Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Running and Body Image

I recently read a blog post by Zoe Romano that talked about the pressures and realities of body image. She was responding in part to an earlier article written by Lauren Fleshman, who received some interesting feedback following a runway shoot in November for some running apparel. Zoe remarked on the myriad of weight-related comments she received after her epic run along the Tour de France route. I found it interesting that after such an amazing journey, one of the first questions on everyone’s mind was “how much weight did you lose?” Even among athletes, a double standard exists when it comes to body image, and these posts do a very nice job of bringing that to light. Additionally, these thoughts come on the heels of Lindsey Vonn’s “skinny-fat” comments concerning other women she encountered at an awards ceremony.

It’s no coincidence that a majority of these stories involve women. Young girls are socialized from a very early age to look at certain way, and that indoctrination continues throughout adolescence and into adulthood. The pressures are extreme, and often lead to various eating disorders. I am guessing that each of us has been touched in some way by the effects of these situations, and our culture continues to perpetuate this “beauty myth”.

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
― Naomi WolfThe Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women

For many female athletes, the pressure seems to become problematic in new ways. Until Title IX, young girls and women did not have nearly the access to athletics at the high school and collegiate level. However, that has obviously changed, although I would argue not nearly to the point where it needs to be. The athlete body can be problematic to the unrealistic beauty ideals in our society, however. Eating healthy and exercising inevitably adds muscle mass, which detracts from an idealized image of women that has become increasingly thinner and thinner. Dieting has become more and more popular, and young girls are internalizing these messages at younger and younger ages. In many ways, I worry that the more young girls internalize these messages about beauty, the less likely they are to be active and involved in physical activities, on top of the disordered eating patterns that we know are emerging at younger and younger ages.

Photo Credit: Howard Schatz (http://www.howardschatz.com/)
Photo Credit: Howard Schatz (http://www.howardschatz.com/)
Photo Credit: Howard Schatz (http://www.howardschatz.com/)
Photo Credit: Howard Schatz (http://www.howardschatz.com/)

(The photos above, revisited last year by Huff Post Women, provide a perfect example of the diversity of the human body and what it means to be an “athlete”. I take issue with the objectification present, however unintentional, but the message is one of strength.)

Additionally, although it is far less frequently talked about, these messages do impact men as well. I mentioned the double standard before, and it is most certainly alive and well. Men receive far less critique for their bodies, and as a result are perhaps more likely to begin running, among various activities. However, messages about body image have been shown to have an impact on male athletes as well. In addition, the “runner body” that we see among elite marathoners, especially, falls outside the stereotypical norm for men. The muscular male body is objectified alongside the female body, albeit in different ways that still thrust power into the hands of men over women.

The human body is an incredible machine, and it comes in all sizes, shapes, and weights. There should be room in our culture for all of them to do their work and showcase their talent. The media presents a very one-sided image of “beauty”. Although we may logically know that the human body doesn’t need to live up to that image, how often to we speak that truth? A lot has been made of the obesity epidemic in this country, and I agree that it is incredibly important to address. I love seeing program after program emerge that gets young people active and eating healthy. However, we can’t tackle obesity problems unless we also recognize that our misguided notions of beauty and body image are connected. Efforts, such as those by the International Olympic Committee, are a step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done.

Runners come in all shapes and sizes. Some run faster than others, and some from further than others, but everyone is moving. Distance is distance and we need to celebrate each and every one of those accomplishments. We need to remember that being healthy and achieving a level of fitness should be an added bonus for doing something that you love to do. Our bodies will fluctuate over the months and years, just as our training plans will change and our goals will change. However, the only aspect of body image we should pay attention to is the shoes on our feet. The most beautiful runner is the one crossing the finish line, whether at a race or in their neighborhood. These are the images we need to teach young people to embrace and celebrate. These are the body images we should strive towards.

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10 thoughts on “Running and Body Image

  1. I really appreciate this post A and am currently working on one myself…skinny vs. healthy. So many (especially women) focus on the body image of being skinny and not on being healthy.

  2. Thanks for writing this – definitely something I needed to see today. It took me a long time to be willing to post (or even talk about) anything regarding my running/training because I don’t “look” like a runner. I still struggle with this daily but I am learning to be my own cheerleader on this journey and be amazed with what this body can do regardless of how others may see it.

  3. Love the post. I feel the tools needed to handle body image in a constructive manner start young and start within the family. Fathers have a big responsibility to help their daughters deal with this issue (or prevent it from becoming an issue). I will show my daughters that amazing photograph of female athletes, each as beautiful (and different) as the next.

    • I would absolutely agree that the family plays a crucial role in developing that self-image very early. Your daughters are lucky to have a father who is aware and intentional about these issues!

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