The Runner in the Mirror

Let’s get personal, shall we?

First, let’s clarify what this article isn’t. This isn’t a treatise on the warped, sexualized definition of attractiveness propagandized by popular media. (Don’t get me started…) This isn’t a discourse on the denigrating, impossible images achieved by photoshop and airbrushing and its devastating effects on young girls and women. (See above note.) This isn’t about being too thin. This isn’t about being too fat. This isn’t about extremes at all. This isn’t about our culture in general. This isn’t even about people in general.

This article is about runners—runners who are fast, runners who are slow, runners who sprint, runners who jog, runners who shuffle, runners who walk—and how we, as runners, view our bodies.

I started thinking about the relationship between runners and body image as I bounced between my two sports of choice: running and ice hockey. In running, our bodies are very much exposed. Not much is hidden by split shorts and spandex. I mean, summer running apparel is like a generous fabric swatch. Even in winter, when we trade our singlets for warmer gear, we maintain sartorial minimalism. We’re like vacuum packed Eskimos. Every bump, lump, flab, and fold is warm and cozy beneath a body-hugging, sweat-wicking getup that may or may not show an anatomical rebellion or two.

Hockey, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Hockey equipment includes everything but the kitchen sink. My hockey bag barely fits into the trunk of my car, and yet I wear every single piece of equipment on my body for every single game. To top things off, I then pull the sporting equivalent of a potato sack (a.k.a. jersey) over it all. Yes, in hockey, others can see your eyeballs, and that’s it. (Well, and my ponytail. You can see that.)

Do you know how much a belly roll matters in ice hockey? Do you know how much cellulite matters in ice hockey? A jiggly inner thigh? Back fat? A little underarm flab?

It doesn’t. That’s how much.

I’ve never gone to the hockey shop and thought, “Do these shoulder pads make me look boxy? Are these hockey pants unflattering? These skates make my feet look huge! Do you have any shin pads that won’t give me cankles?”

Because that would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Such thoughts should be just as silly in the world of running. They should be, but they’re not.

As runners, we ask a lot of our bodies. We ask them to run mile upon mile, regardless of heat, cold, rain, or snow—and they do. We ask them to forego sleep for an early morning run, and the sacrifice is made. We give them hills, and they climb. We give them pavement, and they absorb the shock. We give them trails, and they keep us stable. We give them speedwork, and they sprint. We give them slower miles, and they recover. We give them marathons, and they endure. We ask them to keep going when they are tired, when they are hurting, when they are depleted, when they have been pushed to the point of collapse, and they respond will faithful compliance. Every day, we ask our bodies to do the extraordinary. And every day, our bodies respond.

How then can I stand in front of a mirror and criticize my body when it does everything I ask it to do?

And yet, to be completely honest, far too often I do just that. I see imperfections. I see flaws. I look in the mirror and think, “If only I could change this…”

Whether it be in the form of magazines placed at grocery store checkout lines or television commercials ranging from seemingly innocent to criminally racy, we are constantly assaulted by images of the human form in whatever idealized, fabricated incarnation the multi-billion-dollar beauty and fashion industries feel like promoting that day. Add to that mess the slurry of societal responses—from academic journals to popular blogs to Twitter—and we’re doomed to perpetually juxtapose our own appearance with a 360-degree slideshow of professionally crafted images.

But the thing is, popular opinion of attractiveness is ephemeral and fickle. It changes with time, culture, and society. Twiggy may have been a pop icon in the 1960s, but she wouldn’t have made the cut for subject matter in any Renaissance paintings. Even in America, the slim lines of the 1920s and 30s were jettisoned in favor of curves by the 1940s and 50s. Far too often, the human body is treated less like the miraculous, intricate, powerful machine that it is and more like a mere seasonal fashion.

And runners, of all people, shouldn’t fall for such nonsense. Take any local 5K. Go to any marathon. Watch the never-ending parade of runners make their way around Forest Park. Journey to a trail and watch the ultrarunners in their natural habitat. Observe them in their shorts and their spandex, with their water bottles and GPS watches, the laughing groups and the focused, solemn individual. It is a glorious display of beautiful bodies—one that is as diverse and varied and unpredictable as the human race itself.

No, a truly beautiful body cannot fit into a one-size-fits-all mold.

A truly beautiful body is one that can take you on adventures. It is three-dimensional, not one. It is in motion, not plastered on a billboard. It is human—living, breathing, moving, doing—not the mere appearance of humanity. It is a run before dawn. It is a first marathon at the age of forty. It is a five-minute mile. It is a twelve-minute mile. It is a trail run in the snow. It is a 5K PR. It is track workout that went better than expected. It is a long run without any bathroom emergencies. It is a bathroom emergency. It is ten miles in the rain. It is wearing running tights… to the grocery store. It is a series of bobbing headlamps at night. It is answering your running buddy’s text with, “Yes. I’ll run twenty miles with you tomorrow.”

The most beautiful bodies in the world cannot fit into a one-size-fits-all mold because the most beautiful bodies in the world don’t hold still long enough.

If you want to lose a few pounds, go for it. If you want to tighten up an area or two, the world is your gym. If you want to trim some flab, good for you. If you are just starting, shoot for the moon. If big changes need to be made, be bold. If you’re on maintenance mode, great. Challenges are healthy, and we should all seek to better ourselves. But we should do so because our bodies deserve it, because we want adventure, because we want life and health and independence—not because we’re trying to conform to some image on a piece of paper. Because beauty isn’t about how others view our bodies. Beauty is about how we view ourselves.

Popular opinion can have its quest for physical perfection. I want a running buddy, not a mannequin, and the last time I checked, “amount of cellulite” wasn’t on the running buddy questionnaire.

As runners, we have the power to show the world what it means to have a truly beautiful body. As runners, we have the power to stand up for true beauty—real, living, adventurous, dedicated, courageous, strong, healthy, extraordinary beauty.

Here’s to the beautiful bodies.

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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