Last year, I completed two 50Ks and four marathons ― three of which were done within a two-month span. And just a week before I participated in the New York City Marathon, I also completed my first 100K ― the Javelina Jundred event in the Arizona desert, which involves running roughly 62 miles.
This year I signed up for 10 marathons and a 50-miler, and I intend on running in my first 100-miler. Still, despite earning over 100 finisher medals and completing close to 200 running, cycling and obstacle course racing events over a span of five years, the internet police continue to remind me to lose some weight. I’m an unapologetic 5’3, 242-pound road and trail ultra runner from Brooklyn sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE running shoe company, and I am continuously fat-shamed.
On Jan. 3, I posted a video on my Instagram account of my fitness regimen. A day later, this same post resurfaced as a suggestion on my Instagram “Explore” page as a repost by a person followed by more than 50,000 people. Despite not tagging me in the comments, the poster expressed “concern” that while my “advanced workouts” are admirable, she “feared for the shock” that it would place on my fat body.
Perhaps this person thought I would and should feel comforted by the condolences that she (and her sizable following) offered about my “weight loss journey,” but I didn’t. Even worse, when I tried to have a private conversation with this person, she immediately blocked me.
Frankly, I’m not sure which part of the post was the most humorous to me: the part where several Google and WebMD doctors who knew nothing about my five-year fitness journey sounded off on what they must have assumed to be my unhinged eating habits or the countless people who suggested that a woman shouldn’t lift weights and should stick to cardiovascular activities.
Over the years, I’ve encountered so many people who are absolutely mind-boggled when they learn I work out or participate in a multitude of events for reasons besides weight loss. And the disapproving commentary doesn’t just happen online ― I’ve experienced it offline, too. It’s only been a bit over a year since I was fat-shamed at the 2017 New York City Marathon. But the abuse began long before that.
When I first started working out in May 2013, I weighed over 265 pounds and had a number of issues ― some of which had nothing to do with my weight ― that limited my mobility and left me in an immense amount of pain. My doctor urged me to get my health in order and I quickly assumed losing weight was the remedy. So, I lost 100 pounds in a year.
Initially friends, family and onlookers praised my weight loss and told me that I was “inspiring.” Before I knew it, my goals shifted from wanting to be healthy to trying to conform to a supposedly ideal body type that others would approve of. While I thank my weight loss for providing me with new a way to tap into my adventurous side and to check off items from my bucket list that I may not have considered before this journey, I became obsessed with pleasing everyone around me.
Within that time period of losing 100 pounds, an online buddy from the UK encouraged me to sign up for my first half marathon, Even though I’d never even run a 5K, I wanted to try it and thought I thought this would be a one and done. I was wrong. Running gave me a sense of community and a newfound respect for my body. I quickly fell in love with the sport and began to share my training on my social media. It wasn’t long before negative comments began to surface and they were surprisingly reminiscent of the ones I received when I weighed over 265 pounds.
At the time, I was 175 pounds and resting comfortably at a size eight. But my various inboxes were filled with messages from friends and acquaintances who were all asking me different variations of the same question: “If you are a runner, why are you still fat?”
My various inboxes were filled with messages from friends and acquaintances who were all asking me different variations of the same question: 'If you are a runner, why are you still fat?'
Conversely, others accused me of being on drugs to have lost so much weight and made fun of my smaller frame. I suddenly found myself trapped between those who thought I was “too fat” and those who thought I was “too skinny.” Despite losing more weight than my initial goal and feeling good about myself, it seemed I couldn’t please some people no matter what I did or what size I was.
Before I knew it, I started taking advice from people other than my doctor and I began running 30 to 40 miles a week, lifting at the gym for 45 minutes at least 4 times a week and eating less than 1500 calories a day. I maintained that regimen for months. Soon, I started experiencing memory fog, felt exceptionally tired and quickly hit a plateau. The worst part: I hated the way that I looked.
I continued to try to ignore the urges I felt to eat more and refused to give myself necessary rest days from exercising. I blocked out severe warning signs that I was malnourished and severely dehydrated. Then, in April 2015, while I was on my way to work, I started sweating profusely on the train even though it was only 13 degrees that day. Several passengers asked me if I was okay when they saw my visibly wet shirt after I removed my coat. I assured them that I was fine and shrugged off the experience until a short time later when I suddenly lost my vision in the middle of a busy Manhattan street. I somehow managed to make it to my former employer on the Lower East Side and collapsed as I entered the restaurant.
I convinced myself that I had an anxiety attack until a doctor asked if I was suffering from anorexia nervosa. I laughed at first but then the doctor started naming symptoms that I had experienced but ignored, like losing hair and having an erratic pulse. At that moment, I realized that my vanity and what other people thought about me could have eventually cost me my life. It took months of counseling and positive self talk to finally be able to begin to put on weight and eventually accept my body as it is now.
As my weight gain occurred, I initially began to panic but my therapist helped me question exactly what I was afraid of. Decades of being conditioned to want to look like magazine covers and years of being steeped in diet culture taught me to be fatphobic. As I started pursuing longer distances during my runs ― while simultaneously abandoning the desire to lose weight and exploring other areas of my fitness journey ― I quickly realized that I was surrounded by athletes of all shapes, sizes and fitness abilities and that size doesn’t necessarily determine a person’s grit or physical capability.
