Yesterday morning, for the first time in a long time, I got up early and went for a run. I used to run a lot. In 2011, I joined a running club and a few years of near-constant training plus the occasional half-marathon followed, and I loved it. I felt strong and steady, and as someone with a busy mind that rarely feels calm, jogging along the canal I used to live next to was a way to have uninterrupted time alone.
But like so many before me, my love affair with running faded away. I found myself busier and busier, and the choice between a long run or an extra hour of sleep quickly became one I simply stopped making. I wish that was it, but if I’m honest I also started to hate a lot of the things my running represented. People started commenting about my body and the weight they knew I’d be sure to lose, I began to get unsolicited diet tips from fellow runners, and the narrative around women’s exercise in particular became rapidly more off-putting.
I’d follow people on Instagram for running tips and training ideas, and would instead feel bombarded by a spate of supposedly inspirational memes and messages that to me felt straight up dangerous. Push Yourself Past Your Limit And Then Push Yourself Some More, they’d say, and all I’d think was "is that safe?" A part of me also got bored of the way I was treated in running shops by men who towered over me, who would bleat about watches I’d never heard of or Boston qualifying times. This world doesn’t feel like my world, I thought, so I stopped.
My return to running yesterday was on a whim. It’s light so much earlier now, and since I left a job that needed me to cycle for a couple of hours a day, my feet have been feeling restless, so I went. It was only short, but I felt accomplished, and watching the launch video for Beyoncé’s new exercise clothing brand Ivy Park yesterday made a not-so-tiny part of me think it’s a sign from the running gods. Beyoncé runs! Or more specifically, Beyoncé doesn’t just run, she runs the way only Beyoncé can: standing in the rain looking flawless, in black and white along a forest path, wearing a leotard that fits perfectly, in slow motion with a group of equally beautiful women, and to the sounds of her own voiceover with a stirring but universal message about how running taught her discipline and helped her find herself. Bey runs the Bey way, and I very much want to run that way too.
The way our different characteristics – gender, race, size – can intersect with innocuous things like wanting to go for a run continues to sadden me, but videos like the Ivy Park one give a sliver of hope
It’s easy to be flippant, but it’s worth highlighting that despite how glossy the advert was, it ignored a lot of the women’s exercise tropes I’ve come to hate. Beyoncé doesn’t mention anything about her body, or weight, or pushing herself to her limits – instead she talks how running makes her feel, and what it has done for her mind. It’s important. To me, it fits into a broader movement where women are being told it’s OK to focus on what makes our bodies feel good as opposed to look a certain way. In this age of self-care and selfies, perhaps we are learning how to look at our bodies as things we love, not things we hate. I know I won’t look like Bey after a couple of 5k runs, but as ever, it’s nice to hear and see a black woman like me saying that not only does she love to exercise, she isn’t doing it to solely mould her body into a more acceptable shape.
There are many barriers to exercise for so many people, especially women, particularly women of colour. After over a decade of the street harassment that started when I was 13 years old I thought I was fairly immune to the things men can shout at me on the street, but exercise showed me how wrong I was. I can say without any hesitation that the most disgusting comments I’ve had flung at me from car windows, bus stops and even men smoking outside pubs were when I have been running or cycling. Gross comments about my sweaty body or vile sexual references relating to the bike seat I was sitting on fight for first place on my long list of grim comments.
For plus-size women, comments that attack their shape and size (along with things like race) can be even worse. The way our different characteristics – gender, race, size – can intersect with innocuous things like wanting to go for a run continues to sadden me, but videos like the Ivy Park one give a sliver of hope. Yes, it’s for a brand and the models are all slim and picture perfect, but the voiceover is a positive one. The narrative around women’s exercise is – hopefully – getting to a place where the focus is on the good it can make you feel, as opposed to losing weight or other body chat. With exercise communities like the US-based Black Girls Run fighting to make women who look like me more visible, perhaps we’re finally getting to a point where we discuss women’s exercise and our size or weight is a forgotten topic.