What does a marathon runner look like? Do you need to be a certain shape or size to run a marathon? What does your size say about your health? How to people react when they see bodies that aren't what they associate with the bodies of marathon runners? How do people react when those bodies are female?
These are all questions I've been pondering over the last week or so after seeing some of the comments made about writer Bryony Gordon and model Jada Sezer after they'd run London Marathon in their undies. Bryony and Jada are both women with bums and boobs. Their middles are soft and their thighs touch. When it comes to running marathons they know exactly what they're doing. Bryony ran London last year, Jada was inspired to run by Bryony and they were both coached by Tim Weeks, who's a legend. They owned those 26.2 miles and I now want them to be my running buddies, because they look like they had A LOT of fun. Which what running is all about.
Back to my point. Bryony and Jada was running in their undies to make an important statement - movement is for everyone, irrespective of their shape, size, colour or gender, and healthy comes in a multitude of packages. While these women got a lot of support, there was also some interesting criticism, which I want to dissect. Because I'm a nerd like that.
Scrolling absentmindedly through Instagram while waiting for a tube I noticed that a picture of Bryony and Jada (the one above) had been shared by @runningterritory, which is one of those accounts that reposts pictures of inspiring runners (who are often impossibly toned). It was the comments on the picture that caught my eye. Comments that, initially, overwhelmingly focused on Bryony and Jada's size, with suggestions that it wasn't 'healthy' for them to run a marathon, and assumptions that they must have walked (a mean feat in itself, 26.2 miles is a bloody long way to walk). The tone was nasty and judgemental. The next day I was, once again, scrolling through Instagram and I came across another picture posted to a similar profile, this time it was of a man (the image below). This man was similar in build to Bryony and Jada, and was running with no top on, but instead of being critical, the initial comments on the post were positive and encouraging. It was this difference that got me thinking - why do people respond differently to images of men and women who are, to all intents and purposes, doing the same thing?
I'm a mega nerd about cultural ideology and sport, and in particular my area of interest is around images and identities of female runners. I could talk for days on the subject. But I won't. You can read my thesis for that. However, my interpretation of this issue is that it comes down to the ideas society has about how women should behave. Bryony and Jada are radical, they're disrupting social norms by refusing to conform to traditional notions of femininity. Although more women are running longer (and longer) distances, until relatively recently the marathon was off limits, and research I carried out last year suggests that women participate in endurance running only with 'male permission', making efforts to conform to the existing culture. It's radical to run a marathon as a woman. It’s really radical to run a marathon on your own terms. Likewise, women are fed a million messages that remind them that in order to be feminine they need to be sexually appealing, and that to be sexually appealing their bodies need to conform to certain beauty standards. Bryony and Jada are both mega sexy, but they don't necessarily meet the stringent beauty standards that are imposed once radical women step out of line. Cultural ideology works hard to maintain a status quo that favours men, which is why our topless male friend didn't necessarily receive the same critical response. By disrupting the perceptions of women - showing that they cannot only run marathons, and also that they can do it without being thin - Bryony and Jada have challenged this ideology. When ideology is challenged people push back, in this case with bitchy comments. Bitchy comments that men don't receive.
In the end lots of people sent support to Bryony and Jada, and there is an overwhelming sense of awe at what they've achieved (seriously, can I run with you? You look like fun!), but this imbalance goes to show just how much more work is needed. So take inspiration and get disruptive, the more Bryony and Jada's there are in the world, the sooner our culture will change.
*Photos primarily nabbed from Bryony's Instagram profile.