Running as Quiet Activism

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Until 1972, women were not allowed to officially compete in running marathons. Today, 45.7% of American marathon participants are women (Hanson, Latsenko and Luck, 2018). As more women have joined the sport of running, they have participated in quiet activism. Pottinger defines quiet activism as “small, every day, embodied acts, often of making and creating, that can be either implicitly or explicitly political in nature” (Pottinger 1). Running as quiet activism takes place outside of explicitly feminist groups, expanding the conceptualization of feminist activism and place. Women runners contribute to quiet feminist activism through the amalgamation of the physical body with politics. As female runners share their running experiences through social media, they become the symbolic representation of female strength and endurance. These runners do not set out to be activists; however quiet activism can affect change through small and embodied acts of participating in running and sharing experiences, emotions and challenges through mobile and locative media.

So how does one become a quiet activist?

By showing up.

While traditional activism is boisterous, loud and provides demonstrative forms of protest, quiet activism can be just as effective. Bratich and Brush (2011) conducted a study on ‘fabriculture’ the craft culture associated with domestic arts, such as knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking and more. The authors evaluated three dimensions of ‘fabriculture’, including the gendered space of production around new domesticity, blurring of old and new media and how digital and tactile crafts merge and new modes of political activism through folk art. Sarah Corbett, an award-winning campaigner, started the Craftivist Collective. Their motto is “Changing our world one stitch at a time.” The Craftivist Collective (Corbett 2016)  is a group of individuals who according to her website are “an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafts to help themselves and encourage others to be the positive change they wish to see in the world” (Craftivism Collective). While there are many examples of crafting and gardening as quiet activism, I extend the research to the sport of women’s running. I posit that running is a form of quiet activism, acting as the embodiment of cultural resistance to the gendered practice of running and hegemonic normative images of the female body.

In 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, however, it came with a price. Women were not allowed to run in marathons at that time nor register for the Boston Marathon. When the race director, Jock Semple, realized, a woman was running the race, he attempted to stop Switzer by grabbing her bib and knocking her off the course. However, Switzer continued to the finish and not only became the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon but went on to create the Avon International Running Circuit of women’s only races in 27 countries. Over one million women have participated since 1978 (Ready 2018). Even with all the fanfare on Switzer’s finish, it wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to run in the Boston Marathon officially. When Switzer ran the Boston Marathon, she wasn’t setting out to embody the oppression of women in the sport of running. She wasn’t running to start a movement or create a culture of change in the industry. However, the act of her showing up created a quiet feminist activist movement. How did we get from 0 women runners prior to 1967 to 45.7% in 2019 (Hanson, Latsenko and Luck, 2018)?

By showing up.

Through showing up, women runners can quietly educate others. They can provide a subtle shift in the way we see things to offer a new perspective.

It’s great that women are now showing up and toeing the line at running events, but what does that embodiment look like? Are we seeing women of all abilities represented? How can we ensure that there is visibility for those who are showing up? Are we seeing women of all shapes and sizes represented in the sport? Are we seeing representation from the LGBTQ community members? Do we see representation for individuals with disabilities?

It’s important to acknowledge that able-bodied, thin and cisgender women arrive at the start line in a privileged position. Able-bodied privilege is an advantage people have simply because they are not limited by physical or mental impairments. It is defined as a “set of beliefs, presences, and practices that produce – based on abilities one exhibits or values – a particular understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others” (Wolbring 2008).

Magazines, social media and television do not do a good enough job portraying women of all shapes, sizes in media, as they typically portray the female runner through the patriarchal gaze, depicting the female body as an object, to be observed, judged, valued, appreciated, rejected, modified and commodified, for socially-constructed purposes (Ponterotto 2016).

While we see the cultural representations of the female body being represented with the hegemonic normative image of being thin, white, cisgender and able-bodied, there is danger in representing non-thinness as a non-normative condition, as it contributes women of all shapes and sizes. While in this article I’m referring to the images of runners, this can be extended to how females are portrayed in all forms of media. Ponterotto (2016) conducted research on the normalized model for the female body in contemporary society. She states, “The canonical female body is first of all middle class, white and young, with fine facial features and unwrinkled skin, fit and well-toned and especially slim. This aesthetic ideal has been so rooted popular consciousness that it has been raised to the status of standardized norm” (134).

When a runner shares their status, location or image on mobile or locative media, they are reframing the hegemonic normative visual depiction of what it means to be a runner. Think about Humans of New York. According to the Humans of New York website, Humans of New York started as a photography project in 2010 and the goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants”. The authors began to interview the individuals and would put a quote next to their portrait. The quotes and photographs then became a blog (“Humans of New York”). This small movement started as a quiet way to educate others on the human condition, leveraging social media as a platform. We can extend this same concept using mobile and locative media as a form of quiet activism to reframe the hegemonic normative image of the female body. While we may not be able to control how traditional media portrays women, we can all participate in mobile and locative media to demonstrate that women come in all types of bodies, including shapes, sizes, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities.

This may inspire others to engage in practices, whether it be running, traveling, crafting or working. Able-bodied individuals live in a society that accommodates their needs and often forget that this is a privilege that not everyone holds (Ridgway 2013). By using mobile and locative media as a form of quiet activism, we can reframe this messaging and promote inclusivity for all women.

As a call to action, I encourage everyone to look outside the “typical” activism paths and think more broadly. We can educate others and bring awareness to the issue through action vs. talking about it. We don’t have to shout our beliefs from the rooftop, however by showing up and sharing experiences through mobile and locative media, we can provide a visual representation and a voice to marginalized individuals.

Works Cited

Bratich, Jack Z., and Heidi M. Brush. “Fabricating Activism: Craft- Work, Popular Culture, Gender.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, p. 233., doi:10.5325/utopianstudies.22.2.0233.

Corbett, Sarah. “Activism needs introverts.” TED Talk, November, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_corbett_activism_needs_introverts

“Craftivism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craftivism.

Hanson, et al. “Marathon Statistics 2019 Worldwide Average Finishing Times.” RunnerClick, Dec. 2018, https://runnerclick.com/marathon-finishing-times-study-and-statistics/.

“Humans of New York.” Humans of New York, http://www.humansofnewyork.com/.

Ponterotto, Diane. “Resisting the Male Gaze: Feminist Responses to the ‘Normatization’ of the Female Body in Western Culture.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 133–151., https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9a9b/570ebdc3687ebcb3af0044ccb98fdce04484.pdf. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

Ready, Lauren. “How the Worst Moment of Her Life Revolutionized Women’s Running.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 2 Oct. 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/humankind/2018/10/02/how-worst-moment-her-life-revolutionized-womens-running/1489818002/.

Ridgway, Shannon. “19 Examples of Ability Privilege.” Everyday Feminism, 20 Nov. 2013, https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/03/19-examples-of-ability-privilege/.

Wolbring, Gregor. “The Politics of Ableism.” Development 51 (2008): 252-253.

About Author(s)

Stacy Cacciatore is a Ph.D student in the Rhetorics, Communications and Information Design (RCID) program at Clemson University. Her area of research interest resides at the intersection of rhetoric, feminism, running and body image. Find out more about her work at stacycacciatore.com or connect with her on Twitter @stacycacciatore.

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