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 me at the happiest, strongest, and best version of myself yet.
Kelly Roberts is the creator of the popular blog and podcast Run, Selfie, Repeat.
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