In the running community, we often say that if you are moving your body, you are a runner ― regardless of the pace. It also quickly became clear that I needed fuel for my body, which sometimes meant even eating as I moved. I learned that doesn’t mean I had to eat everything in sight but it does mean that I have to be in tune with what works for my body.
Still, just because I changed my perspective on body image doesn’t mean that the world changed with me. When I launched my blog, Running Fat Chef, in 2016, the internet was quick to attack me with everything from fatphobia to racism to parent-shaming and accusations that I caused my 11-year-old son’s type one diabetes diagnosis.
The concern trolls ― who I coined “Google Search Avengers” ― were some of the worst because they were always able to dig up a convenient “fact” in order to refute something I said or was doing. Another favorite tactic of my critics was to purposefully twist my words and try to use them against me. For instance, if I claimed I was a firm believer in body positivity, it would instantly be misinterpreted as “promoting obesity” ― an accusation that I’m slammed with on a regular basis.
I also quickly learned that if you complain enough about being fat-shamed, people will accuse you of not having a thick enough skin or say that you’re simply being melodramatic or seeking attention and suggest that you just “turn the other cheek.” Well, let me tell you, my face is red, blistered and sore from all of the cheek-turning I’ve done.
I certainly don’t want ― or have the time ― to fight every person who says something offensive about me, but I refuse to ignore or smile away or enable the general mob-like bad behavior practiced in the public court of opinion on the internet. Instead, I pick my battles wisely and stand my ground ― and I encourage others to do the same.
Because the internet often permits individuals to remain anonymous, they can feel safe and entitled enough to say things that they normally wouldn’t say to someone in person. Whether their comments are a result of being conditioned to believe in outdated “health formulas” like BMI or stem from people dealing with their own internalized fatphobia, I’m not obliged to give anyone an explanation about my body fat or body image. For me, it’s this simple: mind your business ― keep your eyes off of my scale and your imagination off of my plate.
Sometimes I try to have healthy conversations with some of my critics and ask them why they feel so strongly about my weight and how I live my life. If I can have a productive discussion with one person in a public forum like the comments section on Instagram, then I figure others might be able to learn something. However, there are definitely times when that’s just not possible and I’m forced to resort to blocking people.
I’m not obliged to give anyone an explanation about my body fat or body image. For me, it’s this simple: mind your business ― keep your eyes off of my scale and your imagination off of my plate.
Still, not all of the trolls in my life live online. Sometimes they were coworkers or friends; these days, they’re mostly strangers who don’t know when to keep their opinions to themselves. I never think it’s appropriate for someone to offer their thoughts or assumptions about my health or my body and I am never going to be pressured into disclosing information about my medical history or anything else having to do with my private life. If they cannot understand why this is so incredibly violating and don’t respect my wishes to be left alone, I remove myself from that situation before I lose my composure.
Sometimes the most vicious comments come from those who used to be my size or larger ― and sometimes they are still my size. In those cases, their commentary stings just a bit more. Logically I know that their problem probably isn’t with me personally but more or less what I represent. Nonetheless, receiving negative feedback from someone who has been where I am or is currently there leaves an especially bitter taste in my mouth.
Instead of lashing out at them, I remind myself that everyone has their own time and way of trying to become comfortable in their own skin. Some people might never get to that point ― and that’s okay, too. I know how long and difficult that journey can be ― but either way, I refuse to be the punching bag they use to work (or avoid working) through any trauma they might have about their bodies or body image.
These days, when I wake up in the morning, I ask myself how can I flourish as the best human being I can be. I no longer want to ― or worry about ― fulfilling someone else’s fitness goals. I no longer want to be ― or worry about being ― the star of anyone’s “Woman Crush Wednesday.” I’m too busy trying to be the boogeyman to my own fears and, subsequently, the best version of myself. I want to look into the mirror and be proud of the incredible athlete and human being that I’ve grown into.
Six years ago, nobody could have told me that I’d take fitness so seriously that I’d build a career around it ― mostly because I was never taught that I could and should love my body and all of the amazing things that it can do no matter what size or state it’s in. If I lose weight, that’s fine, but it’s not something I ever concentrate on anymore. I now feel so full from embracing this new kind of confidence, I cannot help but want for it to be infectious so that others can hopefully experience how good it feels.
And as for those individuals who continue to make assumptions about my portion sizes or my weight or who can only bring themselves to be disgusted by my happiness, I still wish them the absolute best. I hope one day ― sooner rather than later ― they’re able to turn that attention to themselves and they become so busy looking after their own lives that they’ll be too busy to worry about what I’m doing. I hope they learn to spend more time loving themselves and less time hating on me and others like me. Hopefully, they can finally bring themselves to keep their unsolicited and unwanted comments to themselves.
Outside of her fitness work, Snell is a freelance chef, photographer and founder of Running Fat Chef ― a personal and uncensored fitness and food blog about her experience as a plus-size female athlete of color. Snell is a contributing writer to platforms including Runner’s World, Gear Junkie and The Root. She is also a co-host of The Long Run that’s part of the 300 Pounds and Running podcast.