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running while female

I hate running. I hate any form of exercise that doesn't have some other point to it, like going for a hike through beautiful landscape or riding a horse. I've been on loads of sports teams and the competitive aspect of them bored me to tears. I used to run or cycle to Greenwich, and I'd often end up rewarding myself with a nice sticky bun and coffee in the wonderful bakery there.

I love food so much that I know I need to exercise. I also love my work, and it's more than a full-time job, it's about four jobs. So the obvious solution for me is to do a form of exercise that I can do quickly and efficiently. I tried the local pool, but a visit, with all the faffing about, would take between two and three hours, leave me stinking of chlorine, and I could write a whole other blog post (or novel) about the weird and embarrassing things that happened there.

So running it is, fully clothed; I can throw open my front door, do it, come home, wash, and get to work. I once even kind of, well, not enjoyed it, but got to the place where I could run ten miles and feel okay. That was in rural Lancashire, and I could see lambs being born, pretty old cottages, big sky. I'd run to the Cumbria border, smack the road sign satisfyingly with my hand, then run back. Now I run in London. It's horrible. And this is why:

Every friggin' day. Sometimes I get one comment, sometimes five or six. Often mocking marriage proposals. Guys constantly feel the need to describe all the various bits of my body to me, as though I don't know how I look. Sometimes they say what they'd like to do to those various bits, particularly to and up my backside (which is ample, and what of it?). Half the time they're complimentary, half of the time it sounds like they're questioning my very right to be running in public since I don't look like a fit runner. All of the comments are annoying.

...Actually, once it was amusing, when it came from a woman. She was dressed in a burqa and when she saw me, her face lit up with an enormous smile, and her hands made sculpting motions in the air. 'Your body, your hips, your backside, they are WONDERFUL'. That incident made me blush far more than any of the things any of the men had said, but I didn't hate it, it made me go a bit giggly inside, not knowing what to think.

Yesterday I read this article by a woman in Seattle named Courtney Meaker, who sounds an awful lot like me. I'm originally from the Seattle area, I'm no lightweight, we even look a bit alike, and we both get harassed. She even gets harassed when she walks, which may reflect an attitude in Seattle where people are suspicious of anyone who's on a main road, outside of a park or designated exercise area, and who isn't driving. At least in London, people are used to seeing other people walk, which is one of the reasons I want to live here. It's an interesting article, quite a grim read: Walking While Fat and Female - Or, Why I Don't Care Not All Men are Like That.

I hadn't really thought about this 'Not All Men!' thing, but when I grump occasionally on Twitter about my morning run, guys sometimes have popped up to say, 'It's not all men! We're not all like that!'. That's okay, I know all men are not like that. In the comments to Meaker's article, there are a couple comics on this subject, including this one by Matt Lubchansky:

And more simply:

Now I don't want to go on a big rant about how our culture has gone to the dogs; on the contrary, I think I live in the best possible time for women so far in history. I can do pretty much what I like and go where I want, I can decide if I want or don't want children, I can have a good job. I can be healthy with good medicine, I can have my terrible eyesight corrected with good glasses, I LOVE my culture right now. I notice on the Internet that the blog posts which go viral are the ones that make people gasp with horror and get them very angry. A friend said to me, 'Outrage is the currency of the Internet'. People like a good outrage every day, and they feel like they're better people when they get outraged and click 'like' or 'share' on Facebook. Well, I don't care if I make you outraged, I'd rather make you think, calmly and constructively. Which is one reason why this post will never be read more than a couple hundred people, at most.

It's not enough to boil the issue down to SEXISM. Sexism is too wide in its a scope. I want to make great picture books, not spend my life on the Internet, banging on about how horrible sexism is, and highlighting each time it happens. What Meeker and I are dealing with is tangled in a lot of complex issues: yes, sexism, but Meaker's also dealing with Americans' strange relationship to driving, as something that defines and gives value to a person. I'm also dealing with sexism, but also with cultural misunderstandings, bullying, attitudes toward personal space and attitudes toward exercise. And I'll say one thing that makes me a bit nervous to say: almost every single comment I get in my neighbourhood comes from a black man with an African or Caribbean accent. I do get comments from white men, but only once every ten runs or so. I NEVER get comments from black men with British accents. I'm very reluctant to point this out on Twitter because I worry my observation will get warped by other people into an anti-black, anti-immigration statement. And nothing could be further from the truth: I'm an immigrant myself, and I've brought some of my own ugly cultural habits with me.

