fitting 16. Knowing this would be inadequate, I understand they made a decision to accept the offered “Unisex” style instead, because they were running out of time to place the order. As I understand it, the team is still looking into the feasibility of having an additional run of custom sizes made.

    As a short fat woman – I often choose a men’s larger t-shirt because the largest women’s size t-shirt available is too small and the sleeves are usually too short for my liking.

    As a conference organiser I know precisely how difficult it is to source quality t-shirts for western geek women. It means making a lot of comprises, including paying extra for every t-shirts (because you don’t want to make the mistake of having the large women’s t-shirts look totally different to everyone’s t-shirts) and limiting the printing technology available as well as the choice of fabrics, styles and colours.

    This is actually a hard problem.

    And just as happened last year with the haecksen t-shirts – this is upsetting a couple of hard working geek feminist volunteers expending time and energy trying very hard to do the right thing.

    Skud – I get it. I really do. I think you know I get it, having sent you a t-shirt for OSDC last year, because I reckoned I’d nailed the t-shirt challenge.

    As a past organiser of this particular event I also advised the team on a great supplier. I know they approached other suppliers. I know they were disappointed because they were assured that women’s sizes would be available, but found the size range, in the end, inadequate.

    I accept this is no excuse – but I hope you’ll at least accept this as an explanation, and for my part in it, an apology. I believe the team will be making their own blog post on the matter, so be clear I’m not speaking for them. I’m speaking for me, as a ghost of conferences past, and as a geekfeminist.

    1. Skud Post author

      Hi Donna,

      My apologies regarding “one supplier” — this was based on a series of tweets where, after various pointers to companies that have women’s shirts listed on their websites, one of the organisers said After 3 attempts, [company we're using] were unable to provide realistic women’s sizes :( I interpreted this as saying that the choice of company was fixed to that particular one, but acknowledge that I was operating on incomplete information. I am glad that the team sought out multiple vendors, and very saddened to hear that the vendors couldn’t supply fitted styles in a wide range of sizes.

      And yeah, you totally nailed the t-shirt challenge last year with the OSDC shirt. I wear it pretty much weekly, and it’s the only tech conference or company t-shirt I own any more. I gave away even my beloved Metaweb “robot” shirt before coming back to Australia because of its unwearability, sigh. The OSDC one fits perfectly, is a great colour, and the printed design is simple and attractive. Total win there :)

      Regarding sizing: I know that larger sizes are much harder to find, and for this I blame the fashion industry far more than the conference organisers. I’m delighted when I find a company or event that’s gone that extra mile, but I do recognise that it’s an extra mile (hence the t-shirt challenge). But having said that, in my opinion at least, providing *some* fitted t-shirts, even if in a limited size range, is better than providing none.

      I hope things work out OK before the conference. I would very much like to be able to wear the tshirt along with other attendees.

  15. Irfon-Kim Ahmad

    There are obviously dimensions of this that don’t apply to me as a man, but I wanted to commisserate with at least some parts as a fat man. I can’t count the number of times I’ve volunteered for things only to, usually at the last moment, be informed that there will be a shirt provided that doesn’t come anywhere even vaguely near my size. Oh, and by the way, the corporate volunteer team is going to get our photo taken wearing the shirts, so you need to wear it. When I point out that I will not physically fit, I’m often told, oh, no, I’m sure they’ll come in your size, even when they patently won’t, or that I can just put it on for the photo, even though I’ve just explained that IT WILL PHYSICALLY NOT GO ON MY BODY, or maybe for the photo I can just wear a different t-shirt of the same colour, because being the only one not wearing the shirt in the photo isn’t awkward, and because I have shirts in every conceivable colour in my wardrobe and was planning on bringing every single one to a cycling marathon / charity walk / trash-out event / whatever just in case. (Although it doesn’t relate as directly to the conference / volunteering milieu, I’d like to add that my favourite example of this was when I won a haiku contest once, was then informed that the poster that was put up as a prize wasn’t going to be available and so I could have a t-shirt instead, and then was informed that the t-shirts didn’t come in my size so I could just have… nothing instead.)

    I’ve taken to just refusing to wear shirts no matter what the organizer says (although I often just skip the group photo as a result), gritting my teeth, and giving away the shirt for free to the guy at work who always takes free t-shirts and seems totally overjoyed every time. But it’s still irritating as heck.

