• Michelle Howell

Bringing Body Positivity to the Track

As an athlete, competing in a sport revolved around testing my body's limits within a specified distance, I think about my body A LOT. It's the most important part of being able to compete in and enjoy the sport I love.

 I pay attention, possibly too much attention to my body and how it's feeling. I analyze any aches or pains to the degree that maybe I have a tendency to be a bit of a hypochondriac. I think a lot about how that batch of peanut butter cookies I ate earlier probably wasn't the best recovery fuel after a long day of working out. I spend a lot of time taking care of and finding better ways to better take care of my body. And sometimes all this thinking about my body means that I can be critical of it.

I can be negative and get frustrated with my body when I feel like I'm not where I should in my training, when a race doesn't go as planned, or when I simply have a day where my legs just aren't feeling it.

Inevitably I can also be critical of the way my body looks. Over the years I've had my fair share of insecurities and perceptions of my body. I've even found myself at the starting line comparing my frame to those around me wishing certain bits and pieces were different. 

I'm aware I'm not going to be as muscular as I would like to be, I'm aware my breast size has stayed stagnant since 6th grade (sorry mom for never "growing into" those B cup bras you said I would), and I'm aware that maybe I don't have the frame to be as skinny as other distance runners either. I'm aware my body is unique and different just like everybody else.

While everyone has these thoughts about their body from time to time it's amplified in the realm of running. Within this sport, there is an issue, granted more so within the female population, with body image. There is the unspoken, sweep it under the rug preconception that certain body types perform better than others. In some ways making the statement that the lighter person or the more muscular runner will run faster seems like common sense. While there is some truth in these basic ideas, in reality, it's a completely different story. If you look across starting lines at elite levels you may find some similarities, but you'll often find a good number of outliers to the "standard". The biggest example being Usain Bolt, no one expected him to be good at the100-meter because of his height.

Runners come in all shapes and sizes. There's no set weight, height, or body shape that dictates success. Yet, the thinking of that if you look like the norm you'll run faster continues to perpetuate even though we've all seen the disaster stories of the girls who get too thin and the success stories of the girls who make amazing comebacks from this being too tiny. 

So why are there still so many women who feel the need to change their bodies? 

Earlier this week I got a charming little comment from a male user that showed me exactly why. The comment came from a user who does not appear to be a track athlete or have any advanced knowledge of the sport for that matter. With no solicitation, he stated I needed to "work on my calves a little bit more" continuing with the fact that the calves of "other track girls are much bigger". 

Needless to say in true Michelle form I took to my platform and called the user out on his comment that I deemed initially as inappropriate and sexist behavior. Then I began to notice something; it turns out he'd made similar comments to several other female runners about their bodies who proceeded to message me about their own interactions with the user.

This made me realize that for some reason or another it's become or rather has been okay for women's body's to be judged and governed whether that's within 20th-century beauty standards or on the track. We walk a tightrope of being told that in order to be attractive, good, or have worth we must embody whatever standards are seen as correct and if you don't then your worth is diminished. 

It doesn't matter that my body despite obviously not having "big enough calves" has achieved All-American status twice. It doesn't matter that I've spent most of my life training to be in the shape I'm in. It doesn't matter that I already have my own insecurities, let's just add a new "problem" to work on into the pile because I don't fulfill the standard.

 I've been lucky enough to not be within environments where I've felt pressured to change the way my body looks. I've been blessed with coaches who have advocated for healthy living, personal accountability, and taking care of your body versus obtaining a certain size, weight, or other obscure detail.  I've had teammates of all shapes and sizes and seen success come in forms that defy what the norm is. Being skinny, muscular, tall, short or fuller doesn't mean you're less capable or of less worth than someone else. It doesn't mean you're incapable of running faster times, throwing farther, or jumping higher.

Now as a coach myself, I want to continue that trend of positivity with my own girls and boys. The word body positivity sounds so millennial and buzzwordy to me, but it should be embraced within sports and athletics just as much as within mainstream society. If you can't judge a book by its cover then why would you judge someone's body? We should all be advocates for nonconformity, for being yourself, and not putting others down because of the way they look.

There is no one size fits all for success.

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