Why a 'plump' runner on a magazine cover matters

Lindsey Swift Image copyright Women's Running

A woman has become the cover star of a running magazine after her open letter to a van driver who heckled her about her weight while she jogged went viral. Why has she struck a chord with so many?

In August Lindsey Swift wrote a Facebook post in frustration. She was out running when a man sang a "sarcastic" rendition of pop song Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) at her from a van.

In her open letter, Swift advised him that if the sight of her jogging offended him, "try driving with your eyes closed, into a lamppost". The post was only meant to be seen by her friends, but soon it had shared more than 25,000 times.

Now she's on the front of Women's Running UK. It's the first time the magazine has used a plus-size cover star.

Swift's story has struck a chord with runners. In particular, other female joggers compared their experiences of being heckled while out running.

Image copyright Women's Running

Swift, who is training for a 10km run, said she was heckled near Barnsley on 6 August. She said the drivers' behaviour could put someone less confident off running altogether.

She wanted to assert that "it's my body and it's done amazing things for me, whether it's fat or it's thin".

As well as the unpleasantness of being heckled, there's an obvious public health issue. Sport England recently launched its This Girl Can campaign. Its aim is "to get women and girls moving, regardless of shape, size and ability".

According to the campaign, millions of women and girls fear exercise because they're afraid of being judged. It says two million fewer women than men aged 14 to 40 play sport regularly.

Only 31% of 14-year-old girls regularly exercise, compared with half of boys the same age, says the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation.

These figures are little wonder given that so many women who run outdoors run a gauntlet of "leering, lewd comments and worse", according to Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism. Bates says thousands of women had shared accounts with the project of harassment as they exercised. Some said they had experienced this two or three times a week.

The harassment included verbal abuse about their appearance, unwanted sexual advances, having their paths blocked, as well as being groped and followed. "There's this sense of entitlement to women's bodies in public spaces," says Bates. "Many women write to say they've given up exercise as a result."

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, Swift said her post was only ever intended for her friends and "was just a way of taking control back for myself just by writing something a little bit funny".

She said her body had done "amazing things" irrespective of whether she was fat or thin and "I should be allowed to do what I want with it, whether that's running, and if it offends anybody then they should check their priorities".

Swift said she was getting much fitter since she began running.

"I'm a UK size 18 so I'm fairly plump," she adds. "My shape is changing but I haven't lost a dress size and I don't particularly want to.

Image copyright Women's Running

"It's just about being fit enough to do activities so now I have started running I can get out there in the countryside, I can play tennis, I can swim - it's a more active and enjoyable lifestyle."

The huge reaction to Swift's post suggests she speaks for many women. "Lindsey's story and the response she's had from women around the world shows that women are tired of being judged by their shape and speed when they're out doing the sport they love," says Elizabeth Hufton, editor of Women's Running UK.

However, Bates says there needs to be "a shift in social and cultural norms" if female joggers are to feel safe from harassment.

Part of the issue is the way runners are typically portrayed, says Alexandra Heminsley, author of Running Like a Girl. "There's a perception that you shouldn't be doing it unless you look like someone in a sportswear ad," she says.

This "self-perpetuating" myth is based on the false notion that running should be about being skinny rather than being healthy, she says, and it deters many of the people who would benefit most from taking up exercise. While women may be particularly affected by this, Heminsley says depictions of male runners are also skewed.

Matt Warr, 32, who lost seven stone (45kg) after he took up running, believes he experienced less abuse about his weight than a female jogger might have done - the fact he is 6ft 4ins (1.9m) tall may have deterred people. But when he started running and weighed 22 stone (140kg) there were a handful of incidents where he was targeted because of his size, including one where someone threw a milkshake at him.

"It's normally groups - it's never an individual on their own," he says. "They are usually travelling in cars. It's a cowardly thing to do."

But in terms of presentation, at least, change appears to be under way. Heminsley notes with approval that the August issue of Women's Running's US edition featured a plus-sized model, Erica Schenk, on its cover.

Hufton says the UK edition put Swift on the cover because a "one-size-fits-all" approach is no longer appropriate.

"It's time real female runners were given proper representation in the media," she says.

The running community is extremely welcoming of people of all sizes and abilities, she says, but many people were put off taking it up because they felt self-conscious jogging for the first time.

Now, however, "there's a bit of a shift happening - there's greater acceptance of different shapes and sizes and people aren't going to hide away any more", she adds.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm in training for my 4th marathon so think I'm an OK fitness level. However, not that long ago whilst out running I got told "suck it all in love" by a man in a white van! I've lost count of the amount of times I get beeped at and shouted at by men (or should I call them boys), while I'm out running. Most times I shrug it off but if I'm struggling with my run, it can really affect how I feel.

Emma, Bristol, UK

I'm overweight and I've had several nasty comments (all of them from men). It's made me afraid to leave the house in the past, and I feel I have to avoid places where it's happened for months afterwards. I no longer go for walks for exercise and running would be out of the question. I hate that some people think it's ok just to shout out abuse at women going about their business.

Debbie, Worthing, UK

It's not a problem that just affects women. As a male and (at the time) overweight I have been harassed and subject to jokes whilst exercising. It is a big hit to self confidence which is low anyway, and makes it even harder to summon up the courage to go out and run, to the point where I used to run at night when there were less people around.

Tony, Hertfordshire, UK

Two days ago I went for a jog and got beeped at twice. My immediate reaction was to put two fingers up at the driver. On closer inspection i saw the first was my old boss and the second was my mother. Not all interactions whilst running are negative, some people just want to say 'hi'.

Sam, Ipswich, UK

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