Friday, August 20, 2010

A bit on running and body image: an unpleasant topic

Me at the California International Marathon in 2008 doing what I love best: running and kicking ass (in a skirt)! :)

I know, I know: I don't usually stray too far from my two chosen topics: training for the trials and writing, but you know, there's a conversation-- or a snippet of one-- stuck in my head that I just can't get rid of. Do you ever have those-- you know-- things people say to you or around you that just get caught in your head and swirl round and round in there like a sock in a dryer? Well, it just so happens I've had this thought chasing me for days and no matter how many miles (and double days) I do, it just sits there, stuck. Even now, it leers at me, as if to say: "Go ahead. Blog about me, biatch."

And it's not even a topic I particularly like or that is unique enough to write another blog about. But it's clogging my cognitive, creative genius so I have to get it out of me. Apologies, readers, if this post really sucks the big one.

So the other morning, I was strolling across Saint Mary's campus as the fog rolled over the hills to the West. To my right was Marty, the head coach of the XC team there (and therefore, my boss.) On my left, the Athletic Director writ large, who'd met with us to discuss the possibility of starting a track and field program at the University. We were walking back to our offices after the meeting and out of the blue, Athletic Director turns to us and says: "I want you both to watch for eating disorders with our female athletes. It's been a problem in the past. I don't know why, but it has." And then the subject changed. But, me being female and body-conscious like most of us, the comment lingered. Why are we-- especially female runners-- more prone to ruining the sport of distance running (or our experience of it anyway) for the sake of an unattainable (and let's face it, ridiculous "ideal") physique?

I admit: I'm guilty (to a degree) of this. As of late, I flinch every time I have to meet a new face in the running community. I know I'll meet someone who is tall and lean. They, on the other hand, will meet me who is neither tall nor lean despite my current 70-mile per week regimen. My coach put it best when he graciously described me as having a "gymnast's physique." At a mean 5'2, I fit comfortably not only in Southwest Airline seats, but perhaps the storage compartments above the seats as well. But joking aside, I still feel that "pang" of dread when I'm about to meet another runner. I wonder: will they think I don't look like a runner because I'm not thin? Are all runners thin?

I know the answer to that last question: heck no! For anyone who's attended a marathon recently, "runners" these days come in all shapes and sizes. So, what's the big deal?

[And now I"m tap, tap, tapping my keyboard because, you know, I don't know.]

[While I'm thinking, I'll share a digression with you that might be related (but probably isn't.) I heard on the radio while driving to Moraga that a new study shows 80% of women would rather be thin than have good sex. If this has any connection to this topic I've chosen, perhaps I will never understand the vast majority of my gender.]

I suppose it boils down to how much emphasis of a sport is placed on its aesthetic rather than its successes. What I mean is this: has marketing of running trumped running itself? Is winning not enough-- do you have to look the part? Granted, one must train for these sorts of events and the training in part sculpts a certain body type (again, to a degree.) The more fit you are, the more "fit" you look. And yet, there has to be a certain point when an athlete trains regardless of outward appearance, but rather, because they want to win.

I mean, that's why I train. I want to be faster-- and optimally, win as much as possible (and of course, qualify for the trials.) Logically, I know I'll never win a major marathon, but that doesn't mean I can't train my brains out as though I were attempting to, right? And it's not a bad thing to train hard and look the way you do. I hate to say it, but I'm proud of my accomplishments so far. They might not mean much in the large arena of distance running, but they've changed my life. Before I started running, I was depressed and occasionally smoked Lucky Strikes while downing hard liquor with other equally depressed writing friends. Now I wake up every morning and run and look forward to it. I have no idea if I've lost weight, since I don't--and haven't-- weighed myself.  But most importantly, now I  like the person I am and the skin I'm in, even if I have the awkward moment now and then when I'm like "eh-- do I look like a runner?" Which, lately, lasts all of two seconds.  If me and these other runners-- whomever they may be-- go for a run together, they'll see: I'm a runner regardless of the wrapping paper I'm tucked away in.