  16. Ravan Asteris

    I have a somewhat different problem: “womens” t-shirts which are offered to me never fit me. They aren’t big enough for my boobs, long enough in the arms or torso, or, if they are close, have a neckline halfway to my belly button and are almost always in some dorky pastel that looks like crap. A “ladies” XL t-shirt is a size *18*, maybe. That’s the biggest they come. I wear a size 24 – at 5′ 8″ and a 44 F bra size. Any “womens” shirt in a size 24 (from the big women’s shops) has been poorly “sized up” from a size 2, so the neckline is wrong, and half the time the thing tries to slide off my shoulders the neck is so wide (the shoulders only have enough fabric for a size 2). I’d rather wear a loose men’s shirt than some dinky pastel garbage that is too tight in the arms (they assume women don’t have muscles), too short in the torso (because women are all legs, right?), and dips so low that my bra shows (because everyone loves cleavage, right?).

    Oh, and stuff in women’s sizes is twice as expensive and half the quality. I’ve had jeans bought in the women’s department fall apart after three washings, and jeans I bought in the men’s department the same day last for 5 years.

    Sorry, the whole “ladies” t-shirt as a baby-doll style just makes me see red. I didn’t wear that kind of thing when I was a kid, why I do so at 50?

    1. Annalee

      A “ladies” XL t-shirt is a size *18*, maybe.

      Most of my tee shirts (at least the ones that fit) are Ladies XL. I wear an American size 12, Irish/UK size 16. Which just illustrates the point: the average (I’m assuming median) size in US women is 14. Tee shirt companies that only offer sizes up to Women’s XL are stopping at 12, thereby serving less than half the (US) market.

      Sorry, the whole “ladies” t-shirt as a baby-doll style just makes me see red. I didn’t wear that kind of thing when I was a kid, why I do so at 50?

      I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that every woman should have to choose a fitted tee–the wiki page on shirts specifically warns against assuming that all women attenders will want one–but for those of us for whom they’re the only flattering style of tee, it would be nice to have the option.

  17. Morag Eyrie

    Interesting discussion from an older geek feminist’s point of view! Because I (at age 45) feel incredibly irritated when I see women’s t-shirts as an option; in my hip young feminist heyday (my 20s and early 30s I guess) men and women all wore the same kind of t-shirt. Big, square things. Nice and unisex, not all figure-hugging.

    Then gradually women’s styling came into vogue in everything (including dress shirts for work etc) where you are assumed to want something that follows an hour-glass figure shape. To me it’s just part of the wider hyper-feminising backlash. I gradually gave in but only because conforming to some extent is necessary to slide by in the working world. At my regular tech conference, I get a nice big men’s size (to accommodate my ample, increasingly matronly figure) and I take it home to put in my tshirts-as-PJs drawer. And I try to get one for my girlfriend if I can, because she still wears t-shirts outside the house, with jeans, and can’t bear wearing feminine clothes.

    I guess it just spins my head that women are annoyed these days at not having the option to wear the feminised version of something.

  18. daani

    Thank you for putting it so well. For years I honestly thought that it was me who just didn’t fit.

  19. Leigha

    I don’t know. I personally wish I could just buy unisex T-shirts for all my clothes and not bother with fitted shirts (and to be honest, I’m probably pretty close to the intended shape for those). But most stores don’t sell them. Unless I buy all my clothes online from select, themed retailers (like Think Geek), I can’t buy unisex shirts, just babydoll ones. So I get really excited when an event or organization allows me to get a nice, comfortable shirt. If they started trying to force me to get girl’s shirts too, I would be VERY disappointed.

  20. Lisbeth

    As a slim, small-chested woman I don’t have the choking issue, but most free shirts do look like tents on me. That said, my favorite t-shirt is actually a unisex one by Alternative Apparel (I think it’s this). It’s very soft, drapes flatteringly (acknowledging I have some curves, whereas most t-shirts make me look prepubescent) but is not skin tight, and is long enough to cover most of my ass (unlike tiny babydolls that barely touch the waistband of my jeans). Of course I can’t presume to speak for all female body types, but I am a big fan.

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