Body Image in Athletics

img_6222-editPeople come in all shapes and sizes. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes. It’s often an odd transition viewing yourself as an athlete, but I ask all my clients to do so. When you slightly change your perspective of yourself, you’ll view your nutrition choices, sleep, training, priorities, and life differently. I find this shift is extremely important for folks who struggle with nutrition/weight and with time-management and sleep. Instead of viewing food as “good” or “bad,” you start to think about your training, and what choices will properly aid you in pre-run fuel, post-run recovery, or general nutrition. Suddenly you won’t feel “bad” about a food choice, because your perspective of you as a human being will be different. The same is true with sleep – you’ll suddenly be aware of how it’s an important component of training – and that if you want to train harder and improve, you’ll need to get more Zzz’s.

I remember when I personally went through the shift, and how I finally felt settled and had an “identity” as far as food goes. I’ve been pretty open about my relationship with food and body image in the past, and I know I am not the only person who has struggled with it. But running and training for challenging race goals gave my body a purpose, a hunger for achievement, and I became excited and dedicated to doing what it took to morph my body for those goals. I too referred to myself as “not a real runner” for a long time – dismissing my involvement in this sport because I wasn’t professional, fast, or taking it seriously.

Over the last 5 years, my body has changed a lot. There have been years where I was curvier, years where I was rail-thin and friends voiced concerns, and years where I have been muscular with relatively low body fat. My size has swung from 6-0 and everywhere in between, and changes depending on what I am training for, how hard I am training, and honestly how I am feeling. There are some months where all I want to do is eat, and I need to pull myself up off the couch and into the gym or the park. There are other months where I feel so motivated and energized, I forget to eat and am struggling to take in enough calories. As you can imagine, this changes my body. And though I hate to admit it, it changes how I feel about myself.

What’s interesting is how I am perceived – often by strangers, casting directors, acquaintances, and friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I must always look “athletic,” because the topic usually comes up in conversation. I have had casting directors and the like ask if I am a gymnast, yogi, dancer, Pilates instructor, CrossFit activist – the list goes on. Ironically, few guess “runner.” Perhaps, to be fair, this is because runners come in all shapes and sizes. But to hear “Really? You don’t look like a runner -” it somehow feels like a stab in the gut. I usually am quick defend myself, saying I am not a sprinter (so I am not rocking large powerful muscles and very low body fat), and I am also not an elite middle or long distance runner – folks who are often associated with looking unhealthy, waif-like, and gaunt. Here’s the thing: while I am indeed a runner, I am not a professional athlete. Folks expect to see the stereotype on magazines, winning marathons or track events – not the folks who are “better than average” but also are not training full-time.

I assume if I struggle with being judged, and often have to defend my body and my choices, that other folks out there do too. Unfortunately, females are judged based on how they look before they can even open their mouths. And while I shouldn’t assume this is only a female thing, being female myself, I can only speak for the ladies.

To the folks who judge – I say go watch a race. You will see all body types cross that finish line – 5K through Marathon. You will see the elite runners you expect us all to resemble, you will also see body types doing amazing things that will honestly catch you by surprise. Don’t judge, be inspired. After all, they are the ones training and clocking miles while you sit there on your ass and point a finger.

And while some folks are probably not aware that making assumptions or judgements about a person’s body and sport can be hurtful, we should all remember to think before we speak. It’s the same with fat shaming, or assuming someone’s life is easy because they look like our idea of a “model.” You have no idea how hard someone might work for their sport, or to maintain a healthy weight. You also probably don’t know how hard that person has worked to achieve where they are today.

Being an athlete is hard. It’s a huge time commitment, which makes it a big part of your identity – whether you realize it or not. Wear that identity with pride. Train for your sport and your body will reflect your hard work, and hopefully give you the result you want. There is no perfect body or size. What’s perfect for you is what will help you achieve your goals and feel your best. If I was told gaining 10lbs. would make me faster and set crazy PRs, I’d be the first in line to pack on those additional pounds – assuming it wouldn’t hurt my health, of course. Sadly, that’s not true. Your body is your tool in this world, and we are only given one. What we do with it is our choice.

