Why Running Can Be a Feminist Act

A couple of years ago, I took up running. It did not feel, at the time, like an activity with particular feminist (or un -- feminist) overtones; it did not feel subversive, or especially important to my parenting.


It felt like a way to get out of the house, like a way to do something other than slowly go nuts writing the last few chapters of my doctoral dissertation, like a way to breathe some fresh air while my kids were in preschool and first grade, respectively.

Of course, nothing -- especially nothing involving women and their bodies -- can remain neutral for very long. And nothing, I found, that a mother chooses to engage in can fail to impact her children in some way.

I started to run more, and I started to read about running, and I entered longer and longer road races, and slowly I found my perspective shifting. Running is subversive, it can be ultra-feminist, and my running teaches my children a wealth of things about women, and bodies, and how to be healthy, and what so -- called limits they might transcend rather easily.

I have a range of running clothes now, mostly in shades you'd find in a box of Necco Wafers. I have pink and blue and white tech shirts, and lavender and pink and black running bras, and shorts and running skirts that range from black (with a pink waistband) to blue to gray (with a pink stripe). When I run, I look super, super girly. Sweaty, but girly. Despite the skepticism with which seasoned athletes regard running skirts, I wear them almost exclusively -- they're comfy, they often provide more coverage of leg and ass than running shorts, and I like them. To my delight, I finally found an activity where it's very likely that you can solve your problems with a new pair of shoes.

As I started to run more, I started to weigh less. I went from a perfectly nice size 8 to 10 body to a size 4. My parents describe me as "lean," my husband is somewhat taken aback, the most overtly feminine of my female coworkers talk to me frequently in approving tones about my waist and hips. I eat well (and frequently, and in good quantities), and I'm inclined to think this is just what my body looks like when I take care of myself. I am really thin, which pings my feminist anxieties in all kinds of ways, but I am also really damned strong.

When I began running, while I knew vaguely about Title IX (the 1972 law in the USA prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings), I had no idea -- none -- about how hard aspiring female athletes fought for the simple right to compete in organized events. With the exception of the 1928 Olympics, where there was a women's 800 -- meter event, no woman's Olympic footrace was longer than 200 meters until 1960. Women couldn't officially run the Boston Marathon until 1972.

It was a shock to me that women's bodies were so tightly, so successfully, controlled in this sphere; I had thought of women's choices regarding their bodies to be largely a matter of reproductive care -- access to birth control and abortion. It had never occurred to me that there was public discourse (in the United States, within the last 60 years) about whether women were biologically fit to run distances farther than a mile and a half.

My daughter will never, ever have reason to think she can't be athletic because of her gender; it will, I hope, never even occur to my son to regard girls and women as fragile little things. My kids have grown used to seeing me head out the door in my running clothes, or slog back in, sweaty and disheveled. They ask about how my runs go.

I run, despite my asthma, despite the fraught history of women and their bodies, because I'm confident and strong even in the absence of innate talent or great physical skill -- I'm a great feminist role model for my kids. They've stopped asking me after races whether I've won -- the answer will always be no -- but they remain proud of my effort.

Even in the face of the utterly objective measure that tells me I am bad at this, I am slow, I lack talent -- I am happily persisting. I hope this is what they learn, my daughter and my son: Your body is your body, and you can make it strong, and healthy. No one can tell you what to do with your own body, or that you're not good enough to do what you enjoy. Your body, however imperfect it might seem by the wildly unattainable standards of our culture, is yours, and it is good.

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