“I’ve never seen so many muscular legs in my life!” my mom whispered to me recently as I was getting ready to start a 25K trail race. “Look at those men over there!”
She tipped her head toward a group of men that I know and have run with before — they run at about the same pace and ability level as me. Sure enough, their calves and quads were sinewy and sculpted, with those lines that denote muscle that I’ve always envied. I started looking around at all the athletes waiting for our race to start and noticed that she was right — all the males had strong, brawny-looking legs. I couldn’t help but think about my own legs, which are significantly less defined (okay, they’re not defined at all) than the men’s, even those I can compete with.
I looked around at some of the other women’s legs and noticed that even the top women didn’t really have defined muscles. As women, our legs just look different.
I’ll never forget how I felt a few years ago when I saw a picture of myself from a trail race. In my head, I imagined I looked lean and fierce as I charged up and down singletrack. In reality? Not even close. The photo showed quads dimpled with cellulite rather than defined with muscle. I felt so deflated.
Honestly, I get fired up about it sometimes. I tell my husband that all he has to do is walk from the front door to his car and a newly-defined muscle will spring up in his legs. I, on the other hand, run 40-plus miles a week as I train for ultras, and his legs still look more athletic than mine (he sometimes hikes for work, but doesn’t regularly exercise beyond that).
I pointed this out to some male ski buddies this winter, and they countered that men’s bodies are imperfect in other ways — they are more likely to have a beer belly, for example.
Still, though. I want those chiseled legs!
Here’s some of the negative self-talk I’ve thought to myself before that I would NEVER say to or even think about another female runner (we are always harder on ourselves, of course): You shouldn’t wear short shorts to run in, even if they’re the most comfortable and appropriate for your trail run today. You don’t look good enough to wear those anymore. You need to buy some knee-length shorts, a-la Courtney Dauwalter! Or if you’re going to wear them, only wear them on obscure trails where you won’t run into anyone.
Or I look in the mirror before a run and think: Look at those dimples on your legs! Maybe you would look better in different lighting. How can those possibly be my legs? I work so hard.
But then I play the devil’s advocate and argue with myself: But who cares! Those legs power you up and down mountains! They’ve taken you on hundreds and hundreds of miles of trails over the years! They’ve powered your ski, bike, run, and hike adventures! These legs are amazing, no matter what they look like!
And that positivity might last for a while, but eventually the negative self-talk creeps back in.
I was scrolling through social media recently when I noticed a photo of some local collegiate-level track stars. I felt a bit shocked as I noticed that these women also had dimpled legs like me! Wow, I thought to myself. If even college-level track standouts have legs like mine, then maybe it’s just . . . normal???
This, of course, led me to some Google searching on cellulite. It’s described this way on mayoclinic.org: “It involves fibrous connective cords that tether the skin to the underlying muscle, with the fat lying between. As fat cells accumulate, they push up against the skin, while the long, tough cords pull down. This creates an uneven surface or dimpling.”
According to the website, cellulite is more common among women, though men can have it too. Hormonal factors, aging, genetics, weight, and muscle tone may all contribute to cellulite, and “even very fit people can have it.”
Okay, so it is normal for most women and even for athletes. So why does it still make me feel bad? I think it’s because it’s associated with fat, and fat has always been treated as a bad word in our society, even though it is just as necessary as muscle.
Stacy T. Sims, PhD (an athlete and scientist) and Selene Yeager (an athlete, coach, and personal trainer) co-wrote the book Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology For Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life. In it, they write that fat is not the enemy: “ . . . you can’t train, race, or even live without it.” This fat helps us with bodily functions, “from forming reproductive tissue to aiding the absorption of vitamins consumed in different foods.”
And women do have more fat than men: “The body-fat ranges for optimal health are 14 percent to 30 percent for women and 6 percent to 25 percent for men.”
Fat and cellulite might not be our favorite attributes, but they are part of us and they are not going anywhere. It is easier said than done, but learning to celebrate (or at least tolerate) our cellulite is critical. My negative self-talk in the mirror and hesitation to wear short running shorts are fortunately as far as my hatred of my own cellulite has driven me. But I fear that it could also lead to more serious issues for some women, such as eating disorders or unhealthy dieting and under-fueled running as women try to achieve that defined, sinewy-legs-look that men seem to sport so easily.
So how do we learn to love our dimpled legs?
I think the first step is talking about it and normalizing cellulite (hence this article).
Maybe the next step is allowing negative self-talk to seep in (because it inevitably will), but always countering it with reminders of how strong our legs truly are and remembering all they’ve enabled us to do.
Maybe it takes a commitment to short shorts if that’s what we like to wear, and refraining from flinching at the race day pic of us that shows cellulite on our legs.
Maybe we could even take to social media (GASP) and flaunt those less-than-perfect but all so real pics of us, dimpled legs and all (#loveyourlegs).
Because, yeah, having a fit or toned body is a nice bonus of running. But at the end of the day, we take to the trails for far more important reasons than that. We run to get outside, to become stronger, to invest and believe in ourselves, to push our boundaries, and to adventure in new, beautiful places. Running is an act of self-love, because we know it makes us happy. And part of self-love is loving those legs, exactly as they are, dimples and all.
Feature Photo: Enrique Romero