The Female Runner’s Body: A Resource to Promote Positive Body Image

As women, runners, coaches, and human beings, TS writer Sandi and I (Ray-her twin!) were fed up with hearing about eating disorders among young female runners.  We knew our friends were too.  The Mary Cain story, where she was body-shamed by her famous coach, was the final straw.  This was too big of a deal not to do anything about it.  With a nudge from Sandi, I took the Body-Positive for Runners workshop I had presented at my local high school and morphed it into a document that we felt any empowered women, coach, trainer, parent, etc. could have access to and then conduct a workshop for their own middle school, high school, or college women’s running teams.  It could also be adapted for other audiences, such as adults, males, or girls in other sports.  Truly, our only goal is that this guide gets in the hands of as many people as possible, and we can start fighting back against the body and eating myths female runners face.

To take a step back and share a bit about my own journey, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in 7th grade.  The physical symptoms may have been gone by the time I entered high school, but I still had large weight fluctuations, depression, and anxiety through my early 20s. Also, and like I’ve heard from many women, I often went without a period.  No doctor seemed to mind. This boggles my mind every time I hear someone else share a similar story.  Eventually, I decided to do some “meaning-making” with my journey and obtain a master’s degree in counseling.  I didn’t want people to have to experience the pain I was in, but unfortunately many are.  Women are.  Teen girls are.  And girls still in elementary school are too…some statistics show that 50% of girls as young as 10 are afraid of being fat.  I’m blessed enough to be able to volunteer with Girls on the Run, a positive youth development program, and coach girls in 3rd-5th grade to run their first 5k.  To know that these girls are already worried about their weight breaks my heart.  Still, when we had a lesson on true beauty, those girls had the right answers.  They know what real beauty is, without the oppression of societal messaging. 

In reflection, this guide is for them, for me, and for you.  The Female Runner’s Body- A Resource to Promote Positive Body Image and Healthy Habits Among Young Female Runners includes: a detailed workshop outline, a body-positive meditation for runners, additional talking points, and the resources I have found to be the most helpful.  Lastly, there are a few tips for communicating with parents and communities.  The PDF is FREE, so please share it with anyone who may be interested.  If there are questions, I’m happy to take emails at [email protected].

Here are a few snippets from the document:

Exposing the myth: What have we been told the runner’s body is supposed to look like?

Write/draw mythical runner while getting feedback from the girls. See if a girl would like to volunteer to draw, otherwise, you or the coach can. (Go slow and ask questions so the person drawing can keep up.)

Have an open discussion on the purpose of advertisements, social media, and societal factors that impact our definition of beauty.

Discuss the use of photoshop. How often do they think it is used in advertising? How often do they and their friends use it?

Attempt to re-write/draw the body of a real female runner (​Yes, this is a bit of a trick as the goal is to have the girls realize that this is an impossible task​.)

What are the best ways to talk to our teammates if we have concerns? As a team, how can we create a unified approach to positive body image?

Call people “UP to recovery” (Taken from Lauren Fleshman & Dr. Melody Moore)

Say what you notice in terms of behavior rather than physical appearance.

Remind them that you care about them and want to support them.

Refer to NEDA, coaches, athletic trainer, school counselor, etc.

Create a healthy team atmosphere: Don’t use negative body language, among the team or against other teams. Change the norm!

Competition without comparison: Question the girls on if/ how they compare themselves to other teams and other runners. How accurate are they? What is their definition of competition? How does it compare to its Latin root “to seek together?”

The goal is to get the girls behind the concept that the team should always aim to build each other and even other competitors up. We get the best out of ourselves when we aim to get the best out of others.

Messages from adult runners.

Don’t listen to what everyone around you says, go by what you think and how you feel because at the end of the day that is what matters the most.

“If I could talk to my younger self, I’d tell her she’d be a lot happier going out to enjoy the miles with fuel in her body and would be able to run much farther. That it was more valuable to have a positive experience than to base that experience on whatever body image I was having that day.”

I would tell myself to raise my head and use my legs to their full potential.

My advice is to strive for healthy fuel for the machine that is YOU and to find the weight you perform best at, not some mythical number somebody points to on a scale!

I’d tell ANY girl that training hard, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and setting goals are what count. Treat your brain right and your body will do amazing things. There is no such thing as an ideal runner’s body.

Stop worrying so much about being thin, eat right and exercise, that’s all that matters to be healthy!

To download the full document, visit Ray’s site here.

Ray Nypaver

Ray Nypaver

Ray is originally from Cleveland, OH. She graduated with her Bachelors of Arts in Social Social Sciences from Lake Erie College in Painesville, OH. For the next few years, she worked at several non-profit organizations, such as the YMCA and Girls on the Run of Northeast Ohio. She also served as Co-President of the Coalition for Children’s Mental Health in Hudson, OH, while exploring her backyard, Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Finally, it was time to take her adventure to Colorado, where she backpacked the Colorado Trail with her Australian Shepard before enrolling in Naropa University’s Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy program. Ray completed her practicum internship at Rocky Mountain Integrative Academy, an alternative high school, in Westminster, CO. She then went on to complete her 9-month internship at Harmony Foundation, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in Estes Park, CO. Ray fell in with Estes Park, the community, and her new backyard of Rocky Mountain National Park, deciding to call it home and open up Wanderlust Counseling.

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!

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