With these guys, I'm not sure they're aware how much they're being total jerks. There's a lot more appreciation for full figures in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, and they may actually think they're being complimentary. African women in my neighbourhood wear dresses that emphasise the size of their bums. Here's a comic I once made about it:

I suspect some of the guys see their remarks as affectionate teasing rather than bullying. I've noticed generally that guys from these cultures are very chatty in public, and comment on everything. And I have a theory that the reason I've never had a single comment from a black man with a British accent is that these guys find their dads and their dads' friends' behaviour horribly embarrassing, and veer the other way, being even more polite than non-black guys. (That's just my totally unfounded theory.) But I can't get inside their heads, I don't really know what motivates any of them. And yes, whatever cultural sensitivity I might have, their comments are still VERY ANNOYING. I've only ever seen one other chubby girl jogging in our park, and just once. I wonder why she stopped, and feel a bit sad. Now it's just sleek runners with greyhound physiques. And me, sometimes.

A local friend on Facebook offered to give me some self-defense classes. But I don't actually feel threatened by these guys, possibly because I'm so large, but also, I think it's just talk. It's the constant feed of it that's so demoralising. When I get set to go on my run, I feel a wash of dread pour over me. It's bad enough having to exercise, but WHY can't these guys just leave me alone? Top comments from Meaker's article:

Someone suggested to me that I do yoga instead. Another suggested wearing headphones. Good suggestions, but I felt my shackles go up: why MUST I change my behaviour because of these guys? I WANT fresh air, I don't want to go into a sweaty, horrible gym or yoga studio; I've decided running is the most convenient thing for me. As for headphones, I listen to music all day in my studio, so I really want to be alone with my thoughts and hear the sounds of the world around me - the birds, the wind, conversations, traffic that might pose a danger, everything except these men's comments. So I stick out my lower lip and head out, with pigheaded determination. Or not. In fact, I should be running now, but I'm BLOGGING instead. Yes.

But I was saying that I wish people could think calmly and constructively about this subject. I don't know how to address it, it's so complicated. I can't change a culture way off in Africa or the Caribbean. And I'm no expert on exercise and public spaces. So where can I look, to make things better?

Well, public space and exercise: One thing I noticed when I went to China was that there was public exercise equipment dotted everywhere around the cities, particularly in Beijing. My family and I went at 8am to Tiantan Park and saw such a wonderful array of people exercising, young and old, all different shapes. Some people, particularly old people, used the time to socialise as well as exercise, and other people seemed contentedly lost in their own little worlds. Some people were doing slightly odd things, like cracking bullwhips or going through strange stretches, but no one paid any notice (except me and my ogling family). Here's some video footage I shot; some of the stuff almost moved me to tears, it seemed so right.

Beijing is a much more homogeneous society, there wasn't the same clash of cultures that happens in my local park. But I loved the way that outdoor exercise was normal, and promoted by the availability of exercise equipment everywhere. We had some equipment recently put into one of our local parks, but there are no panels explaining how to use the equipment, and the strange wooden nubbins and bars are a total mystery to me. I half-heartedly tried out a few things on them, but the movements didn't feel right. I once spotted some equipment more like Beijing's in a park by the Holloway Road. I wish we had Beijing's culture of exercise, it would make me more cheerful about getting old. But I think the exercise comes out of a rather repressive history, where everyone was MADE to exercise at certain times, and a lot of people in Britain won't want to do something for the exact reason that someone in authority is telling them that they're supposed to do it. So I don't know if we could bring over that part of Chinese culture.

The other thing is confidence. If we can't change the guys in our neighbourhood, maybe we can help give our local girls more confidence that their bodies are okay, and it doesn't matter what guys tell them. I can't completely counter the barrage of body dictates girls get every day, but at least I can draw some girls into my books who are beautiful and not stick-thin. I'm particularly proud of Iris the mermaid from Oliver and the Seawigs, she's my alter-ego. I think I can rightly claim that she has the biggest backside of any mermaid in children's publishing at the moment. And she's LOVELY.

It also cheers me up a bit, that fat or less fat, there are positives to being both. If I'm less fat, I fit better into my clothes and feel better when my legs don't rub. But when I'm a bit fatter, I think, hey, maybe I can be an inspiration to girls like me, who think they have to be thin to succeed in what they do. It's not true, you can go on stage, and wear fabulous costumes, and do it all WHILE CHUBBY. Or, at least, we ought to be able to. I feel like a pioneer.

That gives me enough hope to go on my run now. ...If I can find my shoes.


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 15th, 2014 09:31 am (UTC)
Completely brilliant
That. Just that. Well bloomin said.
May. 15th, 2014 01:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Completely brilliant
Thank you!
Re: Completely brilliant - ext_1651577 - May. 15th, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 15th, 2014 09:37 am (UTC)
I read your thread on Facebook about this and it filled me with helpless rage. But I know what you mean about these guys probably not realising that they're being jerks. Good on you for running whether or not! (Everyday I walk/run in my normal clothes - pretending I'm just running to catch the bus. This is because I don't have faff time to walk/run in running clothes but it seems to attract less attention than when I look like I'm dressed for exercise. Or maybe a flat chest doesn't get the same press!)

