Body image, running, & me
A long distance runner: long, lithesome, gazelle-like, the pinnacle of physical aesthetic fitness… Right?
WRONG. So very wrong.
Body image issues in the running community, especially those surrounding young women like myself, are something I feel very strongly about. While I am sure this will not be my only post on the topic, I would like to get my opinion and passion for the topic out there. The more strong runners in all shapes and sizes the merrier!
I have had the unique opportunity to step into the running scene in college with fresh and somewhat mature eyes. I was plopped right down smack in the middle of the CF (cluster f***) that is college running and body image issues. I was suddenly immersed in a new culture filled with antiquated stereotypes surrounding what it meant to “look like a runner”.
College is this unique kitchen sink of body image problems in the running world and non-running world alike. In the non-running world, you have the media and society portraying college-aged women as overtly sexual. One quick scroll through any college kid’s Instagram explore feed and I can prove this to you. Then in the running world, you have an over-abundance of ultra-lean runners setting the example of physique. Not to mention the plethora of fitness models promoting fitness regimes with the sole purpose of achieving an aesthetic look. See how this might get kind of confusing?
I would be really doing you and myself a disservice if I told you that I have never struggled with body image issues. I totally do! It is okay to not feel completely confident about the way you look, every second of every day. That’s just part of being human. It is no great unknown that I am a very small person. Topping out at a staggering 5’3″ and a very petite frame, I have always been one of the smallest people in the room at any given moment. Even not having started running until college, I had many people telling me I “looked like a runner” in high school. People are constantly commenting on my size. With long-ish limbs, and my petite frame some might say I fit the “runner mold” pretty good. But if you think this makes me immune to body image issues, you are sorely mistaken. I struggled with disordered eating issues my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and while my problems were unrelated to achieving any sort of athletic performance or success, I can empathize with those suffering from similar unhealthy habits.
These personal experiences made my leap into the running world a little terrifying. I was suddenly confronted with the idea of “smaller is better” all over again. All around me, teammates and competitors were sacrificing their long term health just for some short-lived success in running. The scariest and most emaciated people I have ever seen in my life I saw on the starting line next to me. I saw some competitors achieve short-term success as a result of losing a lot of weight, only to never hear their names again because they were eternally out for injuries. It got me wondering, what had I gotten myself into?
It is true, I too have been tempted at times to go down this unhealthy rabbit hole in the name of success, but I’ve always found a way to refrain. While I am not perfect, and still have not completely nailed down my nutrition, but 3 years ago when I began my running journey I committed to treating myself right. I committed to not letting my history repeat itself, and to doing things the right way.
If I am able to be a successful runner, it is because I fueled my body properly and didn’t take any unnecessary shortcuts. It is because I respected the process.
I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of those that came before me, nor do I wish to give new life to the malicious thoughts that I silenced in high school. After 3.5 years of respecting the process, I have reached a level in my running career that I am proud of. I have earned 3 All-American honors and gotten to race against some of the best women in the country. But it took 3.5 years of patience, hard work, dedication, and a commitment to doing things the right way.
It took 3 years of being a nobody to become an almost somebody.
A few months ago I posted a side-by-side comparison photo of me from my first year of running to now. What I saw in myself when I posted this was all of the hard work I put in finally paying off, I saw my newfound strength. Here was a photo of me in some random race I don’t even remember, to me getting 2nd place at the Wisconsin Invite, runner-up to the eventual NCAA National Champion (congrats Ednah!). Here was me, conquering the crazy make-me-puke nerves that I had before this race started. Photo evidence of me conquering my fears and doubts. But what other people seemed to want to know was how did I lose so much weight? How can they lose weight? Some thought I looked “sexier” or “hotter” before, some preferred the after picture. Some went so far as to suggest that my bone structure changed, or that it wasn’t even the same person in both photos. This deeply saddened me, as I felt as though a lot of people missed the point I was trying to make, and I felt as though posting this photo may have been a mistake.
What the picture doesn’t show is the sacrifice, struggle, and hard work that happened between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ shot. This picture does not tell you that I was previously a soccer player, and that after 3 years of running I developed more endurance muscles as opposed to explosive ones. It does not tell you that this transformation didn’t happen overnight, and that it took 3 years of a slow but healthy evolution. It doesn’t tell you how much more I can lift in the weight room now as opposed to then (I am up to 12 chin-ups in a row now!). It does not tell you that I was only a teenager in the first photo, but have matured to a young woman in the after photo.
It has been a mighty slow evolution to get to where I am today, and I am still a work in progress. With this photo, I do not want anyone out there to think that I am trying to promote a certain body type as a means of successful running. I think anyone can be a successful runner no matter what body type they have, and please do not compare yourself to me, or your teammates, or friends, or professional runners, or anyone for that matter.
If we want to be successful runners the only thing we should be concerned about having in common is a relentless work ethic, a commitment to long term health, and a passion for the sport.
If you find yourself struggling with the temptations to give into unhealthy habits in the name of success please reach out. I am more than willing to give advice to anyone who thinks they are struggling, or anyone who needs to be talked off the ledge of temptation. Let me and others be an example that you can still achieve great things without going to extreme measures to do so. Your happiness and overall health is more important than a few extra seconds off of your PR, I can promise you that much.
-xoxo, Grayson <3