So, I'm not sure to what conclusion I've come on this topic. I suppose I want to say I'm really sad for athletes who succumb to an eating disorder (or just general body-malaise) because, really, there is so much joy to be found in what we do. There's those sunrises most people miss, or the way you get to be in tune with your body-- its rhythms and cadences that are lost in the humming dim of office machinery. Or, the way you just feel so fit (more fit than you'll be doing anything else) and the way you can run and run and run (for 20 + miles) that most people can't even fathom doing. The vistas you see. The mountains you climb. And then there's the joy -- for me anyway-- of the look on peoples' faces when I DO win. They're like: "But she doesn't even look like a runner."

And then I get to say: "Oh, but I am. I am a runner."


Anonymous said...

Hah! You pretty much just wrote the post I was going to write soon. Something to consider is that our apprehension about our appearance may not be so much related to a poor sense of body image, but rather our desire to be the best runners we want to be. I, as a male, who has never really gotten that hung up on how I look find myself constantly comparing my physique to other runners in my group. Almost to the point that I worry as to what extent I'm trying to look like them. I don't eat as much as I normally do during the day trying to keep my belly bump down and get frustrated when my abs don't show like theirs. It's really ridiculous, because what I've come to find (as you did) is that physique is only so much. We are all different body types and body type doesn't play into our overall running fitness that much. Regardless of my lack of washboard abs or even my belly that may stick out a touch.....I still run faster than some of those guys, and MOST, if not all, of hte runners at the races I do, even if they look completley lean and ripped. It's not that image of athleticism that matters....which is why being a runner is so awesome. We don't have to look hte part and can still go out there and kick everyone's ass. We're like clark kent, transforming into a super hero when the gun goes off, despite our milktoast suit and goofy black glasses. Don't worry about appearance...worry about your place in the race..which sounds like you don't have a lot to worry about! :)

R said...

It's interesting you've been thinking about this issue, too. I don't want to sound uninformed or even narrow-minded, but I've never been sure that men have similar issues with body image that women do.

I wrote this with quite a bit of bravado-- a necessary touch, I thought, to get my point across. Of course there are many races and training runs when I fall behind someone who "looks" athletic and I immediately fall back into that "if only I were thinner" mindset. And yet, I had a lot of serious issues with body image as a young person and so I refuse to return to that territory again.

And so, (being the closet stoic I am) I try to remember there are only so many things I can control: training, my diet, the hours I sleep at night, etc. I can't control my height; nor can I control the way my body "looks." I mean-- to me, I'll probably always look a bit chunky, even if I'm not. That's something beyond my control. But, if I want to compete, I have to be healthy and if healthy means looking "heavy", then by all means, I'll look that way.

When I was injured, all I could think about was training. Now that I'm back, it seems silly to dwell on what my body looks like when I'm doing what I love. I love to run: I love feeling strong and lean, no matter what the mirror tells me.

And I do love winning, though I don't win very often. Yet, that desire keeps me going. I think that's enough; I'd rather focus on my probable success rather than my pre-conditioned failure.

I look forward to your post on this topic, however. :)

Chrissy (The New Me) said...

I go through waves of loving my body and despising it, and I wish I could stick with the loving. Since I took up running two years ago (and mind you, I've only done one marathon and am most comfortable at a 9 minute per mile pace!) I've looked at food more as fuel and less as something I should or shouldn't eat to get an unattainably ideal body. Basically, if I want to run and improve my times and distances, I need to eat well.

I don't think anyone ever feels perfectly comfortable in their own skin, but running has made me feel better. I hope that makes sense!

Calabj said...

Great post, Rebecca. I think body image is a compartment of self-image--you know, negative self-image focused on a tangible target. When people "can't write" or "can't learn a subject" they find ways to punish themselves. Not giving up, as you declare, seems like the best way to attack the problem. Humor and cats help too.