“She’s way too thin!”
“She needs to wear more clothes. She only does that for attention.”
“You don’t fit the image we’re looking for.”
“That tattoo is a tramp stamp.”
“I can’t believe she’s wearing so much makeup for a race.”
“How do you run so fast weighing so much?”
Truthfully, I wish I’ve never had gotten the idea for this article or that I was making up the above quotes. While the stories I’m about to share will make for an interesting and possibly emotional read, the idea for this only came about because there have been female trail runners that were the targets of negative comments. It’s not exactly a fun process to read the stories of inspiring trail runners who have witnessed firsthand the downsides of being a female athlete. Yet, I believe this topic has to be further discussed and the following stories need to be shared.
The Madeira Ultra Skymarathon is a 55 kilometer race that climbs and descends over 13,000 feet. The race websites states that “technical climbing expertise” is required. In others words, it was a course perfectly fit for Hillary Allen. The Speedgoat 50k course record holder lived up to her nickname “Hillygoat” once again on race day, placing second in a competitive women’s field. That’s a result to be proud of and celebrated, right? Well, Hillary was happy with her race, but her mood changed quickly after a question was raised by a male racer. He asked, “How do you run so fast weighing so much?” In that moment Hillary said, “I felt awkward, singled out, and the fact that I had to explain my body type and strength to him was insulting.” While the men’s field had a variety of body types as well, the male racer decided that fast women had only one type of body type, a frame that Hillary didn’t have despite her second place finish.
“I am still criticized daily about my size and youthful appearance,” expressed Kaci Lickteig who placed 2nd at the 2015 Western States 100. “I’m very aware and self-conscious about what people post not only to me, but to others. It only takes one remark to cause someone to fall into that downward spiral.” Kaci knows this from experience. In high school she was walking with her best friend when a girl came up and remarked how “thin and good” Kaci’s friend looked. When the girl turned towards Kaci she only smirked. “That’s when it started, the downward spiral.” Soon enough Kaci was trying to hide the fact she had lost 40 pounds, developing anorexia nervosa and exercise bulimia. Kaci remembers hitting rock bottom on July 4th, 2003 and found the courage to tell her mom everything. A week later she was admitted to the hospital, nearly on her deathbed. While the female anorexic runner seems like a common story, Kaci better represents how running can heal and help someone find their own inner strength. “I am strong and I am healthy. If I weren’t then I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing.” If you take a quick look at her Strava or race results, I think anyone would agree with her. An unhealthy runner would have fallen apart after a few ultras, but Kaci has been running strong for years. Yet, even today when she posts a picture to social media she says “I tend to cringe knowing that someone will surely say something about how I look.”
Last summer, my facebook feed was flooded with posts concerning an ad that featured three well known female ultra runners. Stephanie Howe, one of the females pictured said, “The goal of the ad was to show us as strong, powerful women, not just runners. Many themes were discussed and we finally settled on a Charlie’s Angels theme where we would be shown in black dresses, not running clothes for once… I was actually thrilled to be shot in a black dress, showing another side of me.” It was an ad the girls were proud to be in, but as the comments started rolling in, the initial excitement of the ad quickly diminished. At first negative comments were about the ad itself and that could be understood, but then comments started popping up about the women featured. Stephanie remembers one comment in particular. “Stephanie looks terrible. She looks scrawny.” The picture was taken 12 hours after Stephanie had placed third at Western States 100, but that shouldn’t matter. “It was one thing to point out the ad style in general… But it was a whole different thing to read people’s comments on my personal appearance. It really knocked down my self-esteem a few notches. I could not believe the harsh comments people were making.”
In the summer of 2013 I was experiencing my worst depressive episode since college. To me, paradise is Summer in the mountains, but at that point I struggled to find joy in anything. Still, knowing my mind was in no place to race, I decided to start the Speedgoat 50k. I felt awful and I was searching for anything to bring something positive to my mind. My boyfriend was racing as well, so a few times throughout the race I asked how he was doing since knowing he was running well lifted my spirits enough to keep going. As I crested the top of a steep climb, a point that was crucial in the race, I saw there were a couple of people sitting there so I asked how my boyfriend was doing. I read one of the person’s facial expressions as “why do you care?” and foolishly blurted “he’s my boyfriend.” I say “foolishly” because my boyfriend was winning the race and my simple, silly statement was not interpreted very well. About a week later, I was horrified as I was shown a blog that mentioned me, stating that I had to tell everyone that my boyfriend was winning the race. The author, one of the people sitting on top of the climb, even went on to comment about me on someone else’s blog. While I’m sure my friends would have laughed at how ridiculous it was that someone would portray me that way, it was my social anxiety’s worst nightmare coming to life. Between my social anxiety and depression kicking in at full force, I went from being a somewhat functional human being to someone who couldn’t get out of bed. Ultra-running had once offered me a community that made me feel accepted and supported, but the experience ended my honeymoon period with ultra-running.