Recently when given the whole “Really? You’re a runner?!” response, I carefully explain that indeed I am – and that runners come in all shapes and sizes, and their bodies will usually be different depending on the distance and pace one runs. I figure if I cannot stop that awkward comment from arising, perhaps I can educate the person asking and they’ll think twice before assuming something about body types in the future. And for the record, I have never taken one yoga, Pilates, CrossFit or gymnastics classes – so all of those guesses are WRONG. Go figure, right? And while I used to be a dancer, it has been a few years since I have been in class. Again, proof that many snap judgements are totally off-base. I am ever going to look like Shalane Flanagan? Nope. Am I ever going to be as fast as Shalane Flanagan? Nope. And that’s OKAY!!!!!

I hope if you are struggling with your own relationship with food, body image, weight, or role in your sport that you are kind to yourself. Don’t let a stranger’s uneducated opinion sway how you feel. And if you are looking to become lighter and leaner, remember that there is no quick fix – it’s a process. You don’t owe anyone anything. But you do owe it to yourself to be happy in your skin.

Judging by the Cover

img_8430-231x348In a world where we are all constantly judged on our appearance, sport is a world where what you look like means absolutely nothing. Sure, runners are generally thin people, tennis players develop large and explosive muscles, swimmers have broad shoulders, and basketball players are tall and agile. These are generalizations, of course. While all of these sports require different ideal body types for outstanding success, not every basketball player is tall or every runner thin.

The cool thing about sport is that the person next to you can surprise you. I learned quickly to never judge the people in my race corral based on their physique, age or gender. I have watched beautifully fit looking runners struggle, and I have been passed by men with beer guts. I’ve sometimes been told that I don’t look like a runner. My response is that we all come in different shapes and sizes. No, I certainly do not have the large power muscles of a sprinter because guess what – I am not a sprinter. And no, I am not 10% body fat like elite female marathoners, but I am also not an elite marathoner.

One of the things I love about running is that when you race, it’s between you, the clock, and the runners around you. What you look like means absolutely nothing. All that matters is running hard, fast and smart. Doing your best beats out looking good. Sure, I would like to look good crossing the finish line, but if I look like hell and am beating every other female out there, then I suppose what I look like doesn’t mean a thing.

Ironically,  most sports magazines don’t even have real athletes on the cover. Why? Because they are selling the “ideal” type of what they think the reader will buy. Take a popular running magazine, for example. Most of the folks on the covers run, but they aren’t athletes. They may run 10-15 miles per week, but they are also doing a ton of working out to look like models. Most aren’t racing, or training for a marathon. However, they are what runners who buy that magazine strive to look like. I don’t know about you, but that’s just one more slap in the face of what we are “supposed” to look like versus what we do. This is true for most athletic/fitness magazines and ads. The only real athletes ever on the cover of said magazine are the elites who are Olympians. They are household names in the running community and therefore grace the cover and pages at times. Do you think those elite athletes would make the cover if they weren’t seriously accomplished and running celebrities? Not a chance. Those athletes wouldn’t book the shoot. And you know what? Every person on that cover is photo shopped. No wonder we have complexes! And yes, sometimes there IS a model who is a serious athlete who kicks butt at their sport, but that happens far too rarely.

In a world so obsessed with image and judgement, I find race culture to be simple, accepting, and refreshing. To me, racing is about going out there and doing my best. It’s not a beauty pageant. As a female, that’s liberating. I don’t care if my body type isn’t “ideal” compared to the next gal on the beach in her bikini. My body is the physique it is because of what I do with it. I am an athlete and my body is my instrument. If I wanted an “ideal” body, I probably wouldn’t run the way I do. I also wouldn’t eat the way I do. But you know what? I’m happy with what I can train my body to do, and I love that food is my fuel.

When I hear women talking about their body and self-worth, I feel so sad. I want to hug those women, and then take them out for a run. Why? Well because running is fun. And you always feel better after running. And it feels amazing to stop viewing your body as something being judged and instead to view it as this unique, individual gift that you alone were given. I want to tell those women to stop reading tabloid magazines, and to instead focus on their happiness. The minute you stop being your own worst critic and choose to not care about being judged, you’ll feel free. I don’t know about you, but when I run, I feel free and capable of anything. Yes, even with imperfections we are all capable of being strong, happy, healthy people.

I challenge you to take note of who is in your next race corral and see if you make automatic judgements about the folks around you. Then play a game and see if your first impression turns out to be accurate or not. You might be surprised. And you will probably surprise somebody around you too.