Running and body image

Feet in running shoes standing on the grass

I started running at the end of May because I wanted to improve my overall health. Back then, I couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time without getting winded. Last week, I completed my first unofficial 5k run in about 45 minutes. I still have to take some walk breaks on those “long” runs, but the point is that I did something I couldn’t have conceived of doing six months ago.

Running hasn’t been without its challenges. Between asthma, chronic migraine, and a bout of painful runner’s knee in June, it’s something of a miracle I’ve been able to keep running–and more of a miracle that I actually, really, and truly, enjoy it. I crave it.

There’s no doubt that running is tough. My gym-class-averse English lit nerd self always shied away from cardio, but there’s beauty in the rhythm of the breath, the strike of each foot on the ground. And the endorphin rush that hits after I finish a run is enough to get me through the day without wanting to stab anyone, which is another miracle in and of itself.

Which brings me back to the original reason I started. I never had too much trouble maintaining a healthy weight, and I never really cared if I had a little bit of tummy fat or how thick my thighs were (and they were thick, even at my skinniest). I practiced karate until I went off to college, and earned a second-degree black belt, so I also felt confident in my ability to kick butt and take names.

Then, in 2014, I started taking Prozac for chronic migraine. I gained nearly 50 pounds. People began asking me if I were pregnant, or when I was due. I had to buy pants in a larger size, and then an even larger size. My previously rock-solid self-confidence about my body evaporated. I still had confidence in my brain and my skills, but for the first time, I felt disgust over my own body.*

I never really fit the image of what the media portrays as the “ideal” woman. I am on the tall side and have always been curvy, especially in my lower half. My hips are wide and there’s no way in hell my skeleton can fit into any pant size smaller than an 8 or 9. I have those aforementioned large thighs and a big-ish butt with small-ish breasts. A super skinny size zero model I am not, and will never be.

But I let the lie that I should be that super skinny size zero model get to me. I bought into it, at least for awhile. I attempted to lose weight a number of times, but always failed, and always blamed myself. And sure, my eating habits were partly to blame, but it wasn’t a moral failing. I let the allure of easy, cheap processed food (especially pastries) get inside my head and let my eating habits backslide because I didn’t think I was worth it anymore, or because my head hurt so damn much I needed some sort of physical comfort, and food was easy. I was going to be chubby anyway, so why bother?

Then I started running. I’ve lost at least one pants size and a good 15-20 pounds since the beginning of 2018. And that’s great. But it’s almost beside the point. As the summer months went by, and I kept running, and running, and running, I felt a sense of amazement at what my body could accomplish, even with all those extra pounds. I felt physically powerful and empowered. I saw the harmful things I’d been telling myself about my body for what they were–lies based on an unachievable ideal that just made me feel crappy and didn’t help me achieve my goals.

My goal is not to be skinny, or attractive, or to live up to someone else’s idea of who or what I should be. My goal is and has always been to be the best damn writer I can be, and to achieve it, I need to be healthy. Not skinny, not pretty, not… whatever. I need actual health. I need to be able to hold down a job so I can pay my bills. I need to have enough energy that I can actually wake up early to write every morning. I need to manage my chronic migraine so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.

Running has become a non-negotiable part of my wellness routine. It’s reminded me that my body is an amazing conglomeration of bone and blood and flesh that deserves to be cherished, not vilified. It’s reminded me that I absolutely can achieve my (realistic) goals when I apply myself. (I don’t mean goals like publication or getting a particular job that rely on other people’s decisions, I just mean goals that are in my control, like finishing a novel or sending a specific number of job applications.)

Ideally, I’d like to lose a bit more fat and put on more muscle, but I can honestly say at this point it’s not because I want to look better. I want to feel better. I want that post-run rush that fills me up for the rest of the day. And, yes, I want to run faster. But even if I knew I’d never lose another pound of fat, I’d keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s a huge difference–deriving self-esteem from what you look like versus what you can accomplish. Looks are transient. Talent much less so. My hope is that eventually, every girl will grow up in a world that values her smarts, her talents, her ideas, and her skills, not whether or not she measures up to the current unrealistic beauty standard.

These messages from the media about what women should look like–and that we should feel terrible about ourselves if we don’t live up to those standards–are so pervasive and so insidious that they affect all of us, men included. For awhile, I let myself get lost in them. Running helped me find my way out. It may not be your thing, and that’s okay, but I hope that you–wherever you are on the planet, wherever you are in your journey–will find the thing that leads you out of that mess, one step at a time.


*I feel compelled to point out that the minor embarrassment I’ve faced from being “overweight” is diddly squat next to the discrimination many fat people face on a regular basis. This is a complex issue, and I’m not the best person to delve into it. Here’s a conversation between Lindy West and Roxane Gay for starters, but I highly recommend the books Shrill by Lindy West and The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker.

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