It’s Complicated – Body Image in Running

What I want to touch on is body image & as I read a recent NY Times article discussing how breast and body changes were driving teen girls away from sport. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/bodily-changes-are-driving-girls-out-of-sports/?smid=tw-nytimeswell&smtyp=cur&_r=2. I’ve certainly had my share of issues with body image. As mentioned in my memoir, as a young runner, I saw competitors get very skinny, and at least for some amount of time, very fast. I wanted to keep up and felt I needed to lose weight right along with them. In particular, my breasts were growing quite large as a high schooler, especially for a top young runner.  My large breasts made me feel fat, and unfortunately, they made me FEEL slow. I felt like I did not fit the female runner mold. I remember wearing a size large running top for races in college even though I should have been a small or XS. I was trying to hide my breasts (see photo below). So my poor body image did not drive me away from sport, but certainly made it unhealthy and anxiety filled. Looking back, my mind was terribly distorted and if somebody tried to talk some perspective into me, I wouldn’t have heard it. In my mind, they would be completely off base. I could be faster, if only my body would cooperate. That’s typically how this works and it’s all too common.

Suzy_running031

So then come the eating disorders. It’s tough because it isn’t as simple as I want to run fast……skinny equals fast……SO I’ll get skinny. Eating disorders are not JUST about body image. They are usually related to anxiety and depression. So in other words, this is not a snap out of it, be proud of your strength and muscles type of thing. “Just eat!!!” Yeah, not quite that simple. The brain is distorted and this is a complex coping mechanism which makes the athlete feel good, or more specifically, makes the brain feel good. Irrational, but good. It is VERY, VERY difficult to combat and typically needs professional help. Does it ever completely go away? My experience would say it can be managed, but never completely eliminated.

I share the following in my memoir, which provides an example of the type of situations I experienced which contributed to my very distorted body image (aside from the fact that I experienced deep anxiety & occasional depression throughout my competitive running career). Early in my professional running, I was getting quite the bit of media attention.

suzy fitness

Fitness Magazine put me on the above cover for October 1991. They were obviously going for sex appeal to sell issues and clearly chose a photo focusing on my breasts among other attributes. This was not a running magazine. Far from it.

In the Runner’s World issue from 3 MONTHS EARLIER and pictured at the top of this blog, they made my breasts magically disappear through photo shop or something like it. It’s pretty apparent they did not exactly value what I had to offer naturally. They apparently wanted my body to fit more of the mold of the stereotypical runner. Also, I think it would be safe to say that they wanted me to appear a bit more wholesome than the Fitness Magazine people. Now I don’t believe the people at Runner’s World would do this same thing today. That was 25 years ago now and we’ve come a long way as far as body image / eating disorder awareness, and realized that runners come in all different shapes and sizes. But you can see the potential damage they were creating at the time. Is running culture still a bit of a minefield when it comes to body image? I certainly think so, and there’s still a long way to go. That’s why we talk about this stuff.

Anyway, you can imagine I noticed this. What message does it send? The message was simple, at least in my mind. “You don’t fit the image of a female runner that WE want you to fit.” This is a message female runners, young and older hear all the time, often by looking at their peers and / or competition, often from a parent or coach.

Unfortunately, there were more examples in my experience & here’s the coach one. Once, my coach called me into his office, and for some reason, read me a letter from a female “fan” that was saying my breasts were too big for a runner. That I should wear two running bras to keep everything from bouncing around. They were obviously uncomfortable with a woman’s breasts actually bouncing when running. Bizarre, but I internalized it. I heard it, too loud and too clear, and I hung my head in shame…….about my boobs. About my freaking boobs!

Within a year or two, in what should have been no surprise if you know my whole story, I had breast reduction surgery, and how did it make me feel? Unfortunately, it made me feel good. I wanted to fit the mold, to conform, to be a runner. It succeeded. What relief to finally have the “runner’s breasts”. How do I feel about it now? Crappy! Wishing I was able to think rationally at the time. Wishing I had the confidence to tell others to screw off. Wishing I did not have body image issues. Having the knowledge that one size should not fit all when it comes to runners. Wishing I had the $8,000 back for the surgery as well. Yeah, regrets, but at least I can share stories like this and perhaps show that this stuff is complex and challenging. Coaches, parents, and  all of us need to be aware.