Yesterday, one of my friends and coaching peers mentioned the assumption that female athletes are driven by body image, not competition or love of the sport. Perhaps you have encountered this as well, with statements such as “why do you need to run so much if you are already thin” or an external focus on how you look like a runner versus what you achieve as a runner.
Oftentimes, this assumption comes from our non-runner friends, not by a fault of their own but by the overarching societal assumptions that (a) all women care about is their appearance and (b) you only exercise to manage weight. Regardless, the assumption exists and permeates the collective ethos of women’s running.
Even within the running community, we fall prey to these assumptions. You read articles on how to get Lauren Fleshman’s abs, but not Galen Rupp’s. We struggle to toe the fine line between praising what the bodies of female athletes can achieve and praising (or deriding) them for how they look.
This topic certainly affects men, but women overall seem to grapple more with body image, at least in my experience as a female coach to dozens of female runners. Perhaps it is because women’s bodies endure the changes that can come with pregnancy and childbirth, or because we require a higher body fat percentage than our male counterparts.
In working with mostly female athletes, I often hear the phrase “I don’t look like a runner” or “I don’t have a runner’s body,” uttered as almost an apology. Body image issues do abound in the women’s running community, especially as we are bombarded by images of six-pack abs at track workouts on Instagram. The medium of Instagram shifts the focus from the hard work and progress to what we see in the image. The comparison trap can emerge and we can begin to pick apart the images of ourselves: my quads look huge in this photo or wow, why do my race photos never look perfect?
Yet most of us women who run do not run to be skinny. By skinny, I don’t mean lean and strong. Skinny, by definition, means waiflike, scrawny, bony, gaunt, or even underfed, lacking both muscle definition and body fat.
Maybe running started out as weight management, but aesthetics are not the primary motivator for 13+ mile long runs and grueling speed workouts. We don’t sign up for races to receive picture perfect photos; we sign up to push our physical and mental limits. Ask any marathoner, and they will tell you a dozen reasons other than weight for why they train to run 26.2 miles. We train to compete better, whether against others or against our past selves. We train for the thrill, the accomplishment, even the self-selected suffering.
If anything, running can actually pack on weight in the form of lean muscle, the opposite of skinny. As Angela phrased it recently in a fantastic piece, we embrace our membership in the quad squad because of what muscular quads permit us to achieve. I know I weigh more now than I did when I started running due to muscle; I’m also running faster and am happier with my body.
If anything, obsessing over weight and body image can hold back athletes. The most extreme example of this is disordered eating and relative energy deficiency in sport (aka female athlete triad). On the less extreme side, there’s the risk of underfueling and compromising performance for fear of weight gain, or the low self-confidence on race day because we don’t “look like a runner.”
Running teaches us – and demands of us – that we fuel our bodies for energy, recovery, and performance, rather than restricting calories for a thigh gap or whatever other aesthetic currently defines female beauty. Running teaches us that we can strive to be more than skinny; we can strive to be strong, resilient, fast, hard-working, and supportive.
Sadly, there isn’t an easy solution to the issue of body image and societal expectations for female athletes. Even if you have a healthy body image, the societal assumptions and well-meaning comments from friends can often shift our focus away from the big picture – how strong our bodies are – and in on the minutia, such as the inevitable cellulite that every woman has or stretch marks from the miracle of pregnancy. We have to work continually to focus on what our bodies can do, not how they look.
Body image and expectations are a constant battle, but thankfully, running equips us with the tools to fight it.
Do you feel like you should look a certain way as a runner?
Do you find that people assume you run for different reasons than you really do?
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