Kate Van Buskirk, bronze medalist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, weighs in on the Rio Olympics, women’s magazines and how a love of running trumps negativity in the end.
This was disheartening, but not surprising. Glance at the cover of most female-oriented “health and fitness” magazines and you’ll find articles like, “How to get a flatter tummy almost instantly.” The danger here lies in the association between how you look (low body fat and muscular, while retaining an air of femininity) and what it means to be “fit” and “healthy.” Never mind setting unattainable ideals for girls and women; what’s most concerning about this focus on the female body is its detraction from a woman’s character and accomplishments.
To be clear, I don’t believe that this is solely a female issue; there are pressures placed on men to adhere to a stereotypically ‘masculine’ body type. However, the extent to which women’s bodies get scrutinized, dissected and judged is relentless, as is the evaluation of a woman’s worth based upon her appearance.
I’ve experienced this many times, and there seems to be a strange implication that it’s acceptable to judge elite female runners because a) we’re often in the public spotlight, and b) our competition uniforms consist essentially of a two-piece bathing suit. It’s as if competing in tight and minimal clothing is implied consent for our appearance to be picked apart, commented on and criticized, and that being public figures makes us immune from the sometimes hostile judgement of strangers. My friends and I often feel as though we’re walking a fine line between adhering to pressures around the embodiment of perfection, and not wanting to represent the unrealistic body standards perpetuated by the media.
I don’t like my appearance being critiqued any more than the rest of the world. My body looks the way it does not as a result of wanting to appear a certain way, but because I’ve scientifically sculpted it in order to maximize its potential; function over form. That said, I think that there can be an appreciation of both the form and function, without the corresponding sexualisation. Women can and should be proud of their bodies on their own terms without worrying that expressions of self-appreciation will be construed as attention-seeking, or permission to be scrutinized. When I choose to post photos of myself running in briefs and a sports bra, I do so with pride because I know how hard I’ve worked to feel good in my body, and I like the way that it looks as a result. Wouldn’t it be awesome if girls were encouraged to feel good instead of being bombarded with messaging that reinforces their worth and desirability as being inextricably linked to their waist or cup size, or ‘flat bellies’?
This fall, I came across a tweet by Women’s Health that irked me into action. The tweet featured a cropped photo of a woman bending forward with a caption that read “How to rid yourself of belly pooch forever.” Not only was the model in the least flattering position possible, she appeared to me to have a lower than average amount of belly fat. I snapped a shot of myself in the same position and wrote:
“Hey @womenshealthmag, every normal person has belly rolls when they bend forward, even elite runners w 14% body fat.”
My reply garnered 172 retweets, 573 likes and dozens of comments. This response was encouraging and I was proud to showcase my own “belly pooch” on social media. But no one’s immune from criticism and I admit that my selfies decrease when I’m in my heaviest, noncompetitive months of the year. It’s something I’m working on.
At the end of the day, I don’t run to look a certain way, or solely with the goal of winning races. I run because I freaking love it. I love the feeling of my body in motion; of becoming stronger and faster; of challenging myself. I love the endorphin rush, the sense of accomplishment, the connection to my community and to a primal part of my humanity. In essence, I run to feel good. My wish would be for every woman to experience this type of joy and empowerment, and to find beauty in her body’s abilities.