My Problem With the Body Positive Movement

Pumpkin hates it when people tell her running shirtless is brave.The other day, as I dominated a tough treadmill workout, I reflected on how far I’ve come and how strong I feel.

I haven’t always had this attitude about myself. In fact, for many years I did my best to hide my lumps, rolls, and other perceived imperfections from the world. But on this day, feeling inspired, I decided to post these reflections on Instagram, with a picture of me running in my sports bra on the treadmill. Even a year ago I wouldn’t have dared show that vulnerable side of myself. I felt like I was making a statement: LOOK! I’m so BRAVE! I’m a runner AND I have curves!

And, herein lies the problem: this message has become a cliche to the point of meaninglessness. 

Everywhere we turn these days there are messages of women’s empowerment and strength. We refuse to let our bodies be objectified by friends, strangers, or even the President of the United States. And yet, the body positive movement leaves me feeling conflicted. It sends a contradictory message: by constantly celebrating every woman who doesn’t “look perfect” we are watering down the message, or worse, actually increasing the objectification we so badly want to leave behind. Will there be a day when the topic of shape, size, and cover-worthiness are not even part of the conversation, because seeing all types of bodies in advertising is just commonplace? 

Not a day goes by where I don’t come across a headline about some “real” woman being included on a magazine cover, a swimsuit ad, or in pretty much every soap commercial. What was once revolutionary became novel and what was novel became noteworthy and now it’s commonplace, expected. We’ve come to expect a token “real” woman to show up in ads alongside their impossibly svelte model counterparts.

Progress, right? We women with non-perfect bodies should feel empowered that we can hang with the impossibly svelte, that we are worthy of attention too, that we’re attractive … enough.

But these ads and articles are not appearing in a vacuum. If you’ve spent any amount of time browsing running-centered media, you’ve no doubt seen a headline like:

Overweight woman runs and she’s not ashamed to show her body!

or…

Woman runs marathon, loses pounds, and takes back her life!

SIGH. While these stories might intend to inspire, they do little more than occupy space and perpetuate this ingrained notion that it’s just SO CRAZY that a person who “doesn’t have a perfect runner’s body” still RUNS! And not only does she RUN, she … SHOWS! FAT! ROLLS!

The message that somehow it’s so brave to show a fat roll in public takes away from the countless other ways women battle obstacles and insecurities. The message that the chubby girl is so brave minimizes the body acceptance struggle that many runners face. To say I’m brave for displaying my body implies there is something about which to be ashamed, or that should be hidden in the first place. To be so kind and cutting edge to “let” the average- or plus-sized runner join the perfectly-toned ones on the cover of your magazine, is to co-opt the audience’s shame and, dare I say, exploit it.

We know running is an inclusive sport, but in magazines and social media we’re often divided into those who “look like runners” and those who don’t. Magazine covers of “plus sized” runners with some sort of weight-related or apologetic headline perpetuate the same message as a cover with a fitness model on it: if your body isn’t perfect, you need to be brave to belong.

**Our goal here at Salty Running is to not take the easy way out by riding the coattails of cliche assumptions, but rather to show how we all have complicated relationships with our bodies at some point in our lives. We hope to demonstrate the many ways we can be brave and vulnerable and empowered, because it’s just not as simple as a matter of weight. We will be sharing more stories of body positivity and how complicated that goal can be in the coming weeks.**

In the end, isn’t any day our bodies allow us to run and be active a cause for celebration?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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28 comments

  1. I like this and I have a question: Who is this piece directed toward? In my opinion it is those curvy runners who started and perpetuate the body positive movement and not magazines or “impossibly svelte” runners. Yes, social media and magazines have started to focus on curvier runners, but that is because they got crap from those runners who felt they were being excluded and are now catering to that audience.
    That being said, I think it’s a good thing that we are shifting the focus a bit and acknowledging that curvy runners are beautiful and strong but I agree with you that the message is becoming cliche.

