This post is one I’ve been mulling for a long time. But since I’ve been injured/sick and unable to work out or train at all for a month now, I decided instead of posting a bitchy whiny post all about that, I’d post about this. (Although it may turn out to be bitchy and whiny too, we’ll see.)
Last summer I recall a few blog posts making the rounds that were about how ‘back-of-the-pack’ runners were sometimes treated and I started thinking about this post, but never figured out how to say things well so I left it. But I was reminded of this the other day when I read this blog post about being a plus sized athlete. So here goes.
To all the plus-sized athletes out there, especially those at the back-of-the-pack, you inspire me. You are the reason I sit my sights on an olympic distance triathlon last summer. You see, when I watch you race, I see a grit and determination that is amazing. I know that it takes more energy and effort for you to move your body than it does for me to move mine, and I know that if I just set my mind to it and believe (and train) I can do it too. Two summers ago I went and watched and cheered at a local triathlon. I got there later than I had intended, too late to see the pros that I had wanted to watch. Instead, I mostly got to see people who looked much less fit than me doing something that I knew I couldn’t do, a half-iron distance triathlon. And I was in awe of what they were doing (I still couldn’t finish a half-iron distance now. OK now isn’t fair given my injury and all, but even at the end of last summer when I was training a lot I couldn’t have finished one.) I stayed for an hour and cheered, and went home and began to plot out some training that would get me from sprints to olys.
I may look more fit than they were, but I’m not. I’m just not as big. And that's a really important thing. For everyone to remember. People being healthy need to be supported, whatever they look like. And I said 'being healthy' on purpose. It’s too easy to think that larger people are trying to get healthy, trying to get fit, trying to lose weight, and that’s why they are working out. Maybe they are trying to lose weight and maybe they aren’t. But if they are out running, or cycling, or swimming, or in the case of a triathlete all three, there’s a good chance that they might already be healthy and fit. So part of this post is my saying please don’t let the few jerks out there get you down. And don’t think you’re not an athlete, because Leah Gilbert is right, you are. And because of you, I am too. And I want you to know that.
But this post also about unrealistic ideas of what an amateur athlete looks like, size being just one part of it. Sure, there are lots of people out at runs and triathlons (the two kinds of races I’ve done) that look like they have no body fat on them, but there are a whole lot more of the rest of us. I may not be plus-sized, but I’m far from chiseled. I wiggle a lot in places I’d rather not. I edit my race photos so that parts I don’t want on display are cropped out. I wish I didn’t feel imperfect, but I do. (I feel a whole lot less imperfect than I did in my 20s despite being much less perfect now, thankfully. One of the good things about getting older.) But I still want nice work out gear, and I want to feel like the companies I buy from want my business. I am a fan of Smashfest Queen’s line. I like how I feel when I wear their gear. I don’t love how I look, but I don’t love how I look in any tri suit. They don’t show any realistic looking models on their website, but they did start stocking larger sizes last year, and I love what one of the owners said in her interview with Witsup.com last year. “Smashfest” has always been a word that I use to describe a particularly long, hard or intense workout or race–my favorite kind of event, really! So in coming up with a name for a women’s brand, this was an easy choice, as we are making apparel for women to wear before, during, and after their smashfests!... What we love about this term is that it means such different things to different people. I fully recognise that not everyone defines a smashfest by two ironmans in a week or running a marathon on the nearest treadmill, a couple of my personal favorites! One of the most awesome aspects of our project is having the privilege of being along for the ride with women who are, say, taking on their first sprint tri, that is absolutely their “smashfest.” On the other end of the spectrum, we just had another Smashfest Queen share pictures from a 12-hour run she did in one of our tri tops–running in loops for 12 hours! It’s so cool to share in this huge range of women’s athletic journeys and watch them test their mental and physical limits in different ways.” To me this quote says, we are designing for anyone who goes out there and gives it their all. That’s a message I can support. (And just in case I need to say this, I have no affiliation with the company. I just like their product, their message, and their customer service.)
Contrast that to what another women’s designer said in her interview, also at Witsup.com: “Triathletes have some of the most amazing bodies in the world. For me, there was nothing out there that showcased this. It was mind baffling how such toned, athletic bodies could still look unattractive in the suits which were available. With their long john legs, cut you in two stitch lines and drab colours, there was simply nothing out there to compliment the awesome physiques.” This made me feel like this company doesn’t want my business. I feel like my body can do incredible things sometimes, but I do not have a toned athlete body. (Legs, sort of. Mid-section, not at all.) This quote says ‘I’m designing for the super fast front of the pack triathletes’. It’s her business, and she can design for whoever she likes. But I know from looking at the people in the races I am at, she’s missing a massive market. And I’m in that missed market. These are implicit messages about who really belongs. Thankfully, all of the people I've every met at races are very encouraging to all the athletes out on the course, so when I'm actually racing I usually feel like I belong there just as much as anyone else. Which of course, I do, as long as I believe it.