fitness · running

Brittany Runs a Marathon: fitspo in body-positive clothing

CW: images and talk of weight loss and discussion of movie theme that connects weight loss to increased fitness and happiness.

Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen this movie. But: I have read a bunch of articles about it, including interviews with the main actor, Jillian Bell and a really interesting Runner’s World piece by marathoner Kate Brown, who identifies as fat.

So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.

This movie, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is more subtle that that. Here’s the overall plot, from our friend Google:

A hard-partying woman receives a startling wake-up call when a visit to the doctor reveals how unhealthy she is. Motivated to lose weight, she soon takes up running to help her prepare for her ultimate goal of competing in the New York City Marathon.

Here’s a synopsis I like better, from Kate Browne’s essay:

Before she starts running, Brittany is sad and lonely, prone to self-destructive behavior and overindulgence resulting in an out-of-control life. As a runner, Brittany shows commitment by not partying too much before a weekend long run. When she starts running, Brittany is portrayed as fat, gross, and childish. After her first workout running around the block, she returns to her apartment so drenched in sweat that her family comments on it during a video chat. Then we see a montage that depicts Brittany becoming slimmer, more stylish, and more confident with each workout. Her weight loss continues and she finally reaches the New York City Marathon finish line glowing, but not sweaty.

In all the interviews and promo materials, the producers and director and star of the film insist that this movie is not about how weight loss and physical activity are the keys to a happy life. In the trailer, there’s a voice-over from one of the characters, saying “You changing your life was never about your weight” at the same time that we see quick-cut edits of Brittany rowing and doing strength training exercises at the gym with a noticeably smaller body. And then there’s this:

Yes, it's before-and-after photos of Brittany. She's standing, holding a soda on the left and running on the right.
Yes, it’s before-and-after photos of Brittany. She’s standing, holding a soda on the left and running on the right.

There are some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:

  • Health problems should first be addressed by losing weight
  • Weight loss is possible to achieve through physical activity
  • Weight loss makes physical activity possible and easier and better and more fun
  • Some deep-seated emotional problems will resolve through weight loss and physical activity

The reality is very different. First, from Kate Browne:

I am a fat runner. I know this because I can’t assume that running stores will carry clothing in my size. I started running for the same reason that Brittany’s friend Seth (Micah Stock) does—to show my kid that I could do the impossible. I joined my local running club and started running for 30 seconds at a time. As I bumped up against each new milestone, I had to quiet the voice in my head that told me I didn’t get to call myself a runner. Thirty seconds became a minute, then a mile, then a marathon. I have emotional highs and lows like every other runner. I can tell you stories about racing in terrible weather and every time my watch failed to connect to my GPS. I have a prerace ritual, a set of mantras for when I hit a wall, and a certain way I like to tie my shoes. 

She also has a TEDx talk, called How I found real fitness inspiration, saying no to fitspo. You can check it out here.

Thinking about fitspo before-and-after images sent me to my own photo archives. Here’s some of what I found:

Me in 2005, screaming around a corner at the end of my first (of two) triathlons. Pardon the graininess of the image…

43-year-old Catherine at the end of the bike leg of the Danskin women's triathlon, summer 2005.
43-year-old Catherine at the end of the bike leg of the Danskin women’s triathlon, summer 2005.

That was the year I really started to learn about cycling. I raced on my road bike and mountain bike and cyclocross bike. I’ve done long rides and short intense training sessions. Over time, those intense sessions got replaced by fun rides with friends and family. Some long, some short, some in kit, some in casual clothing. These are photos from 2012 through last Friday.

My body is older and bigger than it was in 2005. It’s also still moving me along on two wheels. Yes, I have fitness goals for the future– I want to be able to ride longer distances again, try my hand/wheels at bike touring, and continue to use a bike for transportation as much as I can, wherever in the world I am. We shall see how these play out over time.

Brittany runs a marathon? Good for you, Brittany. But so does Kate. And Catherine rides a bike. And is still going.

Readers, how do you react to all the fitspo messaging in media? How do you keep yourself grounded amidst all that hype? I looked to images of me with friends, doing an activity I love. What about you? What connects you to your currently moving self? I’d love to hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Brittany Runs a Marathon: fitspo in body-positive clothing

  1. Great post, Catherine. I was disappointed but not surprised (haven’t seen it either). The cultural narrative is so strong. And the training montage, complete with body transformation, got galvanized in Rocky and has never looked back. At least someone said “it was never about that.” But it does sound like it was about that (I guess we won’t really know unless we see the film, which sounds just terrible).

  2. I wrote something just like this on my Facebook wall. I hate messages like this and I think the fat shaming is clear. My sister called me and said I was taking it personally because “I used to be really fat and then got fit.” (Her words) and also something about shaming runners (not true but I don’t love running). While I was much bigger and am much fitter now, I despise the narrative that fat women are irresponsible and can change their lives just by losing weight. But good for Brittany. I hope she realizes losing weight doesn’t make you a better person.

  3. Awesome post! It’s just like all the diets that claim to be a “lifestyle change”. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still rooted in diet culture. We need more love, whether towards others or ourselves.

  4. Great post Catherine. This is classic bait and switch fat shaming. I found it particularly hilarious (in a grrrr way) that in the before and after photos SHE IS CLEARLY THE SAME SIZE! All that changes is the styling; we are asked to judge her on the left, and admire her on the right. That photo was the first thing I saw when I opened your post, and before I worked out the subject I actually thought it was a joke before/aft image. Good grief!

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