    1. I see it as to all of us. It’s thought-provoking. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I’m thinking about it more deeply than I otherwise was! Before this, I basically saw those ads and magazine covers as employing tokenism – let’s check off the “real” person box because our audience feels better about themselves than if we only use models or so no one will criticize us for perpetuating negative stereotypes, or not celebrating diversity or whatever. So I think this takes that thought a step further. Very interesting ideas!

    2. I wrote it as directed towards all of us. Not with the intent to call anyone out, but just to consider how we continue to even focus on size/ weight as headline worthy. Can a magazine just include people of all shapes and sizes without having to draw attention to it or make it the focus? Why does this have to be viewed as a “curvy vs svelte” thing in the first place? Does that make sense? And my other point was why do people have to talk about how brave it is to show off a curvy body- the point is that there are lots of runners of all sizes who demonstrate bravery or have insecurities to overcome or aspects of their bodies to celebrate.
      We ALL should be able to love and appreciate our bodies for what they can do, not what they look like.

      1. In terms of the inclusion and diversity aspect- I think companies would be more effective in supporting diversity aims by not using a modifier like “curvy” before the word runner. If we’re all runners, why do they feel the need to identify someone first by their appearance?

  2. I love love love love love you for this! I hate it when people say “oh she did this AND she overcame her body” or whatever. I think it misses the point that talking about the female body is actually a metaphor. When we are still talking about female empowerment through a body wise lense, we are perpetuating the stereotype that a female body is the most important part of being female. It perpetuates the white male patriarchy and keeps our worth tied to appearance, which is what we’re fighting against. If this made no sense, I’m not the best at articulating my feelings, but I tried.

  3. I’d like to say it’s just growing pains, part of the process of moving toward acceptance. But, since I’ve yet to see the “process” end for any group, I’m a bit skeptical. It seems more like another way of “othering” that just feels make “us” feel good about our judginess.

    Ooh look – he’s gay and he’s not afraid to live his life.
    Look at us – we’re so inclusive we’ve got multi-colored people on our staff.
    Look how exceptional this disabled kid is!

    1. YES. It’s like magazines, or companies or whomever…saying that because they have different sized or colored people in their magazine or on their staff that they aren’t racist, judgmental or discriminatory.Or like the person who says “I’m not racist because I have a black friend”….More and more companies are hiring women and minorities because they HAVE to…legal and corporate sets up rules for them to hire X number of people, so that way if they ever got involved in a law suit they could “cover their asses and claim they are not discriminating”. In my head, hiring someone(or featuring someone on a magazine) because you feel you have to because of their color/gender/size is just as discriminatory as NOT doing so because of their color/gender/size.

  4. I long for the day when an article can be titled “Name does X” and it gets praised, shared, and inspires others…without the title needing to be “woman loses weight”, “mom of X” etc etc. Since when do we need to have special defining characteristics to justify our accomplishments or self worth? Because all this does is further divide in my opinion. Does a woman who qualifies for Boston after losing a ton of weight have more to brag about than a woman who qualifies for Boston who didn’t lose a ton of weight? how do we know that other woman didn’t have other obstacles she overcame to get there, and who are we to judge or define whose success means more?

    I’m not saying there can never be a story that involves defining characteristics such as weight or child bearing status in it (those things make the story interesting!) but they shouldn’t be what makes the story headline worthy…it just should be.

    1. “Does a woman who qualifies for Boston after losing a ton of weight have more to brag about than a woman who qualifies for Boston who didn’t lose a ton of weight?” <—THIS!

  5. To flip things around, the effort to ‘help’ women be more positive about their body image is almost like a positive version of victim-blaming. Just like the #1 way to avoid harassment while running is for people not to harass runners, the #1 way to improve body image is… don’t make rude comments or stereotype people based on their weight or body. Can we unpack why people seem to think it’s ok to comment about others’ bodies in the first place, or treat them any differently based on how they look?!

    An anecdote: one friend, out walking, has heard comments from neighbours: “You’d look so much better if you wore solid tights instead of those prints!” (She was thinking: ‘But I like prints!’) As you can see, her size is irrelevant; what’s relevant is *why* anyone would comment about someone else’s body and choice of clothing.

