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“You look like you could eat the other girls.” Athletes, body image, and form vs. function.

11/14/2010

At the risk of sounding serious and trundling into feather-ruffling territory, let’s talk about body image.

Specifically, mine.

A few evenings ago, my friends and I were sprawled out slackjawed on the couch, our cerebral cortices approaching a vegetative state during another enjoyable-yet-predictable episode of America’s Next Top Model.

The lone unfortunate boy in the group (lulled couchward under the false pretenses that the television show of choice would be Survivor) was entertaining us with predictions about how we girls would do on the show.

When it comes to honesty, this guy is the call-it-like-he-sees-it, speaks-before-thinking, frequent-deliverer-of-tactless-roasts type who holds nothing — and I mean nothing — back. No filter. We love him for it, and a thick skin is necessary if you intend to hang around.

In speculation of how I would fare on the show, he delightedly put on a Tyra Banks impression and threw around both neutral and inflammatory versions of the terms “athletic” and “muscular” and finished with, “you look like you could eat the other girls.” 

Ain’t he a treasure, folks? As I said: thick skin required.

But for about 1/8 of a second — slightly after I contained my knee-jerk reaction to roundhouse kick him directly in the scrotum — I considered bursting into tears.   

Now you see, I’m just a regular girl living in the western world, and we American females tend to get a little woe-is-me about the body image jazz. I won’t pretend for even a second that I’ve ever been immune to that.

Throw in the perfectionistic, ambitious, and occasionally compulsive behaviors that can accompany distance running/endurance sports — particularly that intoxicating habit of constantly striving for improvement — and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for an unpalatable and dangerous mix of disorded eating, distorted body image, and general I’m-not-good-enough angst.

In an environment like this, physical self-acceptance can be a tall order. In fact, ten years ago, as a vulnerable and impressionable 13 year old caught in the throes of extreme disordered eating, a comment like that would have absolutely wrecked me.

Today?

I have to take it as a compliment. Backhanded, perhaps, but a compliment all the same. 

Because the truth is, I’m no whale. I’m 5’9 and athletic, occasionally semi-svelte and occasionally not-so-svelte, depending on my eating and exercise habits of the month.

Startlingly, people I don’t even know will often approach me and blurt out loud about my semi-bulky shoulders and “soccer thighs.” Why this unencouraged commentary is presumed acceptable, I’m not sure. Again, I’ve learned to take it as a positive thing rather than an attack.

There was a brief and unenjoyable time in my life during which I valued form over function — thinness at the expense of athletic performance was completely acceptable. 

In fact, sometimes I still desperately wish that I were the effortlessly trim-waisted and willowy ectomorph runner I used to idealize.

As I’ve grown up though, I’m ascribing an increasingly higher value to function than to form.

Because you want to know the truth? 

These so-called soccer thighs have outkicked plenty of skinnier ones over every distance from the 5K to the marathon. And that, though satisfying, isn’t even the point: It might come in a larger size than whatever is standard, but this body has been giving me nothing but gold from day one, and to lament its appearance instead of reveling in its capabilities would be a piss-poor show of gratitude indeed.  

Time to embrace my inner (and outer) rhinoceros, because can’t nobody say this sumbitch ain’t fierce:

America’s Next Top Rhinoceros
 
 
How do you respond to unwelcome or uninvited commentary on your body type? 
  
What kind of impacts have running and/or other sports had on your body image?
 
What kind of “animal athlete” are you? I call myself a rhinoceros because they’re tough and thick-skinned and when they decide to charge, suckas best git out the way.
 
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35 Comments leave one →
  1. dubay319 permalink
    11/14/2010 14:36

    Oh CoCo , you know that all of my Comments come with a big helping of love ahahahahahahah.:)

  2. 11/14/2010 15:13

    i basically just smile and nod. most of the time the comments aren’t meant to be vicious or really mean. the important thing is what you said: your soccer thighs have let you outkick girls (and probs guys too). woooooooooooot to being amazing and fierce! i HEART antm btw.

    • 11/18/2010 11:02

      Me too. It’s the same ol’ silliness every season, and yet I look forward to watching it…! Mostly to see what Crazy Tyra will do next.

