Because it’s not just the youth sports culture that needs to change.
When NYT Times Opinion published a charged and emotional video with 23-year-old Mary Cain detailing her gutting account of mistreatment under former coach Alberto Salazar as a member of Nike’s Oregon Project, I watched as the public outrage (rightfully) rolled in.
Through it all I kept finding myself thinking: This isn’t just a shocking, yet all-too-common story about young girls in sports like running, gymnastics, and ice skating, where body image and weight are harshly linked to potential. The same evasive line that has been blurred in those sports is no different than the one that gets blurred regularly in our adult lives.
This time of year is without a doubt my favorite. I’m a sucker for traditions and festive decorations, and you’ll hardly ever see me turn down candy pumpkins or Christmas ales. But this season also brings out a few of my least favorite things: Namely, the seemingly endless conversations around weight and calories, working out and dieting. Messages about “working off your Thanksgiving dinner” and “staving off holiday weight gain” appear in the articles you read, the TV shows you watch, the workout classes you take, and maybe even subconsciously in the social media you post.
Most people have come to accept them, but they are tired, unproductive concepts that tie our daily behaviors to our self-worth. If we miss a workout, we’re “lazy.” If we overindulge, we “failed.” If we don’t look a certain way, we “don’t belong.”
The undercurrent of these messages are far from innocuous or insignificant, and our acceptance of them is what has helped perpetuate lower-grade offenses than Cain’s. Our acceptance is what has blurred the lines.
Take for example Allie Ostrander. After claiming her record-setting third straight NCAA Division I women’s steeplechase national title in June, she took to Instagram to voice her disappointment with the commentary around her races. “This year, the commentators found it necessary to state (incorrectly I might add) my height and weight multiple times,” she wrote. “Not only were these comments objectifying and unnecessary… [they] have brought attention to my appearance more than my ability. People attend this event and listen to the commentary because they want to see what we are capable of, not what we look like we’re capable of.”
And while Ostrander was widely applauded for her honesty, I didn’t notice public outrage. I didn’t see commentators losing their jobs or network execs making statements about appropriate and necessary change. The unspoken message that I heard: It is totally acceptable to discuss a woman’s appearance or weight as a part of her overall worth or success.
At Women’s Running, we are committed to using our platform to drive thoughtful change around issues like weight, body image, healthy eating, and toxic diet culture; to helping women feel capable, powerful, and worthy—and not because of their body proportions. But I don’t think it’s only a media issue, either. I think we can all do better.
In our latest issue, we looked at the mindset of some of the country’s most successful marathoners. One key skill they all share is an alertness to how they speak to themselves. “Watching what you say and what you speak over yourself is powerful,” Sara Hall says in the article. “What’s the story you’re telling yourself? Be aware of that.”
The words we think and the ones we hear matter. For many women, struggles with body image and weight last long after youth or college sports. They carry strands of their experiences into adulthood that can be so subtle and ingrained that they hardly register as distorted, unhealthy, or unhelpful.
In a video interview with Sports Illustrated, Cain said: “I think most women could speak to the fact that once damage is done with body weight and image issues… I really hope that one day I’ll look in the mirror and not judge myself by how I look. [But] I would be totally lying if I really look at myself in a positive way, and that’s scary to admit publicly.”
If you’re outraged by Cain’s story now, be more outraged by the thought of her not being able to escape this pressure 10 years from now. Be outraged thinking about this young woman working hard to heal herself, only to find that society will keep pushing a toxic culture on her for the rest of her adult life. Be outraged thinking how hard she will have to fight day in and day out to reject the external pressure to not look in the mirror and judge herself harshly.
This holiday season, I challenge all of us to be more aware of the story we’re telling ourselves. I guarantee you spend more time than you realize thinking and talking about your body this time of year, and it’s definitely not all positive.
When a friend, colleague, or relative bemoans their lack of workouts or excess of “cheat meals,” resist the impulse to berate yourself as well. When the holiday party can’t seem to stop talking about their diet, step up and change the conversation.
Long-term success in anything isn’t built on perfection. It’s built on momentum. And it only takes one small choice—even one small thought—to get the ball rolling in the right direction. So while we still have a lot of work to do to fix the systemic problems within sports like running, let’s start right now with the way we think and speak about our bodies. And let’s help build momentum toward a future where women like Cain can live more peacefully in their own skin.