I read a blog post last week that’s been stuck in my mind ever since. The post is written by Lauren Fleshman, a professional runner formerly with Nike, one USA’s top middle-distance runners. (if you’ve read the post, skip the next two paragraphs).
Lauren had recently participated in New York Fashion Week as a runner, cat-walking new sports bras and styles from Oiselle, a women’s running brand. After the show, she found herself flipping through all the photos of that night to find the one perfect image that would be suitable to blast out on social media. She deletes many less-than-satisfactory photos before finding THE ONE (the photo has now been shared, posted, Tweeted, Instagrammed a hundred times over). In thinking this through, however, she admits that she’s only contributing to something she herself dislikes – our universal anxiety about how our bodies appear to other people. By always posting only the one perfect image she – and all of us, really – create a conception that we always looks amazing, fierce and toned, and perfectly postured.
Her point is that we can blame magazines and media and Photoshop all we want, but at some point we have to realize that it’s on us too – by deleting all unflattering photos of ourselves and only posting those rare perfect ones, it’s like we’re dressing the monster that Photoshop has created. It’s crazy to hear Lauren tell it, because here’s a person who makes her living based solely on her body’s ability to accomplish amazing feats, and she still frets over the public perception of her physical appearance. So next to her killer photo from Fashion Week, she bravely posts two very unflattering, candid photos taken at track practice later that same week. Her blog got over a million hits, so it’s no small thing she’s doing.
When I returned from France, nearly every single person I spoke to asked me a question about weight: How much did I lose? How much did I weigh before? Did I eat a zillion calories a day and never gain a pound? A few times, it was even more awkward: people close to me exclaimed that they just couldn’t believe it, they had thought I would’ve lost a ton of weight, but there I was, all done, and it didn’t look like I had changed at all!
Um, I’m sorry? I’ll try harder next time?
Those questions always made me feel so uncomfortable and I’ve wanted to write about it for a while but have never found the right reason. I never knew what my response to that observation was supposed to be, and I know those people were always well-intentioned, but still. Of course I had changed: I could run over thirty miles a day no problem, I had just run 90 miles in one go, 40 more than I’d ever run at once before. I was more flexible; stronger, leaner. I could now say I ran up one of the steepest mountains in the Alps, TWO DAYS IN A ROW. I was tougher. I was wiser. But the question was hardly ever “How have you gained fitness?”. It was, almost always, “How much weight did you lose?”
On the surface these conversations made me frustrated because I wanted people to ask more interesting questions, and I wanted them to understand that I couldn’t have lost too much weight, or I wouldn’t have been able to do the run. I wanted them to realize that running thirty miles a day isn’t what they might imagine, that after a few weeks your body gets used to it and even your hunger abates.
But lots of these people were just curious friends, and what really mattered was the feeling that lurked just below the surface irritation; something much worse: these conversations made me feel inadequate. Of course, I did lose some weight, (and I even got taller) but I sometimes felt like I should’ve come back even thinner, leaner, stronger. Without those questions, I felt so strong, and proud; but with them I somehow felt like running the Tour de France wasn’t enough; like I should’ve emerged from it looking more like what people expected me to look like. It was ridiculous.
It’s not the easiest thing to write about here – I feel a little bit like I’m peeling back a layer I’d rather leave on, but if Lauren can describe her insecurities on a blog for Runner’s World, I guess I haven’t got any excuse.
Most athletes are incredibly driven, and we’re often perfectionists – a combination which feeds our dedication to whip our bodies into incredible shape – into whatever shape we think is perfect.
And I won’t lie, I love being in shape. I like feeling my quad muscles as I walk, I like the tightness of my shoulders. I stand in front of the mirror and flex my ab muscles every single day. I don’t mind seeing a perfect picture of myself in action. But I think the issue here is that, even perfect shape doesn’t always look so perfect. We shouldn’t take the one ideal image of ourselves, or celebrities, or world class athletes to represent the whole, nor the constant.
I started training with a coach this past November. During our first workout, I ran four repeats of one mile. I averaged 7:04 for each mile and I had a three minute break between each one. Last week, my workout was eight repeats of one mile. I averaged 6:34 for each mile and had 85 seconds of rest between each one. In the space of just three months, I doubled the distance of that workout, dropped thirty seconds in speed/mile, and cut the rest period in half. Yesterday I ran my fastest 10k ever, in the middle of an 18 mile training run. As a runner, THAT is what I find most incredible about the body, the fact that it can improve so drastically in three months. I look at that and wonder, what else can it do?! Our body is capable of so much, it’s absurd to think that we let its mere appearance get all the attention.
As Lauren writes in her post: “”Why aren’t we walking around naked, like ‘Booyah! Look what this body can do, bitches!'”
Honestly, why are we not?