In response to our Lane 9 Project August writing prompt, “This is Womanhood”. This is part one of two essays by L9P co-founder, Heather Caplan.
I couldn’t do another treadmill run, and I was tired of feeling like I had to. It was light out for a change. I lived in the suburbs, but I hadn’t lived there long and hadn’t explored much outside of my small apartment gym. This should be safe, I thought, not knowing any better or ever assuming the worst. And I had no real reason to believe otherwise. So I headed out for my 5-miler.
It was the age of hitting exact mileage on my Garmin watch, which led me to a side loop through a neighboring apartment complex. I was probably zoned out listening to Rihanna or T.I. and Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears or Muse—those artists on repeat were the soundtrack of my running life in 2009. I was in my early twenties. I was still naive enough to think that because I was fast, young, and in a suburban neighborhood, I was fine.
I heard them playing in a driveway. I heard the basketballs bouncing. I saw the bikes in the grass. I thought nothing of those teenage boys (or were they pre-teens?), and the pull of their eyes following me as I ran by. I gave them no power, no second glance. I kept running.
In a matter of seconds, I felt a hand on my ass, heard a roar of laughter, and then a crash on the pavement. Apparently he couldn’t assault me and stay balanced on two wheels, so instead of riding off in a fit of glory, he was on the ground right in front of me. I stopped and stared at him in pure disgust. I was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged. I felt both terrified and furious. I know I said something to him, because my emotions blinded my common sense (don’t feed the trolls, don’t tempt a vulnerable man, don’t engage with someone who has the capacity to harass and assault you once—chances are they’ll do it again, and maybe I won’t be running away next time as I look down on him). I don’t know what any of that meant to him.
Down the block, I saw a cop car just sitting there. How fateful, I thought. How lucky! I stopped and signaled him to please roll down his window. He did. As quickly as I could, I explained what happened. I thought he would be enraged, too. The nerve! Those teenagers! I don’t know what else I thought might happen, but I know nothing did. I know he felt sorry for me, because he knew more than I did about this world. And yet, he didn’t have any desire to change those circumstances. He neither assured me I was assaulted and harassed, nor validated my fear or my rage. He nodded, and said, “Okay,” as if I had just told him there was a sun in the sky.
This is womanhood.
— — — —
I’ve done it before, but for some reason can’t summon the courage to do it on this morning. The words “hot and humid” become our norm for describing all the summer miles in DC, yet they never do justice to how it feels to run through a swamp, day after day, mile after mile. Running in just a sports bra—no tank or tee-shirt—is so tempting, but I can’t commit.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of my body in any way. It’s not that I worry about my stomach jiggling, or my abs not being defined enough. I don’t care about either of those things. I don’t care that I’ve never been one to need much support in the sports-bra area. I’m not held back by a negative body issue—at least not on this day, not this time. I do appreciate having a tank or tee on to help wipe sweat away, but eventually they’re useless for that because these athletic materials also reach sweat-wicking capacity in this DC summer sauna.
I care about the attention a sports bra garners. I care about the longer stares, even at six in the fucking morning. I care about the cars that drive by and honk or whistle, as if I’ve asked for and received their desired attention. I care about the assumption that this attention, these stares, those fucking honks and whistles, are what we want. What do I want? To be left the fuck alone.
That goal isn’t accomplished by wearing a tank or a tee-shirt; I’ve learned the hard way that harassers will harass all day long. But it feels next-level uncomfortable when I’m not wearing that extra layer. Maybe I see it as protection. Maybe it is. (Okay, sure, it’s protecting me from the sun but we both know that’s not what I mean.) In any case, it’s harder to remove than it used to be, and I can’t shake it.
I want to be #SportsBraStrong, but that doesn’t always feel #Safe. And I guess in my late 20s, and now early 30s, I’m not as strong as I think I am, or maybe I’m not as safe. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both.
This is womanhood.
— — — — —
Another morning, another 5 miles on deck, another quick-weather-check that revealed over 90 percent humidity in this DC summer swamp. I drag myself out of bed, routinely dress and fill up my water bottle, pump, then kiss my baby boy, my dog, and my husband, and head out the door.
I turn on a podcast to listen to and learn from another female runner. The guest is sharing tales of running through various life phases, then winning her hometown marathon (NBD!), and I’m intermittently tuning in and storing nuggets of wisdom away for later, to share with our Lane 9 Project community. Really, I’m trying to keep my mind off of what feels like my 100th hot, humid run of this summer.
And then, there it is. The host asks the question that younger me would have wondered, but would have been too shy (or ashamed?) to ask. The question that now—in my recovery from Orthorexia, my relatively new disdain for diet culture, my work to spread the message that health comes in all shapes and sizes, our bodies do not define us or decide our worth, and they do, naturally, change, just like we should—shakes me to my core, every time. The question, about The Dreaded Break(s) From Running, is essentially, “But, did you worry about getting fat?”
Would the host have asked a male guest that same question? Would she have been as concerned about a man gaining weight if he had to stop running? Maybe. There’s no way to know for sure. And when, exactly, did running shift from a sport, to a diet mentality? When did it become a vehicle for manipulating our body, and distrusting ourselves to know what health looks and feels like for us? Why do we let this fear or our bodies changing hold us back from listening to what it needs?
I stop in my tracks. In the middle of a neighborhood street at 6:30 am, I turn off this podcast because I can’t listen to YET ANOTHER conversation about fat phobia, normalizing fat stigma and disordered body image thoughts. And for some reason, in that same moment, I feel stifled in my t-shirt. IT IS TOO HOT FOR THIS, I think (in all caps)!
I shed my shirt, run in my sports bra all the way home, and damn, it feels so good. My body can air out. My body can be out in the world and I can pretend, for about two miles, that I’m not scared. Pretending aside, I can use what feels like an act of defiance to declare “This is my body and this is how it looks and I’ll do what I damn well please with it.” And I can hope that I get home safely, today.
This is (running with) womanhood. It’s ours to claim.