As motivating and inspiring as the health and fitness industry can be, too often we perpetuate one particular image of a strong body: climbers are chiseled like statues, yogis are lean and flexible, runners are slender and toned.
Today, I have a personal record (PR) marathon time of 3 hours and 41 minutes, and I don’t look anything like your stereotypical runner. I have cellulite, love handles, beefy thighs, and a slightly defined stomach. I’m a far cry from the slim bodies I see on running magazine covers or Instagram posts from my favorite brands.
For years, I struggled to call myself a runner, or even an athlete, because I didn’t think I looked like one. I started running regularly in December 2013 because it helped me get out of bed in the morning. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t motivated to get active with the sole intention of losing weight. I was slow, but I loved the way running made me feel about myself. I felt strong and empowered by what my body could do—a radical change from the two-decade pursuit of a “perfect body” that I assumed would make me happy.
With time, my goals evolved from simply getting to the finish line in one piece to hitting a particular time. I set goals to run a sub-two-hour half marathon and a sub-four marathon. In the back of my mind, I assumed that the faster I ran, the stronger I’d look—stronger, in my mind, meaning more slender. So I kept pushing myself, and though I did notice my body changing, I never really lost any weight. How could I be strong if I still didn’t look it?
Then, in April 2016, I started working toward a goal to take my marathon PR from 3:59 to 3:35 in an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
As weeks of training went by, I developed a nasty habit of assessing my weight while I got dressed to run. I’d stand in front of my mirror wearing shorts and a sports bra, look at my reflection, and feel defeated because I wasn’t developing what I thought of as a runner’s body. I was working harder than I’d ever worked in my life, but I didn’t think I looked the part.
As the summer heat intensified, so did my training. Running in a heavy, sweat-drenched shirt was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, but I was too insecure to ditch it and run only in my sports bra. Women my size—a U.S. 8/10—don’t run in their sports bras, I thought. I would look at the thin women rocking their sports bras in my running group and feel frustrated that I didn’t look like them. I could keep up with them, but I didn’t think that I was as athletic because I didn’t have a body like theirs.
But the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t fit or toned enough. It was that I had failed to embrace my own strength beyond my appearance. So what if I didn’t see any women my size running in their sports bras? I figured if I was this insecure about my shape, then I probably wasn’t alone. I also realized that the only person stopping me from feeling confident in a sports bra was me. So, one disgustingly hot and humid summer day, I shed my shirt and shared a video on Instagram, encouraging other women to do the same.
That first run in my sports bra was terrifying. I spent the entire run on edge, ready to defend myself to anyone who dared to put me down. But to my total surprise, nobody paid attention to me. Not a single person looked my way or validated my fear that my body wasn’t good enough to be seen in a sports bra.
The #SportsBraSquad was born, and suddenly women of all different sizes were ditching their shirts with me. Whenever I felt too insecure to run in my sports bra at a race, I’d scroll through the #SportsBraSquad hashtag and read stories of women, both slender and curvier, who struggled just like I did to feel proud of their strong bodies.
All my life, the fitness industry has shown me how strength is supposed to look, and it never looked like me. Today, I call bullshit. Because at 160 pounds, I ran a marathon in 3:41. And this year, I plan to do it in 3:30. Strength doesn’t look a certain way—it feels a certain way. My marathon PR isn’t a step toward “the perfect body.” It represents the happiest, strongest, and best version of myself yet.
Kelly Roberts is the creator of the popular blog and podcast Run, Selfie, Repeat.