I’m not a runner. I’ve never felt the sport was meant for someone like me, a plus-sized woman. I’ve never imagined myself moving my body skillfully and artfully, with grace and speed. When you think of a large woman running, what’s the picture that comes to mind? Do you see something laughable, comical? You’re not alone. I’ve never tried to run because for years I’ve told myself, “Fat girls don’t run!” There are body mechanics at work here — we simply aren’t built for it.
Then I saw something that changed my mind. The August cover of Women’s Running magazine features 18-year-old model Erica Schenk beautifully running. What makes Schenk a stand out for me is what we have in common. (Spoiler: it’s not the running.)
I’ve never seen a person my size running for sport. Schenk isn’t just running on this cover, she is running in a way that literally (yes, literally) made my brain think, “I could do that.”
My brain, which has shut down so many endeavors because of my physical size, took in this image and instead of thinking, “never” or “NOPE” — thought, “WHY NOT?!”
It speaks to the massive power of inclusive representation in the media. This is why so many of us plus-sized mamas cheer and celebrate when there are national body positive campaigns. We can attempt to tell ourselves that all sizes are wonderful, but until we see brands reflect that back to us, sometimes it is hard to keep the faith. When magazines put women on their cover with bodies that have curves we feel SEEN. We feel celebrated.
And in my case, I specifically felt empowered.
Jessie Sebor, editor-in-chief of Women’s Running magazine, wanted the August issue to be about body positivity. She challenged her readers not to look at a woman’s body to determine her health or running ability. Sebor shared how she was often told how great her “runner’s body” was when she was a teen, and yet she was suffering from an eating disorder and did not consider herself to be healthy. “Just as someone can appear to be in shape, when in fact she’s destroying her body, someone can appear to be conventionally out of shape when she’s an athlete to be reckoned with.”
While I was looking up more information about plus-size runners, I found Lisa Swan’s blog, Subway Squawkers. Swan has a unique take on all of the attention being given to Schenk. Swan, who is herself a plus-size runner, says, “I don’t really see my struggles in an 18-year-old plus-size model who is literally making money off being overweight.”
Swan took issue with Women’s Running magazine spotlighting a runner who only runs once a week and hasn’t logged any races. She asks, “Isn’t there anybody else in the United States that Women’s Running could have found to put on their cover? Like a heavy runner who actually is out there in the trenches running regularly?” Swan suggests Mirna Valerio, who was featured in an article in a July issue of Runner’s World.
I looked up Valerio and POW! Yes! I understood exactly what Swan was talking about. While the stunning cover image on Women’s Running helped open up my mind to plus-size runners, seeing Valerio made me realize it was truly an every woman sport.
At 39, Valerio is my age, and her attitude about running seems to be deeply rooted in a desire to connect to the earth and embrace every day. This is a woman who is a marathoner, ultra-marathoner, and a trail runner. She respects what her body is able to do and that reverence is something I need to have more of.
“I’m pretty much in love with my body. Sometimes I get disappointed or angry with it, but like any long-term, committed relationship, it usually comes right back to love and respect.”
Her thoughts about plus-sized women running put my formerly naysaying mind in its place. Where I once thought this was only a sport for thin people or people who were trying to stay thin or get skinny, I now see how appreciating the endurance of the sport could be what gets people out there — regardless of size.
“I know how hard it is for some people to accept me. Serious running and being seriously fat just don’t go together in people’s minds. If I didn’t run, I wouldn’t draw notice. I’d just be one more obese black woman. And if I were thin, I’d just be one more number at the starting line. But I run a lot, and I’m still fat. Some people can’t get their heads around that. They don’t think I’m for real, that I’ve earned the right to call myself a runner. They don’t say it out loud; you learn to read it in their eyes.”
I don’t know if I will suddenly take up the sport of running. It’s so hot and humid outside, I can’t imagine it. But maybe when the temperatures begin to dip back down and I am out for a walk, the desire will happen. I’ll remind myself, in case I need it, plus-sized women CAN run. They do it it every day.More On