“Skinny” Olympians at the Mini 10K: An Open Letter to NYRR

The following was written by my New York Harriers teammate Brigid Duffy and emailed to New York Road Runners (and subsequently posted to the team’s message boards). With her permission I’m sharing it here.

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Dear NYRR:

I was one of the 6,122 finishers who was fortunate enough to be part of the Mini 10k this past Saturday. Over the past several years I have run over 30 races with NYRR, including four NYC Marathons. While all of NYRR’s races are special and honor a multitude of wonderful causes, for me, the Mini always stands out as the most meaningful NYRR event. I’ve always thought of the Mini as less of a competition and more of a communal victory lap, where women of all ages can reflect, together, on how far we’ve come, not only within the running community, but within sports, the military, the workplace, and host of other social arenas. The Mini is the one race in the year when women are the athletes, and the men are on the sidelines cheering us on. It is with this in mind that I feel the need to voice a complaint concerning some of the pre-race announcements on Saturday.

While I was picking up my number and hanging around the baggage area on Saturday, the MC on the podium introduced some of the elite women athletes who would be competing in this year’s Mini. After introducing Edna Kiplagat, Hilda Kibet and a handful of other elite runners, the MC concluded: “They’re skinny, they’re fast, they’re Olympians!” Frankly, I was shocked that the first adjective used to describe the remarkable athletes in attendance was, “skinny.” In one sentence, the MC undermined exactly what makes this event empowering to women.

Women like Edna Kiplagat are remarkable and should be admired not because they are “skinny,” but because they are incredibly determined athletes who hopefully show other women that our bodies are capable of amazing feats. The MC’s comment implies that the chief accomplishment of our elite female runners is their slender frames and small waists. (Who cares about a sub 2:20 marathon if you’re a size zero?!) Moreover, the comment glosses over the fact that there is an extraordinary difference between “skinny” and “fit.” Glorifying our female athletes for their “skinniness” only reinforces the idea that a woman’s purpose, first and foremost, is to be objectified.

Everyday women are confronted with products, advertisements and airbrushed images that contain the same message: You are not skinny enough. Even perfectly healthy and fit women, when bombarded with these messages day after day, can begin to lament that their bodies do not live up to what is truly an impossible and unhealthy ideal. I have always maintained that sporting events, like NYRR’s races, give women the opportunity to value what their bodies can do over how their bodies appear. It is during races when women might start to realize, “I might not be 5’11” and 100 pounds, but I can run a damn good 10k.” Or, “I might not be a size 2, but I’m tough.” But these realizations can only endure if NYRR provides an environment where women feel comfortable in their own skin. Glorifying “skinny” female athletes because they are “skinny” creates a hostile space for all participants involved.

While I still enjoyed the race and the post-race festivities on Saturday, the MC’s comment was a major letdown. What is supposed to be a celebratory and esteem-boosting event for women was tainted by an insensitive and borderline sexist comment. I urge NYRR to be more responsible when it comes to the issue of women and body image within the running community, especially during the pre-race announcements.

– Brigid Duffy

6 Responses

  1. Great letter. It should also be noted that a significant part of the psychopathology of eating disorders begins with women trying to conform to societal cues as subtle as the “skinny” comment that was made. I would estimate that in a crowd of thousands listening to that comment, there were many hundreds of women who processed that comment as more than a subtextual reference, that is, they understood what was said. Most concerning is, there were many tens of women who equated the “skinniness” of those elite women as critical to their performance, and went away from the event deciding to do something in their diets, their training, or their lives to achieve the “skinniness” that is required to be “better”.

    Comments like these deserve severe and sustained critcism. Ms. Duffy should be commended for doing her part to provide it. And thank you for spreading the message, Julie.

  2. As a male runner who has struggled with lifelong weight and food issues, I am just as disturbed by the comments of this MC as the author of the above letter. Both men and women are affected by this type of objectification, no matter who is being addressed at the time. I am grateful that someone is paying attention and I hope that the MC does the right thing and let’s people know that skinniness isn’t what running is about.
    DP

  3. In fact you hosted an eating-disorders show at RRT, http://runnersroundtablepodcast.blogspot.com/2011/01/rrt-111-eating-disorders-and-exercise.html

    I agree that this was stupid and rapidly approaching (albeit unintentionally (I hope)) evil. And as the above guy said and as reflected in your RRT show and as told to me by a guy who ran in D1 when we discussed “She Was Once A Runner” that eating disorders are not just a women’s problem.

  4. This is why I love seeing athletes like Kara Goucher, who has a real woman’s body perform so well… you don’t have to be anorexic to run a fast race

  5. What an idiot. The NYRR club needs to sack that MC.

  6. NYRR sponsors so many running events dedicated to various diseases and medical conditions, but none which educates runners about the Athletic Triad of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. Meanwhile, many participants in NYRR events eat poorly (also drink to excess) and don’t see the association between poor nutrition/undereating and their frequent stress fractures.
    Since the Mini hasn’t had a sponsor in awhile, perhaps that should be the focus of future Minis!

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