I don’t know how I ended up on Tracksmith’s mailing list. They’re a Boston-based company that makes running clothes, which is cool, but they’re way out of my price range. They also espouse a kind of “classic” Ivy league elitism that makes me roll my eyes even while I find it compelling. Because of this, I’ve never bought anything from them, yet somehow I received a Tracksmith mailer. It opened with an article about how running is a gift, even when there are no races on the calendar and your only competition is yourself, which resonated with me enough that I kept flipping the pages.
The pictures grabbed me by the heart. The models were real runners, some of them Tracksmith employees, others athletes from all over the country, all of them competitive amateurs. They were photographed mid-stride, or mid-stretch, or mid-core routine, just like the models for every other athletic apparel company, but these runners weren’t fitness models. They didn’t have perfectly sculpted bodies. They looked like me. They were all skin and bones, elbows sharp as knives, Garmin watches massive on their stick-thin wrists. Their ribs were visible all the way up their chests, just like mine. Their legs were lean muscle, like mine, but they didn’t have much for pecs or delts. These people had the bodies that often result from prioritizing mileage. Just like me.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, I felt at peace with my toothpick wrists and washboard ribs. I felt like my body was okay. This is rare for me, even in body positive online spaces. Most body image discussions focus on women, who are told to be as small and delicate as possible. I fully support centering women in that conversation. Women do need to hear that their bodies are amazing no matter their size or shape, and society is especially cruel to women and other feminine people who don’t fit its beauty standards. At the same time, men face body image issues as well, both big men and small men, and we aren’t often encouraged or allowed to discuss it. Bigger men face similar issues as bigger women, but many smaller men have a different problem. We are told to be Captain America. We are told we need muscle. We can’t have body fat, just like women can’t, but we also have to be jacked. Small equals unmanly.
As someone raised as a girl, believing society’s lie that I needed to be thin, it’s ironic to grow up and come to believe society’s lie that what I actually need to do is stop being thin and become muscular, like a Real Man. My body wasn’t good enough when I was supposed to be a woman; it’s still not good enough now that I’m trying to be a man, but for the opposite reason. No one in this system ever wins, especially not transgender people.
Of course, it’s easy to find thin male models in the arena of fashion, but those images don’t give me any kind of solace. There’s a vast difference between the fashion industry’s glorification of bodies that fit their beauty standard and Tracksmith’s glorification of bodies that are literally in the middle of running. I don’t want to see a body like mine held up as something for non-skinny people to aspire to. I don’t want to be objectified. That makes me feel worse. I don’t feel a connection with the supernaturally handsome man staring disdainfully into the distance. I feel a connection with the man whose nose is red from the cold, his hair flying around his face, his shirt dark with sweat, caught in the middle of a ten mile run. Tracksmith isn’t glorifying him because he’s beautiful. They’re glorifying him because he gets up before sunrise in the middle of winter to run ten miles. That’s a kind of glory that speaks to me.
I suppose I could also look to the world of professional long distance runners if I want to see people with my body type celebrated, though of course I have more fat on my frame than most of them do. Professional runners, however, don’t have the same affect on me for much the same reason that fashion models don’t. Their job requires that they spend their lives maintaining a certain type of body so that they can race as fast as possible. That’s never going to be my life, and that’s not an ideal to which I aspire. Tracksmith specifically, intentionally chooses competitive amateurs, because that’s their target customer. I’m not particularly competitive, but I’m working on it. Seeing people like me celebrated in high quality photo shoots because of the activity we love to do makes me think, hey, it doesn’t actually matter what I look like. This sport has the tendency to turn us all into walking skeletons, but that’s totally fine. We can even embrace it.
This message is obviously not the same message that a runner who isn’t thin is going to get from Tracksmith. A medium or plus-sized runner would probably feel alienated by these skinny models, and recognizing that makes me even less likely to want to shell out the cash for these expensive clothes. Surely the company could find some competitive amateur runners to include in their photo shoots who aren’t thin. They’re doing a great job finding runners of various skin colors, but maybe they can branch out and give a plus-sized runner the same feeling that I had when I opened their mailer and saw someone who looked almost exactly like me.
Even if I’m not going to buy anything from Tracksmith, I’m keeping their mailer. When I’ve seen too many jacked and shredded fitness models and I feel like I need to stop running and start going to the gym and pumping iron so I can get cannonball shoulders, which is a feeling I have on a regular basis, I’ll take a look at these pictures and remind myself that walking skeletons are cool, too. And running skeletons are even cooler.