As I prepared to write this article I asked a number of women if they think that women get more harshly critiqued than men. The unanimous answer was yes. Our bodies get critiqued like objects, we have to present the right image in addition to being the right age, too much makeup is a bad thing but not enough clothes and a tattoo makes you a tramp, and we may even get judged for a silly thing we say on top of a mountain above 10,000ft.
One thing I’ve heard multiple times within the past few years is that how a woman’s looks can attract or turn away sponsors. Being fast doesn’t always cut it. A little after winning Western States 100, Pam Smith approached a certain company about a sponsorship. After getting no response from the team manager she asked a friend at the company if he knew anything. The response, “You didn’t fit the image they were looking for.” Pam said she isn’t “sure what that means- “young, fast, hot?”, but she wasn’t it.
As I discussed clothes, or lack there of, with my friend Silke Koester, she brought up the point that while women may get comments like “she only does that for attention” it’s a different story for men. “I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about male runners who run half-naked. Have you ever heard someone say that Tony (Krupicka) does it “for the ladies”.. Really, it’s no one’s damn business how much or little clothes anyone wears or why they do or don’t dress in the way they do.” I couldn’t agree more.
While the sports fan in me is frustrated of the damage that the negative comments and critiquing of women has on women’s sports as a whole, the most harm is often directly done to the women on the receiving end of the judgement. It’s easy to get caught up in the trail running world and think that it’s a huge community, but the truth is that it’s pretty darn small. When a comment is specifically made about someone, there’s a good chance that person is going to see it. Stephanie Howe sums it up well, “How would they feel if I commented on a photo of them saying they looked bad? That’s kind of hurtful, right? I think social media takes away personal accountability and thus people say things without thinking and without consequence.” As much as I would like to believe that hurtful words don’t mean much, most of us know that it’s often the hurtful comments that stick with us the longest.
I was once told that the comments we make about people aren’t actually a reflection of them, but instead a reflection of us. While I feel that is true, the last thing I want to do is make someone feel guilty for having previously made an insensitive comment. After all, to be human is to make mistakes and sometimes say some really idiotic things. I’ve been there and it’s been immediately followed by a guilt hangover, but I acknowledged it and I’d like to think I’m a better person now. I think we’d all rather be the person who makes someone feel good by our comments instead of being the person who hurts someone’s feelings, or as Kaci mentioned, starts that “downward spiral” for someone.
There’s at least one person out there is thinking “these women just need thicker skin.” While I truly admire people who are unscathed by harsh comments, I’ve witnessed first hand that being sensitive can be a strength and huge asset to the world. For instance, because the women mentioned in this article know how horrible it feels to be hurt by people’s comments, they actively seek to make other people feel good while building a stronger sense of support and community for women. In a way, for women not born with thick skin, I think choosing to stay sensitive is part of what makes them so brave. It would be easy to simply think “People can be real jerks sometimes!” and then build up a defensive wall. However, it often takes a lot more courage to stay true to being a sensitive person. The realization that kindness and empathy can stem from that sensitivity, can actually be a huge asset to the world.
Asking for a running community where all women feel safe, supported, and encouraged is a tall order. Some may even say it’s idealistic. Maybe it is, but isn’t it worth a shot? All of us know how running in the beauty of nature has changed our lives for the better, so don’t we want more women to experience that? Can trail running be that sport where women learn to feel truly comfortable in their own skin? What if for every negative comment, there were ten positive comments? Could that make people think twice before saying something hurtful? I sure would have liked for that guy who asked Hillary, “How do you run so fast weighing so much?” to have been immediately confronted by 10 women. He’d never say anything like that again! So call me a dreamer, but there is one thing I’m sure of…there’s nothing more powerful than a group of women, along with supportive men, that come together for a common cause.