Candy (LiveJournal wouldn't let me log in)
May. 15th, 2014 01:21 pm (UTC)
Hi, Candy! I'd much rather go jump on your trampoline! :) Oh wait, the last time I did that I got a bit overexcited and almost had to go to A&E... I still remember climbing up to Highgate afterward, with a sprained ankle, to go see Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier give their talk. Ha ha, GOOD TIMES.
April Nash
May. 15th, 2014 10:33 am (UTC)
I love how concise you are with your blog posts, and yes, I'd say you're an inspiration to children (and adults alike) You make interesting points and questions about behaviour - That I hope will spark other behaviours and questions in others

- and I hope it doesn't' put you off running too much, especially as you're doing so well to keep it up (I'm not a runner either - I hate it!)

You're awesome Sarah :) x
May. 15th, 2014 01:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Running!
I went running today, but I'd only managed to go once in the last three weeks, what with my parents visiting, then the Spain Book Tour. I used to be part of a rowing club in Greenwich, but more and more Saturday book events meant I couldn't keep up with the rest of the crew. (Who were all incredibly fit men, since I was too tall to row with the women.) Ha ha, I think I have a particularly flattering picture or two back from then...

Re: Running! - Rab Ratbag - May. 17th, 2014 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
Nick Cross
May. 15th, 2014 11:25 am (UTC)
It just makes me so sad and angry to hear experiences like this - I can't imagine how I would feel if people made personal comments about me when I was out exercising, and it doesn't seem fair that as a man I'm somehow protected from this sort of abuse (and it is abuse, even if the men involved don't see it that way).

If you didn't live in London, I'd suggest cycling - moving faster means that people have less time to assess you, and you also move out of earshot quicker. Plus, you can run down repeat offenders ;-)

May. 15th, 2014 01:38 pm (UTC)
Cheers, Nick. I don't know about the danger levels, most of the people I know who've been mugged, beaten up or pickpocketed in London have been men. I think the people in the most danger around here of being actually killed or seriously wounded are black boys/men aged 10-25 or so. But the harassment thing sort of hangs over all of us like a heavy cloud.

I do like cycling, but I find the regularity of the running pace gives me a better cardio workout for the amount of time spent than the fast-slow-flat-hills variety of cycling. My favourite car-free cycle paths in London are almost totally flat, by the river, and I cruise along them without even breaking a sweat. The other option is the hills, which are VERY steep, and I end up pushing my bike up them and swearing a lot. (But one of my knees a bit dodgy, I might have to revert to cycling if it flares up.)

Swimming's the best thing; if I could do it all by myself, with perfectly clean changing rooms, right next to my house, I'd be there in a flash. Heh, I tried the all-women weekly swim at Deptford pool and it was MOBBED, like ten women to a lane. And oddly, all the lifeguards were men, which, if I had gone there for Muslim religious reasons, would have meant I couldn't swim.
Katherine Langrish
May. 15th, 2014 04:27 pm (UTC)
Go Sarah! Fab post, keep running.
May. 15th, 2014 08:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks! :)
Alison Mutton
May. 15th, 2014 04:30 pm (UTC)
Amazingly, you posted this the same day that a contributor to our newspaper wrote an editorial on receiving wholly derogatory comments from a car full of men, while waiting at traffic lights. It's terrible that we can't leave the house without being free from comments about what we look like and what we're wearing, and it must have reached a point where everyone has just decided that enough is enough.

My solution was to get a dog (we had a dog before, but he was old, and hated my guts, refusing to walk with me): I used to sit at home all day, because I didn't like being harassed by mobs of teenagers when walking alone. I'd ride my bike to uni, and that was it as far as exercise was concerned. Now I *have* to walk the dog (or else she becomes completely mental) but I've found that even the revolting kids who try and wipe you off the footpath and swear at you steer just that little bit clear of me, even though my dog is fairly small (at least by the standards of our local oval, which is full of great danes and other enormous beasties) and a complete sook. It's made me much more confident to just go for walks, and any conversation or remarks I do get are 99% of the time directly related to the dog, not me. Maybe I look like I might have trained my spaniely thing to be an attack dog...

But I agree, the idea that *you* have to change *your* behaviour because of other people just isn't on. It goes against the grain to even consider doing that, but then you're still left with the distress, as though we're not allowed to have a win-win situation.
May. 15th, 2014 08:42 pm (UTC)
That's interesting! My studio mate's found the reverse, with the dog. I guess people don't mess with him (it's a staffie), but they fawn all over his dog when he's on the train and it gets the dog all needlessly excited, and he doesn't always welcome the ensuing conversations. (It's quite a popular dog with chavvy, rough types.)
May. 15th, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
I *always* wear headphones when running (although I run in the safe environments of the seafront, and the countryside, where traffic isn't a concern).

