Body Image in Running, Inspired by Mary Cain

* Disclaimer – I wrote this a few weeks ago but wanted to hold off posting until my blog revamp was complete. However, my blog still looks like a dog has vomited all over it, and the revamp is taking longer than expected, so here you go. *

The notion of ‘smaller is better’ and ‘thinner is faster’ is nothing new when it comes to long distance and middle-distance running; however, Mary Cain’s recent statement has really got me thinking about how body image in running is portrayed.

If you haven’t already, have a watch of Cain’s video for the New York Times, in which she speaks about the emotional and physical abuse she suffered as a result of constant pressure to lose weight whilst training with Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. Cain didn’t get her period for three years and she broke five bones. She went on to become depressed, and experienced suicidal thoughts.

Whilst Cain’s story is horrifying, it’s not particularly unusual; it’s a narrative that I have heard numerous times. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls”; one of the main problems is that females are being trained in the same way that men are being trained – it goes without saying that this is insane. I have many issues with Nike, one of which is the brand’s treatment of its female athletes – but that’s a story for another time.

Women are praised when they work on their bodies, and the myth that intensive exercise creates the ‘perfect’ body shape is still prevalent. I mentioned in a previous post that I have been congratulated (on multiple occasions) by other runners on my weight. HOW is this still happening, and WHY does anyone think that this is acceptable?!

There’s no denying that body weight is one of multiple factors that affects performance, and for high-level athletes this is heightened. However, mental and physical health should be by far the most crucial factors.

It’s not surprising that many women go on to develop a dysfunctional relationship with food and training. My own relationship with food has been complicated, and comments made by friends and family have contributed to certain patterns of disordered eating that I now recognise as being unhealthy and unsustainable. Saying this, body confidence is a complex issue; you don’t simply wake up one morning and decide you are 100% comfortable in your own skin.

Sport-related body image issues can lead to amenorrhea, poor mental health, osteoporosis, infertility… I could go on. Managing this issue in the female running community is a huge task, and we have a long way to go. However, Cain’s video (alongside statements from other women who have shared their experiences) is a step in the right direction.

One major change that I have implemented is really focusing on the type of content that I’m exposed to – although of course, this is sometimes beyond our control. I personally find body positivity accounts unhelpful, but diversifying my feed and following accounts of a wide array of people who inspire me (rather than encouraging feelings of self-doubt) has been an overwhelmingly positive move.

There is no single acceptable body type when it comes to running – or when it comes to anything, obviously – so let’s keep the conversation going. Slow progress is better than no progress!

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