There are few greater barriers to us enjoying our own bodies than the pernicious idea of perfection, and exercise is an area no different to any other. Hence my eternal jubilation that Sport England’s vibrant, inspiring and genre-smashing This Girl Can campaign is back this month. It is two years since they first presented us with images of sporting women that anyone who didn’t regularly take part in sport would never have seen before: because these grinning plus size runners, dogged but happy cyclists and defiantly, gleefully wobbly dancers weren’t perfect … they were better than perfect: they were us.
Now they’re back - this time with cold water swimmers well over thirty, messy-faced roller derby competitors and visibly pregnant yoga enthusiasts. There, among our everyday heroines, are varying ages, colours, abilities and religions. And it feels like a gulp of fresh air on a winter’s day after being cooped up inside for far too long.
This sense of "exercise is for the perfect people" stops so many of us from starting, and for so long. Before I started running I was sincerely convinced that "the runners" were a pre-ordained, genetically gifted bunch who were born with the limbs of a gazelle and the determination of an Olympian. What I didn’t know – because I never saw it – was that there are literally millions of us out there, enjoying exercise and reaping its myriad benefits. It’s just that you don’t see us if you don’t actually turn up. And turning up requires making that mental leap that you needn’t be perfect to start with.
One question was ‘How many miles a week do you have to do to be a ‘proper runner’?’ At first, I was shocked, reassuring people that you just need to go for a run now and again. Then I remembered that that was how I used to think
When I began to meet readers of my 2014 book Running Like a Girl, and to talk to them at events, one of the most frequently asked questions was “How many miles a week do you have to do to be a ‘proper runner’?” At first, I was shocked, reassuring people that you don’t need to sign up to a high-tech goal-focussed online challenge or be training for a specific event to be a runner: you just need to go for a run now and again. Then I remembered that that was how I used to think. I sincerely believed that sport was a club akin to an exclusive Malibu golf club, complete with extensive vetting procedure and high entry fees. It took years for it to dawn on me that there was an alternative, that you could just show up at the park and break into a trot, take part in a local 5k or try a couch to 5k app without telling a soul: you don’t need to end up perfect, let alone start that way.
Instead, a little like all those times I whacked a £45 dress I didn’t even really like on my credit card, just to cheer myself up because it was still five days to payday, I didn’t show up - because why bother trying if you’re not already like those perfect people? I know I wasn’t alone. And even once I’d broken that barrier for myself, I shied away from swimming for a while because, well, because swimming costumes. Let’s just say I’m not shaped like ‘a swimmer’. Except, as I realised, I am. Because I swim. And there is no better way than to redefine what ‘a swimmer’ looks like than to do it, week in week out, until it doesn’t feel like exposure, it feels like routine.
Research has shown that it is that walk from the changing room to the poolside that stops so many of us entering the water at all – and it’s heartbreaking. That walk, as your thighs judder when your heels hit the tiles and your skin flickers in shock at being so available for view, can be beyond grim for the first couple of times. But - just as your first run is always your worst – it changes so fast! If you can just persuade yourself to scuttle to the water a handful of times, you’ll discover that the gifts of 45 minutes’ weightless, anonymous swimming massively outweigh any horror associated with the trek to the steps. And soon the only preoccupation you’ll have when you make that journey is “how quickly can I get in the water?” rather than “am I perfect enough to be included?”
If you’re still in doubt, take This Girl Can’s lead and shake up your role models, shuffle your social media and free yourself from what you ‘ought’ to look like. Find Ashley Graham, Jessamyn or Michelle Thomas on instagram, get in touch with Women’s Running to cheer loudly next time they put a size 14 runner having the time of her life on their front cover, and check out The Unsung Heroines project for inspiration. These women, their confidence, and their redefining of excellence to suit themselves, now that is perfection.
This article is part of our Past Perfect series exploring the definition of perfection and the unrealistic perceptions that often surround it.