This didn't stop me from hearing the workmen who sang "Who let the dogs out?" as I went by, sweaty and tired after a run. Oh dear me, I am *so sorry* I'm not a slim, young, blonde person and that I had the temerity to dress in sportswear.

Bah, I'm glad you've written about this though.

May. 15th, 2014 08:44 pm (UTC)
Jeez, that's low of them. :p
(no subject) - ellenlindner - May. 19th, 2014 01:37 am (UTC) - Expand
awful - (Anonymous) - Aug. 16th, 2014 12:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: awful - (Anonymous) - Aug. 16th, 2014 12:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 15th, 2014 05:23 pm (UTC)
I always think when I see you in the pictures you publish that you are absolutely lovely.
I am not a man and no authority on the matter of a woman's attractiveness but I believe the "commentators" find you irresistible!
May. 15th, 2014 08:46 pm (UTC)
Cheers! But I don't think it really matters how I look; when you meet a new person, you don't immediately discuss their backside, before even saying hello, or talk about what you'd like to do with it. Even if it's well-intended, it's horribly rude. :-/
(no subject) - sie_will_es - May. 16th, 2014 09:53 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 15th, 2014 06:29 pm (UTC)
Best blog post ever!
Well said. Thank you so much Sarah. You are a complete inspiration- Iris is wonderful and so are you! - renita
May. 15th, 2014 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Best blog post ever!
Thanks, Renita! x
Sarah Bibby
May. 16th, 2014 08:06 am (UTC)
Stiff (if slightly sweaty) upper lip
Loved this blog post. I run too and often get derogatory and/or complimentary comments/whistles. Regardless of their intent, they are hugely irritating but I find the best way to deal with it is to be typically British and maintain a stiff (albeit sweaty) upper lip and just ignore them. Once they've been blanked a few times, the comments usually peter out (though this is obviously more of a problem in the city where you're less likely to encounter the same hecklers on a regular basis).
May. 16th, 2014 09:26 am (UTC)
If it's any consolation to you, I also get hassled, abused and mocked when running. I'm a 45-year-old bloke. Not particularly good-looking or fit, but average. I was abused by an old hag with her grandchild yesterday. I was running in the road and she was about to cross from one pavement to another. She decided I could stop for her, and when I ran around her she called me a twat. I've been parped by bunches of girls in a car. Been shouted at by bunches of lads in a car. Been deliberately blocked by chavs to force me off the pavement. It seems that there's a hardcore of people who despise runners for trying to make a change, trying to improve, trying to get fit and healthy. They're mostly despicable people too with a reason to hate themselves and thus hate others - they're usually obese, down-at-heel, ugly. I take the moral high ground. I know I'm better than them. They can eat my dust.
May. 16th, 2014 02:17 pm (UTC)
My hero
This needs to be said more and you say it and show it so well. Another reason why I love you to bits. Sharing everywhere. xx
May. 16th, 2014 03:17 pm (UTC)
Love this article
I too experience this whilst out running. I often run around walthamstow (where I live in London) and experience comments at least once on every run. For me it's not actually about what you look like. I'm a slim girl in my mid twenties and get constant leering (particulary along forest road), wether walking or running. The culture of the men is different though - mostly Eastern European or Muslim. Again, very very rarely anyone British. I also don't want to sound racist. I love the ethnic diversity in London. However I am sick to death with men commenting on my body whenever I pass them. I am not a peice

of meat.

In contrast I also regularly run in chiswick (where I work). Only once did anyone ever heckle me (a builder).

May. 16th, 2014 03:22 pm (UTC)
I too experience this whilst out running. I often run around walthamstow (where I live in London) and experience comments at least once on every run. For me it's not actually about what you look like. I'm a slim girl in my mid twenties and get constant leering (particularly along forest road) wether walking or running. The culture of them men is different though - mostly Eastern European or Muslim. Again, very very rarely anyone British. I also don't want to sound racist. I love the ethnic diversity in London. However I am sick to death with men commenting on my whenever I pass them. I am not a price of meat.

In contrast I also regularly run in chiswick (where I work). Only once did anyone ever heckle me (a builder).
May. 17th, 2014 12:17 pm (UTC)
Brilliant blog. After trying different forms of exercise, I've found bootcamp to be my favourite. Lots of motivation from the P.T. and lots of other equally unfit people to work out with. It's outside, come rain or shine, and less comments from idiots because they are intimidated by all of us. Love susannah x
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Sarah McIntyre

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