Jennifer Graham, author of Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner, will tell you that she doesn’t run to lose weight. She runs because of how it makes her feel–despite the sometimes judgmental stares of neighbors and fellow runners and offers of rides from strangers while running.
Running is the one place where Graham has learned to accept her body, no matter how slow or how much her thighs chafe, as she writes in her book:
Most runners are ectomorphs: emaciated and square-jawed. Me, I’m an endomorph, possessed of a soft and thick body that looks as if it was stuffed to order at Build-A-Bear, not sculpted at an L.A. sports club. I look so unlike a runner that, when I first started jogging, passing motorists would pull over and ask if I needed a ride.
Not that we necessarily agree that most runners look “emaciated” as Graham puts it. In fact, we know there isn’t any truth to the idea that “skinny bodies do this” and “fat bodies do that”–or the idea that there’s only one kind of “runner’s body.” So to find out more about why she believes this and how running has changed her body image, we talked with Graham:
First off, congratulations on your new book! Why did you want to write this and what were you hoping to convey?
A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Newsweek magazine called “Confessions of a Fat Runner” and a guy from Tennessee wrote to me and said, “Hey, you should turn this into a book.” That’s the skeleton, the bones of the book. The other layers, the subterraneous levels of fat, are my desire to find my tribe, to connect with other endomorph runners who share my experience, and to help spread the word, to people of all sizes, that there is a fast track to joy, and it’s literally right outside their doors.
You talk a lot about the stereotypes of being an overweight runner. What have been some of the biggest ones?
Well, it’s a memoir, and so I talk about my own experience as an overweight runner, stuff that is true for me. I don’t speak for everyone. But in my journey, I’ve encountered many people who think that overweight equals unfit, and that fat people are lazy and undisciplined. Neither are necessarily true. You can’t run consistently – or do any kind of intense exercise consistently – without some serious inner steel.
Do you think these stereotypes are really more within your own mind than other people’s?
Of course, this is sometimes the case. As I say on page 202 of the book, “Often, when I think someone arrogant, the problem is not them, but me.” We all have a filing cabinet in our heads in which we categorize people based on our experience, and what the media and authority figures have taught us. Thankfully, the files are frequently updated – or should be, anyway. We either grow and change, or fossilize. That said, our culture is not often kind to the overweight. As a tribe, we are not much respected.
I am a runner too, and have done a lot of races. I can tell you that I have never been out there and thought it was easy for the skinny people and hard for the overweight ones. Why do you think that?
A road race is a glorious thing, a great leveler. It invites all who participate to suffer equally. It’s one of the many things that make our sport so great. I don’t believe that the physical act of running hard, of pushing yourself to the limit, is easier for the thin. But I do believe it takes a lot more guts to run down a public road when you look like walrus than when you look like a gazelle.
It seems like often times in your book you talk about “skinny people” and make it seem like things are so easy for them when it comes to running and their bodies. Don’t you think that’s stereotyping too?
Sure, and I make that clear toward the end of the book. Look, I have nothing against skinny people. I love skinny people. I hope to be one myself one day. But there are two kinds of skinny people. There are nice ones, like Ryan and Sarah Hall, and then there are mean ones who look so hungry that you’re scared they might eat you if you get too close. Those are the Shirtless Wonders that I talk about in my book.
What has been the hardest part about struggling with your weight?
The nagging sense of failure, the frustration that comes with the inability to solve a puzzle that looks like it should be easy, like lining up all the colors on a Rubik’s cube.
How has running helped you with your physical and mental health?
We all know that running won’t keep us alive; our bodies will fail us catastrophically at some point no matter how fit we become. But running can dramatically improve our quality of life and our capacity for work. Although I am still overweight after more than 20 years of running, my resting pulse is low, my blood pressure is excellent, and my cholesterol levels are decent. I sleep well at night and take no happy pills. Running both calms and exhilarates; it makes you ecstatically awake, not only during the run, but for hours afterwards. It’s a reliable source of joy that requires no doctor’s prescription.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned about your body through running?
Running teaches us that our bodies are incredibly wise, and if we listen intently, they will always tell us what we need to do next.
What advice would you give someone who is overweight and wants to start running?
Put on your most comfortable clothes, and your most comfortable shoes, and walk somewhere, even if it’s just to the mailbox. Then run back, slowly. The next day, do it again, only go a little bit longer. And the next day, even longer. Keep it up, listening carefully to your body about when it needs to work and when it should rest, and keep adding distance. One day, you’ll run a marathon, or at least will be able to retrieve your mail with lightning speed.
Wouldn’t you agree though that running is hard–but worthwhile–for everyone, no matter what your size?
You are so right. I think that everyone who CAN run, should run. And if you can’t run, you should walk as long and as fast and as often as you can. If everyone did, the whole country would be in a much better mood, and we wouldn’t worry so much about the price of gas.
Jennifer Graham, 50, is a writer and editor who lives in the suburbs of Boston. Before going freelance in 1999, she was a newspaper reporter and columnist, as well as a press secretary and speechwriter. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina. Graham writes regularly for The Boston Globe and other newspapers and magazines. Her book is Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner, and her website is www.jennifergraham.com.
Photo: shutterstock.com; and courtesy of Jennifer Graham