    1. Yes! Agree, Mango! Society focuses SO much on looks. SO much on size. What makes it ok for everyone to comment or highlight how someone else looks? Who are we to judge? Like I said, there are so many pieces to this post. I love it.

    2. Mango, that’s exactly what I always ask myself when confronted with those people who think it’s ok to comment on my body. Why? Why do they feel they have the right to comment? Why are women’s bodies somehow common property?

      1. I thought about it some more. I wonder if it does come back to body image, because people’s own body insecurities might be at least part of the reason they make rude comments.

        1. I definitely agree that’s part of it. That and lack of appropriate boundaries. I feel like there’s something else at play. But perhaps men have to hear this stuff too, just in a different form?

  6. This is tough. There are so many aspects of this topic to talk about, so I am really looking forward to reading more about it in the coming weeks! I’ve read through this post and the comments a couple times now, and I can’t decide how I feel about all the issues discussed. I agree with what you’re saying, Pumpkin! thanks for posting this!

    1. Exactly- just so many aspects to explore. It was hard to write about one small aspect without wanting to address even MORE. There have been a lot of interesting comments that make me think about things I hadn’t even considered!

  7. This post applies to so many of the “inclusive” movements out there. A great example is the Vogue “Diversity” Issue, which was about as diverse as my sock drawer. If they had actually created an issue with REAL diversity and left that out of the headline, wouldn’t that make it more meaningful? Wouldn’t the images speak for themselves? It came off as a pat on the back instead. In addition to that, there is the more tricky movement of representing bodies of all abilities. I am so torn when I see a headline about a child with Down’s Syndrome modeling for so-and-so. Doesn’t the headline actually take away from their accomplishment? Again, isn’t the point of including these models in the campaigns to normalize it and make it commonplace for people with different abilities to lead their lives and have previously unattainable jobs as models? How did this “brave” cliche become so overused? Clickbait? I dunno! But you’re on the right track, Pumpkin! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Oh, THANK YOU! This is SO important and it’s a relief to have someone put it on the table. I just this morning debated getting into a discussion with someone advocating that women lift heavier weights because that is the ticket to having a “summer body”. Ahhh! Last I checked summer was arriving in about 4 months and I hope to still have my body then so it will be a “summer body” – but yes to lifting heavier! So I said nothing.

    I hate the notion that is it “brave” to run with a non-svelte body. Do you know what I think I am doing in terms of running that is brave? Continuing to pursue my dream of getting a BQ even as I battle through a long bout with plantar fasciitis. But this is only “brave” in that I am not allowing my dream to die. I am facing my personal demons. What am I doing that is genuinely brave? Confronting my workplace about our inadequate Title IX policies even though I know retaliation exists at my workplace. I think these last two are different if possibly related forms of bravery. But the running without a shirt thing? Could we please just stop talking about it or at least stop labeling it “brave”?

  9. And not judging other people period because we aren’t them. And not judging ourselves based on other people because, again, we aren’t them. Instead focusing on how we can build each other up – starting at a place of both accepting ourselves as we are and celebrating our ability to do things that build us up physically and mentally. And then, from that place, encouraging each other to do those things! I’m so happy we’re talking about this!

  10. All the things! I don’t appreciate tokenism or people making a big deal about someone doing something hard. I am also constantly torn between being a “diabetic who runs” and an athlete who happens to have diabetes (even if that is the reason I run). I have allowed myself to be a pretty visible person in this regard because there is painfully little awareness in the sports or medical community about athletes with T2 and people assume that all PWD use insulin and that it is the only struggle in dealing with diabetes and exercise (it’s not, and I’ve never been on insulin). I also want to make it clear that just because you start eating healthy and exercising you won’t automatically lose a bunch of weight and get off meds.

    That being said I have only convinced myself to run with only a sports bra once and it a fairly ironic and embarrassing outcome so I am not sure when/if it will happen again.