  3. 11/14/2010 18:57

    Grrrr to that dumb dumb boy! I know he didn’t mean it as a mean comment though, guys are just awful with their wording!!! I love being muscular and strong! I smile when people call me beast, because I know that I could kick their ass in a race due to my beastly-ness! HECK YES FOR STRONG bodies, who wants to be frail and weak and only able to run 1-mile…NOT US!
    I heart you!
    I hope you have a great week ahead of you!
    xoxo!

  4. 11/14/2010 21:26

    i frequently get comments about my ‘well developed calf muscles’ – as one guy put it. i guess i feel proud about it, what else can one do? they have served me well and just yesterday those calf muscles helped me kick the ass of a guy (in a fake-5k race) who was most exasperatingly disparaging of women.
    you should be proud!! i would love to be that tall and well-built and to run that well!

    • 11/18/2010 10:28

      You should be proud, too. Well-developed calf muscles are a badge of honor! Way to put that dude in his place.

  5. 11/14/2010 22:00

    In Korea and now in China everyone always tells me I am a very strong girl (I think it’s code for you are like a man) because I like to play sports and run and girls generally don’t do that here. I just always remind myself I am normal in NA!!

  6. 11/15/2010 03:29

    Good post! I’m in the midst of coming to terms with the fact that (wait for it!!) I am in fact a woman, who thanks to some solid Eastern European ancestry has got child-bearing hips and, you know, woman-parts. This is more of a clothing issue at present, but it’s one that I am trying not to get too annoyed by because…well…what is that they say about cutting off your nose? But I want to think about animal metaphors, because that is more fun. I always was told that I resembled a house sparrow, so I’ll go with it: compact, stout, but virtually indestructible.

  7. 11/15/2010 05:54

    Ohh he was just grumpy that he had to watch ANTM. Which is a wonderful show in my opinion…

    I always scope out the skinny fast-looking chicks at races and then my thunder thighs and I end up beating them. Well sure sometimes there are real fast & skinny girls but usually they’re slow in my experience 🙂 so they can eat their two pieces of lettuce while I pig out.

    Hmm an animal. A beached whale? Haha

    • 11/18/2010 10:36

      It’s alllll about the post-race pig out. That tends to turn me into a beached whale on the couch, in fact.

  8. 11/15/2010 06:28

    Great post; but then you always have great posts 🙂

    How do you respond to unwelcome or uninvited commentary on your body type? Well, I am a fan of shurgging it off or just ignoring it now. Backstory: I was a super scrawy kid while growing up, and I used to get teased to tears. I never understood why kids got in trouble for calling others “fat” but I could be picked on for being skinny and it was fine. Luckily I morphed into a some-what confident teenager and learned to deal with my knobby knees and flat chest by generally ignoring comments.

    What kind of impacts have running and/or other sports had on your body image? I’ve always liked being active. I don’t run to lose or maintain weight. I enjoy it, and I think it benefits my mental health 🙂 and generally improves my self image. It makes me feel strong and healthy. The only downside to being a rather thin runner is that people assume I SHOULD be better and faster and eat nothing but carrots. In reality, I’m very average to below average for speed, and I get beat by a lot of people. Ug!

    What kind of “animal athlete” are you? I like to think of myself as a gazelle 😉 I am super clumsy, so I’m probably whatever animal constantly crashes into things and get mysterious bruises.

    Totally sorry for the novel-length comment; you are right that this is a serious/feather-ruffling topic!

    • 11/15/2010 06:38

      And, I love this line…
      “this body has been giving me nothing but gold from day one, and to lament its appearance instead of reveling in its capabilities would be a piss-poor show of gratitude indeed.” You are amazing. Maybe your next career calling is as a motivation speaker to high school and college athletes….

  9. Sloan permalink
    11/15/2010 09:32

    Speaking for the male of the species, I must say your jerk friend’s comments do not necessarily reflect the rest of the intelligent world. Our society has been programmed with some odd attraction to those waif like models, but I don’t get it. To me, there is nothing more attractive than an athletic woman.

    Body shape has nothing to do with performance, and we all work with what we were given. Your frame sounds strong and heathly and everything a young woman should be, not some stick figure that looks like a strong wind would blow them away. I hope that you continue to be proud of your image and the hard work that you’ve put in to build it.

    Rhino? Please. You are a healthy young woman and should have bicycle kicked that dude out the door.

