Embodied Vernacularity Through Virtual Recreational Running

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With the advent of COVID-19 and subsequent running event postponements and cancellations, there has been a rise in virtual recreational running events. Prior to this life-altering epidemic, virtual running events were relegated to the margins and were not given respect in the running community. While some may view the cancellation of “in-person” running events as a loss, I posit that the migration from in-person to virtual running events introduces an opportunity for vernacular rhetorics in the women’s running community to change the dominant narrative in the sport and promote inclusivity.

Given that the majority of runners who enter recreational running events are white, affluent and college-educated (census.gov) the dominant narrative is slanted towards the “typical U.S. Female Runner”; A 38-year-old, white, married, college-educated and affluent woman (Running USA). This rhetoric reflected in the running events, social media, and running magazines. Take, for example, the fact that running events marketed to women often include the nomenclature “princess,” “diva,” and/or “mermaid.” This discourse portrays the image of a white heterosexual woman who reinforces hegemonic feminine tropes of the damsel in distress. Sports scholar, Vicki Krane, argues that this “linguistic sexism” in women’s sports reinforces male values and diminishes women’s contributions (7). I extend this linguistic sexism to also posit that this language reinforces both sexism and racism. Kimberlé Crenshaw asserts that women of color do not experience racism and sexism separately, but instead as distinct types of oppression. I build upon this and argue that the rhetoric in traditional in-person running events perpetuates the cycle of exclusion, as those who do not see themselves represented are less likely to participate.

While “in-person” recreational running events rely upon the institutional rhetorics of event organizers to dominate the narrative, virtual events put the power in the hands of the participants, as they can share their experiences, location, running routes, and images with other runners and reclaim the image, narrative, and rhetoric on what a runner looks like. This engagement does not have to explicitly call attention to diversity through linguistics; rather, the embodied usage and participation speaks volumes within itself.

To understand this shift, one must first understand the context for the uptick in virtual events. In 2020, the move to virtual running began small by canceling “on-the-ground” races and encouraging runners to hit the pavement in their own neighborhoods. Upon completion, runners would receive their race shirt and medals in the mail. However, when the Abbott World Majors, including the New York, Tokyo, and Boston Marathons moved to virtual, runners began to take notice. As these races, moved from in-person to virtual, the use of mobile and locative media shifted from “optional” to “required” to “prove” participation. One way in which runner can reframe the narrative on recreational running and promote inclusivity is through the use of mobile and locative media.

Mobile and locative media scholar, Jordan Frith, defines locative media as “any form of media–ranging from in-car GPS displays to RFID tags–that feature location awareness, which is a device’s ability to be located in physical space and provide users with information about their surroundings” (2). Recreational running mobile and locative media applications include the following: Runtastic (130 million users) Runkeeper (50 million users) (Smith), Strava (42 million users) and Nike+ (100 million users) (Haden). Nike+ has a goal of tripling enrollment to 300 million in five years. While these mobile and locative media applications have been on the rise over recent years, due to COVID-19, the global fitness application market size is now expected to reach over 14.7 billion by 2026 according to a new study by Polaris Market Research (MarketWatch). Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, half of those who have mobile phones used mobile and locative media to meet their health and fitness goals. That number is now 75% (Harrop). What’s interesting about the use of mobile and locative media is that the usage can be “read” through more ways than what is just posted as discourse through the medium, but what the use itself “says”. Frith states that “texts and images are both explicit ways of writing space, but people can also affect how others read space simply by sharing their location” (89). An individual can “say” a lot without uttering a word through the use of this technology.

As such, I argue that women and other marginalized groups can use mobile and locative media to reframe the narrative (both spoken and unspoken) on women’s running by using embodied vernacularity. Liz Barr coined the term “embodied vernacularity,” which “accounts for the speaking body in addition to the spoken word” (206). What Barr means by this is that those who do not have access to official materials/research/information can still influence the dominant narrative through their actions and physical embodiment. Through their actions, groups who do not hold sanctioned roles of power can make themselves heard. 

Virtual running events invite embodied vernacularity, due to the power of the dominant narrative shifting from race organizers to participants. Additionally, in virtual running, traditional barriers, such as location, cost, and need for childcare are removed. This thereby opens the door enhanced participation from groups previously relegated to the margins, including women, people of color, and individuals in varying levels of socioeconomic status.

We already see some of this embodied vernacularity in women’s recreational running groups dedicated to inclusion in the sport. Black Girls Run!, RunGrl, Muslimahs On the Run and Frontrunners are all community running groups dedicated to inclusivity in the sport of running. Whereas traditionally these groups would “show up” in in-person events, wearing shirts donning the names of their group as “embodied vernacularity”, through mobile and locative media these groups can contribute to the narrative on women’s running and encourage diversity on an even larger scale.

While I remain steadfast that embodied vernacularity in women’s recreational running has the power to reframe the narrative and create an opportunity for inclusivity, we are not there yet. The language and materials in women’s recreational running is still gendered, classed, and racialized. These rhetorics fail to challenge the sexist ideology and white privilege that pervades the institution of sport. However, I encourage fellow runners to embrace the shift to virtual running and leverage mobile and locative media as a platform for embodied vernacularity and a call for change.

Works Cited

Harrop, Jonathan. “3 Predictions for the Health & Fitness Mobile App Market.” Business of Apps, 15 June 2020, www.businessofapps.com/insights/3-predictions-for-the-health-fitness-mobile-app-market/. Accessed 1 July 2020.

“2018 National Runner Survey from Running USA.” Running USA, https://www.runningusa.org/RUSA/Research/Recent_Surveys/. Accessed 1 July 2020.

“American Community Survey (ACS). (2006 – 08).” census.gov. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Barr, Liz. “Embodied Vernacularity at the FDA: Feminism, Epistemic Authority and Biomedical Activism.” Feminist Rhetorical Science Studies, edited by Julie Jung and Amanda Booher, Southern Illinois University Press, 2018, pp. 205-26.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, p. 1241., doi:10.2307/1229039.

“Fitness App Market Record Tremendous Growth during COVID-19 ,Influence of on Global Trends.” MarketWatch, 30 Apr. 2020, www.marketwatch.com/press-release/fitness-app-market-record-tremendous-growth-during-covid-19-influence-of-on-global-trends-2020-04-29?tesla=y. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Frith, Jordan. Smartphones as Locative Media. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Haden, Jeff. “Strava Has 42 Million Users and Adds 1 Million More Each Month. Will It Be the Next Great Sports Brand?” Inc., 17 July 2019, https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/10-years-in-strava-now-adds-1-million-users-a-month-but-can-it-become-next-great-sports-brand.html. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Krane, Vikki. “We Can Be Athletic and Feminine, But Do We Want To? Challenging Hegemonic Femininity in Womens Sport.” Quest, vol. 53, no. 1, 2001, pp. 115–133., doi:10.1080/00336297.2001.10491733.

Smith, Craig. “Interesting Runtastic Statistics and Facts.” DMR, 28 Jan. 2019, https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/runtastic-statistics-and-facts/. Accessed 1 July 2020. 

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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