I want to talk about women in spandex.
Does this kit make me look fat?
Do you remember a few years ago when triathlete.com held a contest where our community voted on who, among photos submitted by fellow triathletes, had the best body? The magazine wrote:
Triathletes love showing off the bodies they work so hard to achieve. We’re touting the best bodies in the sport—and the hard work that goes in to creating them . . .
There’s a lot to unpack here. One is: Is working hard for the best body compatible with working hard to be the best triathlete?
For some, the answer is yes. Kona champion Daniela Ryf has posted pictures of herself modeling for Asics, Flower Power, and other fitness brands.
But not every elite woman is blessed with Ryf’s proportions and stunning cheekbones. Other women boast stockier leg muscles or bigger shoulders.
Why am I talking about women here?
Because focusing on body image in a competitive racing context is particularly detrimental to women. Elite women athletes vary much more widely in how their bodies look as compared to men. In addition, triathlon training increases muscle mass and lowers body fat—things that, culturally, increase a man’s attractiveness but decrease a woman’s.
Additionally, women are much more concerned with body image than men.
What this means is that women athletes are more likely to struggle with choices where having the “best body” conflicts with having the best performance.
Following her DNF at 70.3 Worlds last year, Holly Lawrence wrote this:
I've always been bigger than a lot of the female triathletes out there but it's never really bothered me . . . especially in long distance being strong has paid off.
While Lawrence admits she has noticed she looks bigger than other women, it didn’t bother her (implication: it should have bothered her) because bigger size correlates to greater strength. But then Lawrence describes what happened when she got injured and, because she wasn’t running, felt like she had to be more strict with her diet:
But here is the crazy part. All of a sudden everyone (and I mean everyone!) was telling me how good I looked and how "fit" I looked. It honestly fueled me to keep going, I felt so crap about the injury and how my training was going it felt good.
Any athlete who’s been injured knows what a toll that takes emotionally. But only women know how free people feel to compliment a woman who’s lost weight (regardless of whether she wanted to or not). Lawrence states that these compliments on her appearance provided such a strong emotional ballast to her worries about the injury that they motivated her to keep losing weight. Even though this cost her dearly on the race course.
This brings us to a second question the triathlete.com beauty contest compels me to ask: Is it Right for a triathlon magazine to be promoting this ethos around athletics as an avenue to a better body? Is this helpful or harmful—and for whom?
On a recent IronWomen podcast, a dad wrote in asking for advice about how to talk with his young girls about the potential sexualization or objectification of women in triathlon, particularly based on what we wear. How can he help his daughters navigate these issues?
In a way, this is a very dad question: he looks at his young girls running around in spandex and sexual objectification is, understandably, the first place he goes.
But I think this is such a tiny, tiny part of what women athletes navigate.
Things I have heard women talk about (but never men):
I’m worried that if I train harder on the bike, I’ll get those big biker quads.
Triathlon has made me so lean that now I want breast implants.
I don’t do upper-body strength training because my shoulders will get too big.
I don’t like pace lines because I don’t want some guy staring at my ass for three hours.
I need a thicker bra because I hate how my nipples poke out in my racing kit.
What makeup can I use that doesn’t come off for racing?
I had to throw in an extra workout because I ate so much.
I hate that picture of me running: look how you can see all my thigh muscles!
I don’t know where the line is on posting photos that celebrate strong women and the diverse array of packages we come in—versus posting photos that disengage women because they present images that are objectifying or unattainable or at odds with why most women join our community. Ryf did post one photo last year that, for me, definitely crossed it. She is posing in high heel boots and a jacket only barely covering her breasts. The explanation? And I quote: 😎
More than the potential sexualization with this photo, I worry that when women perpetuate the myth that we have to be world-class athletes while still looking like top models, we negatively impact women’s capacity to make wise decisions for their health and for their performance goals.
After dealing with your perhaps garden-variety low self-esteem and eating disorders in high school and college, I still catch myself with these habits that surprise even myself for their absurdity:
I look at how much weight I gain or lose as a measure of how much I am worth as a person.
I feel humiliated when my kids make comments about how much I eat.
When I look in the mirror, I evaluate how pretty I look first, if my outfit works second, and how fit I look third.
I am always looking at pictures of myself and thinking this or that part of me looks fat.
Up until only about a year ago, I would pinch my outter thigh every morning as a kind of measure, before I even got out of bed.
My husband doesn’t understand any of this. I am blessed with a man who loves my curvy parts and my hard parts too, who will love me when I quit triathlon and when I’m too old to board the plane without a wheelchair. I wish, for just one minute, I could see myself—really see myself—the way he sees me. And then I wish, for just one minute, that he could get in my head and look at my body through my eyes.
What if we could see ourselves through the eyes of the person who loved us the most? What if we could hold ourselves this tenderly and this sweetly? What if we could look at the heroines of this sport and see the best parts of ourselves? Our strength, our grit, our determination.
I think this means getting away from being told what triathlon is to us (the work we put in to create the best body) and instead reclaiming our own narrative, making our own image.
If you ask me about how I look, I’m going to tell you that triathlon changed my life. Triathlon gave me back my relationship with my mother, it’s how I met my husband. It’s brought me to new places, introduced me to new people. It gave me the courage to quit a job that I hated. Triathlon has shown me how artificial any limits that I impose on myself really are, how artificial any limits on human capacity really are.
This is my story and this is what I want you to see when you look at me.