  10. 11/15/2010 10:11

    Oh, what a great image of being a rhino! I would definitely be a bear, I think, solid, solid, lazy-looking, and then surprisingly fast. (And very strong.) And my mama is definitely a bear as well, and so is my little boy, so I think I am just part of a family of bears.

    And for all that that comment would be hard to hear (given all the reasons you mention), it is such a great compliment. Wasn’t it last week that you wrote about imagining yourself a wolf running down the caribou… 🙂

  11. 11/15/2010 11:02

    I think your poor friend is getting crap for some commentary that perhaps was more disparaging to the skinny, underdeveloped models rather than his normal sized friends. But whatever his intent, he knew he could get away with that comment because you are so obviously NOT overweight. And those long skinny legs in your picture prove it. So, yeah, not a lot of sympathy coming from the orca whale over here who just chased a large bowl of noodles and peanut sauce with an even larger chocolate chunk cookie. It’s okay, I ran three miles two days ago. All evens out. =P

  12. 11/15/2010 12:15

    I have had complete strangers approach me about my calves. I assume they mean it as a compliment, but I still find it slightly annoying. Still, my calves have been good to me and I’m getting to the point where I’m proud of them.

    • 11/18/2010 10:41

      I am always envious of runners with solid calves. Mine are wimpy looking. Still, I agree with you that it’s… kinda strange to have to deal with those kinds of comments from random strangers!

  13. 11/15/2010 16:35

    Have you ever gone to a race and tried to pick out the fasties without knowing any of them? It always shocks me who is fast. Not the ones you would think. Although I am slim-ish, I am far from “athletic” looking. I won a marathon in SC once and this man brought his daughter to meet me. He said, “I wanted to show my daughter than a pretty regular looking girl can run fast.” At first I was kind of upset b/c desperately wanted to look the part.

    Now, I usually get the comment of being so feminine looking for the sport. I am thin-ish, but not muscular. I would love some cut abs or defined thighs, true, but this girly figure carries me 26.2, so have to respect what you have! Yes, I wear mascara and lipgloss to races. Yes, match my headbands to my uniform, and yes, I look girlie.

    Thanks for your post. It is a great reminder that athletes come in ALL different shapes and sizes.

  14. 11/15/2010 21:06

    I’d like to think your male friend wouldn’t have said that when he was 13. I’m a bit like him (in terms of giving honest opinions), but I wouldn’t give one unless asked. My friend Joy sometimes asks what she looks like in a particular dress and I’ll give an honest opinion. If she doesn’t want my opinion, she doesn’t ask, and I won’t give it — I’ll try not to even raise my eyebrows.

    I bristle a bit when I say I’d like to lose a couple of kgs, and a friend says “you don’t need to lose any weight — you’re thin as.” When I was in my early 30s I was 4kg lighter, but I was running a lot, and didn’t succumb to sweet temptations.

    Running has had the impact that I realise I don’t have the perfect body for running, but don’t really care. I just do the best with what I was born with.

    Animal athlete? I’m a wombat. Supposedly slow, but in reality fast over a short distance, and very determined.

  15. Jim permalink
    11/16/2010 01:00

    Truth be known, Ewen relates to a wombat because of his propensity to eat roots, shoots and leaves.

  16. 11/16/2010 05:54

    i think i would have to be a llama…mildly awkward and not the most graceful of the bunch, but if you try to chase me down, you’ll be sadly mistaken (apparently llamas can run up to 40 mph over short distances? who knew!)
    oh, and the whole blog name thing….lol.

    and this is a GREAT post…i feel like any runner who has ever questioned their body type should read it

  17. 11/16/2010 08:21

    But is it (partially) why we run in the first place in the first place, cuz when you are tired or in the zone or sucking wind, you can really care less about what others thing about you? You are either focus on finishing the run, being in your zen like state, or enjoying the things/people around you. And you know you are fast enough to chase down and give a beating to (or run away from, depending on the person) whoever is talking smack to you.

    Plus would you rather look like the one doing the eating, or the one being eaten!

  18. 11/16/2010 13:23

    Yeah, unsurprisingly I relate with this…except for the fact that I’m two feet tall. I have to look back at all the times I’ve been called too fat to be a runner and laugh because, fuck…I’m over 30 and still out there, so that’s worth something…right?

    Meh.

