Fat Vegan Trail Runner

Within the past year, I have  become better friends with my body, developed a better relationship with food, and rediscovered the joy in exercising. Warning: this blog post could be, may be one day, a whole book.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve struggled with my body image. Emblazoned in my mind is a pediatrician’s appointment from third or fourth grade in which my doctor described me as smart, athletic, funny, and almost perfect: “You’re practically perfect, but we need you to lose some weight, because you’re way too much overweight.” At this point in my life, I played softball, spent my days playing outside in the woods, and was generally a joyful kid, but it stung to know that my body was the thing about me that was out of control and keeping me from being “perfect.” Who tells a child that they are practically perfect anyway?!

For my entire life, I have tried to be an athlete, sometimes succeeding more than others, but, even when I was finishing my Muncie 70.3, there was a voice somewhere inside me saying, “You were almost last, you almost didn’t finish, and you don’t deserve this.” I played it off and reveled in my finish, but then I tried a marathon the next fall and only made it to mile 15 before allergies (damn ginkgo trees) caused me not to finish.

And, it wasn’t until I sat down to have coffee with my friend Molly, that I pieced together my biggest fear for five or more years has been my body betraying me again. I’ve said I was going to train for runs, I’ve wasted money on races I didn’t even start, and I’ve started running again two or three times each year since then, before simply stopping and finding an excuse. I didn’t have faith in my body. Because she is allergic. Because she is fat. Because I didn’t believe in her.

But mostly, because for some reason, I forgot that being fat isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Being fat certainly isn’t the worst thing to happen to me. There is a whole host of other things I’ve done or experienced which I could write about, have written about, and probably won’t ever write about that are worse than my being fat.

But a switch flipped in me during that beautiful conversation with Molly (everyone should get a friend like Molly), and this year after 40-ish years of struggling to perceive myself as powerful and beautiful—I’ve always feigned knowledge of my fat body’s beauty and power—I have finally come to really believe that my body is, in fact, beautiful and powerful. And fat. And I can be friends her.

I. Am. Beautiful. Powerful. Fat.

During this whole reflective process, I also looked back at my writing here and elsewhere, and I reflected back on my diet choices since 1992, the first time I went vegetarian, and I realized that every time I make a food choice, the underlying motive is weight loss, even when I try to pretend it isn’t. I became vegetarian when I went to college to avoid gaining weight living in the dorms. And I ate so many grilled cheese sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and salads with bad thousand island dressing and spaghetti with marinara, because there weren’t delicious vegetarian and vegan choices in dorm cafeterias like there are now.

Then I started eating meat again when I took my required PE class, because my professor said that she got sick being vegetarian in college (she neglected to mention that she was a marathon runner on a scholarship and was running 100+ miles each week without vegetarian nutritional coaching). So I started eating a lot of chicken and broccoli and “healthy” foods to lose weight without getting sick. And then I went through the phase with no money and ate ramen and Hawaiian punch for every meal, because ramen was $0.10 and I could get a 48 oz. Hawaiian Punch at the Discount Den for $0.69 and it would last all day. And I lost a lot of weight.

Then I became vegan, because that was where you could really restrict your fats and all those things you shouldn’t eat, but I said it was for the animals and the politics, and it kind of was, because I love them, and I read The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams.  But it all kind of had to do with controlling the size of my body, which was the “only thing” that made me imperfect.

I’d go for incessant runs, lift weights, swim, bike, and do it all without adequate fuel in my body. Basically, my whole life, day to day, was like the one scene in Brittany Runs a Marathon where she gives herself a stress fracture. My hair started to fall out, and everyone blamed it on my vegan diet, because that’s the part of my life they knew about. So I cycled through every single diet (Atkins, Paleo, Weight Watchers, that weird one with the cards and the milkshakes, the fasting thing, the juice thing, the military diet, you get it), every single exercise regimen known to man (weight lifting, cardio, Richard Simmons, kickboxing, aerobics at the local gym, and well you get it again). And every single time I tried something new, I just knew it was going to fail, because it wasn’t who I am.

All of that to say, because of my ethical and moral compass, I believe that being vegan is the best dietary choice for me, but it took until October of this year, even before that coffee conversation, and as a 45 year old woman with a couple of graduate degrees, for me to realize that I couldn’t become vegan to lose weight. And I love the choice for compassion—not against calories—I made in October while snuggling one of my backyard chickens, so I eat whatever I want as long as it does no harm to animals. I try to make sure my choices do as little harm to anyone or anything, choosing fair trade, organic, and all those fancy things when I can. I have to be vegan to follow my heart and my conscience. I have to be vegan to be powerful and beautiful. And I’ll probably still be fat.

Finally, I have rediscovered the joy of exercise by doing what I enjoy: swimming, trail running, hiking, and in the spring, biking. And doing these things for the sole purpose of joy, not weight loss. Because I went for so long without really running just pretending to do so, I am really slow, and I’d be telling tales if I that doesn’t hurt my feelings and make me somewhat frustrated, but I am getting stronger and faster every day, and that to me is what it is about. Being better than yesterday. In all facets of life.

Being outside, on a trail, with no one around, is my greatest pleasure. In the words of one of my favorite runners and writers: “All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.” On the trail, there are only trees and plants, animals, the ground, and me. I can revel in the strength and power of my body, and I can align with the beauty of the natural world, and I don’t have to worry about what I perceive other people might be thinking about me. And maybe they aren’t thinking anything, which is fine too.

But what I am thinking while I run in the silence is: I am beautiful and powerful and fat.

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