Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Glossy Lie

Nine years ago, I was standing at the finish line of the Portland marathon, waiting for my husband to run across the line. Now, he's a pretty fit guy: at the time of the marathon he was 32 years old, 5'9" and about 170 pounds and one could easily picture him on the cover of one of those glossy sports magazines that always seem to feature buff youngish people looking vibrantly athletic.

The eye-opening thing that day though was the people who crossed the line in front of him. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes, people who ran faster than my fit poster-boy husband. There were dumpy grandmas, gangling teenagers, middle-aged executives, and a notable woman with a bust so big that it made me uncomfortable just to watch her run. That day, a realization dawned on me, something that had been kept from me all my life, something that is largely kept secret from all of us:

You don't have to be thin or buff or athletic-looking to be incredibly fit.

I know it sounds simple, but this one piece of information keeps so many people from believing that they are athletes, that they even could be an athlete. The fact that this concept is kept from people means that so many don't step out the door, don't even try. This idea affects even the lives of real, true athletes every day. I remember my neighbor once said to me, after I lost about 5 pounds (my usual amount) in the final stages of training for a half-Ironman "Wow, now you are really starting to look like an athlete!" Yes, starting to look like an athlete. Despite the fact that I had been running, and often placing well in triathlons for 17 years at that point, I was starting to look like an athlete. Why? Because I got a bit skinnier.

I am used to this, of course. I'm a big girl. I've always been a big girl. I was "a fat kid" in school, though looking back at photos, I was far from fat. I was stocky, big-shouldered, big-boned (much like my own children). I was also muscular, but that doesn't count if it means your waist or hips are bigger. So I did not self-identify as someone who could be an athlete, nor did others see me that way. I have always loved swimming, so I tried out for the swim team. The coach said I was "lazy" and would never be a good swimmer (there's also this myth out there that chubby or fat people are lazy, which is often far from the truth).

And even to this day, I deal with surprise, even from other athletes, that I am as fast as I am. I stood on the beach of a triathlon start one day and listened to three athletes behind me malign the Athena category (the female equivalent of a Clydesdale race category - to enter as an Athena, a woman has to weigh more than 150 pounds) as the "fat chicks division". They probably didn't know that the athlete in front of them (me) was registered as a bona fide fat chick. In fact, I beat the weight requirements for the category by a good 10 pounds. And that was also the last they ever saw of me, except on the run, coming toward the finish line, I spotted all three of them still heading out. In another race where I was entered as a Pro, one of the other Pros caught me just before the finish line and said (really!) "I can't believe you're this fast." In the Ironman last week, a couple of fit and hardy male athletes that I had met earlier were out on the run course when I caught up to them. We chatted for awhile and then I prepared to move on. One of them grumbled about having three hours left. When I said I was on my second loop of the run course, their jaws all but dropped.

Now I tell all of this because I think it's a vital message for people out there to get. So many people don't start exercising because they think they can't. Maybe their body type will never be thin, maybe they'll never get rid of that post-baby tummy or heavy calves or thick chest, or whatever their natural shape may be. I've seen plenty of people cross finish lines with those things. All of the fitness magazines out there give us a not-very-subtle message: if you look this way, you're fit. If you don't, you're not. I call it the Glossy Lie. Some of those people in the glossy photos are probably fit. Some of them are taking steroids and EPO and all kinds of other drugs in order to get that way. Some of them are starving themselves or throwing up or taking laxatives to look that way. Some of them are not fit at all. Some dumpy middle-aged woman out there crossing the finish line at the Portland marathon may be fitter than all of them.


Dorcas said...

Right there you have a great start on the first chapter of your book.

Robin said...

Thanks Dorcas! That's actually what I was thinking of while writing...