The Obsessed Fortysomething Runner: Bodyshaming and runners

Lauren Fleshman 2014 NYFW Oiselle Show

Pro runner Lauren Fleshman at the 2014 NYFW Oiselle Show (photo by Hannah McGoldrick)

Pro runner Lauren Fleshman recently wrote one of her totally honest, soul-baring columns in Runner’s World, in which she described the emotional angst she felt when she read a negative comment about her appearance at the 2014 NYFW Oiselle Show (where Fleshman, Kara Goucher, and other signed runners modeled the women’s clothing line).

The comment was: “She looks like a man.”

Fleshman’s reaction:

I clicked on the comment box at the bottom and watched the cursor blink. There was so much I wanted to say. But first, did I look like a man? When did that happen? I looked at my picture through his eyes. Kara Goucher destroyed me on a 10 miler a few hours before the show, so I was a bit dehydrated. Somewhat androgynous maybe with a lean frame, muscle definition, and a sharpish jaw. But the fact is, I am a woman, and a super competitive professional athlete of 12 years, and this is what I look like. Five minutes ago I felt beautiful. I typed and erased several times before deciding to turn off my phone.

His remark stuck with me for several days, like a bruise, and eventually I realized it wasn’t about me. I began to think bigger, and think about change. At what point does physical strength become a trait reserved for men? When exactly do you cross the line? Is it the same point where courage becomes having balls? The same point where getting it done becomes manning up? Why is there no female corollary for these terms? And why do I, as a feminist, continue to use the dude ones?

Fleshman doesn’t exactly frame the issue as one about runners in particular, and no doubt women in other sports (such as bodybuilding) hear similar crass comments. However, the perception of female distance runners as masculine or not feminine has been around for at least 30 years, as evidenced by a 1977 study. Note that there is a strange paradox, though, where an elite female runner like Fleshman finds herself described as man-like, while elite male distance runners are considered scrawny. Some extremely obnoxious websites run the following photo and describe the distance runner as looking like a Holocaust survivor:

Maybe the true implication is that these bodyshamers just think distance runners look androgynous. Of course, the notion that distance runners are all skinny is just a broad stereotype; elite distance runners pretty much all look lean and thin, but amateur runners, while on average thinner than non-runners, take on a variety of shapes and sizes.

Still, that stereotype holds fast. USA Track & Field certified coach Jason Fitzgerald collects a choice bodyshaming remark frequently directed at thin runners: “Hey Skinny, looks like it’s time for some push-ups!”

The ultimate expression of this kind of bodyshaming contempt for the thin is probably strength training devotee Mark Rippetoe’s absurd assertion that:

[M]any of us believe that a grown man weighs 200 pounds. He just does.

Bigger and stronger is better than being underweight for your health, your athletic performance in the vast majority of sports, and your longevity, as well as for your appearance.

Many regard this perception as petty and superficial, believing that intellectual pursuits are the true crowning glory of humanity, and that brutish size and strength belongs in the past, with animal skins, stone tools, and sloping foreheads.

But they are wise enough not to say this in our presence.

In other words, those of who are 5’10” and very much under 200 pounds are just nerdy, 98 pound weaklings who routinely get sand kicked in our face. It’s a very intolerant perspective, something that can be distilled to “I (Mark Rippetoe) am great, so everyone should look like me.” Here’s a picture of Rippetoe if you want to decide for yourself. Personally, I’m happy that I’m able to fit into airline seats; if I were 50 pounds heavier, I’d be even more uncomfortable. But I also realize that I’m not the arbiter of everyone else, and there are people who like being bigger than I am. Who am I to tell them that they “should” weigh less?

Indeed, what’s troubling is that it’s now reasonably well accepted that bodyshaming those who are overweight is bad, but bodyshaming the thin seems okay. (Here’s an example from Slate that manages to empathize with the overweight while bodyshaming the thin.)

To go back to Lauren Fleshman’s question about why physical strength and fitness is “masculine”: I don’t think it is. I mean, I don’t look at Fleshman and think, “Wow, she is more masculine than I am,” even though, of course, per the usual stereotype about runners, I’m a skinny 5’10” dude. I do recognize that, as a runner, Fleshman is about a million steps ahead of me, with an unthinkably fast 5K PR of 14:58(!). Which makes her an awesome runner. But not man-like.

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