    And you should have at least thrown something at his head for his less than suaveness.

    • 11/18/2010 11:00

      Too fat to be a runner? Uh, no. You look like the quintessential runner to me — and all I’ve got to go on is Brightroom, so that’s saying something.

  19. 11/16/2010 17:25

    i would definitely say that was a compliment!! not that i’ve seen your quads, but judging from your workouts and the way you run 10ks in 40 minutes, i can only assume they’re made of steel. mine are made of cake.

    • 11/18/2010 10:47

      Actually, I think my quads are made of peanut butter… especially if it’s true that “you are what you eat.”

  20. Lacey permalink
    11/17/2010 04:33

    ahh we have lots of body image discussions in my psych classes. partly because we are predominantly women and partly because we talk about things like internalized values and media messages and socialization and schtuff. but anyway. i would probably have had your same reaction. i also attended a college where every single girl was “pretty” and i was coming in as “bigger” (why i was recruited actually, i was a “big point guard” for d3) and not trendy (i had no style and did not grow up knowing about things like shopping and make up etc). and it is HARD!!!!! even if other people aren’t judging you explicitly, the judging you do of yourself. and even the other basketball girls were “pretty.” so anyway. the end of this story is that i work to fit in and make my body type more feminine for sure. and it is a constant struggle and i still don’t like being called “strong” because i would rather be called “thin” … and then i have to remind myself that i’m being ridiculous and to stop being caught up in the hype. as long as i am happy, active, and able, that is really what matters to me most. very thoughtful post/topic, thanks for sharing.

    • 11/18/2010 10:50

      Oooh, this resonates with me, big time. It’s so, so easy to get caught up worrying about form instead of function. I would interested to sit in on one of these psych class discussions!

  21. 11/17/2010 07:54

    I wouldn’t have let that comment roll off of me as easily as I probably should. Usually when someone makes a comment like that, they aren’t telling me something I don’t already know, but for some reason it stings to hear it.

    I was always the super skinny kid who got made fun of for being too skinny. As I got a bit older, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it was just how I was and I learned to appreciate it. As I approached my mid-20’s I finally became “normal” sized, but it has been a really interesting shift in self identity from “skinny kid” to “normal”. I think that running has helped me with that a lot because “normal” sized Brit has a lot more leg muscle and can run a lot faster (faster for me…I know I’m no speed demon) than “skinny” Brit.

    An animal, huh? The only animal that I can remember being compared to is a velociraptor. I remember it distinctly. I was spending some QT with a guy that I was dating. He turned and looked me in the eyes and said “Brit, I was just thinking, you really remind me of a velociraptor.” Another guy, another foot in mouth. I’m pretty fierce looking, what can I say?

  22. 11/17/2010 08:23

    Great post! When my roommate told me that it looked like I had “put on a few pounds” during marathon training, I almost burst into tears. But you know what? I went on to run a 20-freaking-minute PR. So if 5 extra lbs (of muscle, carbs, and fierceness!) are going to make me a stronger athlete, bring it on.

    • 11/18/2010 10:53

      YIKES, that comment might’ve put me on the verge of tears too. But good golly, you destroyed that marathon — so hell yes to being Five Pounds Fiercer.

  23. 12/06/2010 17:46

    Hi,
    I just came across your site in hopes of finding a “pick me up.” See I was a college athlete- not to long ago even. I’ve been out of school for a year- I was a thrower. I spent the last year coaching college throwing, so I guess I’ve only been out of the “sports element” for a few months. Honestly- it’s hard. I may not have the typical “thrower” body type, but I ain’t no skinny miss either. I have the in between, soccer thighs that could “out kick” any lay women body. Yet, for some reason- when I look in the mirror I’m still bummed out. I’m out of shape and can’t find the motivation to workout without the motivation of a team behind me.

    And yes- I’ve felt for years that I could “eat other girls.” It doesn’t make me fell glamorous by any means. I guess it’s just nice to know that I’m not alone, and no- my body has never let me down. So thanks, you may not know it, but in the midst of an emotional break down I came across this post and you made me laugh. You gave me something to relate to and say “hey I’m not alone”. For that I am grateful.

    -Amy

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  1. I did not anticipate that wind would send me wimpering to the treadmill with my tail between my legs. « Sweaty Kid.

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