BLACK VOICES

Latoya Snell Embodies The Power Of Being Present

“If I am out there living and breathing and attempting, not having to be the best at it, but attempting, that is a powerful statement of its own.”

Veteran runner Latoya Snell has a deep understanding of other people’s biases. She knows that her presence in marathons across the globe may not make sense to people who buy into the stereotype that distance runners are lean. She knows that, because of this, she’s likely to be shamed for her body. And she knows that she’s gonna brush that shit right off.

Snell knows her power. She knows the strength in her presence. She knows that her work is necessary to defy the widely believed notion that health is synonymous with being skinny and white. Her Instagram is an anthology of her successes, her failures and her inevitable rebounds as a marathon runner. If she’s not posting about the importance of mental health and building a strong mind, she’s sharing workouts that focus on building a strong body — no matter what that body looks like.

Throughout our conversation, I kept referring to her and her observations as “powerful.” This, eventually, led Snell down a rabbit hole where she dissected what power means for her as a plus-size black woman who runs, who has to deal with hecklers and who recognizes her own resilience. Speaking with her was refreshing. Unlike a normal Q&A, Snell didn’t respond to me with static answers. Our exchange bobbed and weaved naturally like a conversation between friends. She was dynamic, insightful, funny and jarringly real.  

We need to see more black women like Snell. Below is our conversation on the importance of mental health, the revolutionary act of loving yourself and the visceral connection between breaking physical and systemic barriers.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Latoya Snell shares about the importance of mental health, the revolutionary act of loving yourself and the visceral con
Latoya Snell shares about the importance of mental health, the revolutionary act of loving yourself and the visceral connection between breaking physical and systemic barriers.

I’ve been following your Instagram and your work for a couple of months now. And you’re a woman who is breaking all of these stereotypes of what a runner, what an athlete looks like, and it’s powerful. I wish that I had seen women like you growing up. So, my first question is: What got you into running?

I always tell people it was a happy accident. I would go to the track and I used to see this guy, who would run around the neighborhood track backward. He would have on his headphones and he would listen to music. It wasn’t that he was running, it was the way that he smiled when he ran around. You could tell that every time he hit the track, he was super excited. He was enjoying himself — and there’s nothing that can actually teach you or help you realize or feel that type of joy.

Even still, I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be a runner. But what really was the nail in the coffin for me was … I’ve been friends with a guy on MySpace since 2003. We’ve never met, but we’ve been friends for 16 years. One day, he said that he was signing up for a half-marathon. And I had this bucket list item where I wanted to try running a half-marathon. It was going to be a one-and-done. I’d never ran a day in my life. I was like, “You know what? Let me go for it.” And what I thought was just going to be a bucket list item turned out to be the greatest blessing I ever could have encountered. Then I met Black Girls Run, which essentially put the nail in the coffin to actually stay.

That is such a powerful origin story into running. I have a similar experience. I started working out because I hated the way I looked and then I started enjoying it. And I was like, “Oh, my God, I can enjoy this? I like squatting?” It was really wild. But, I’ve seen articles where you talk about the body-shaming that happens when you run marathons.

Marathons — even down at the gym, running in my own neighborhood. It’s everywhere, you know? People are still looking for that stereotypical, lean body. Sometimes it’s not even from the male perspective, but even with the females, there’s this standard that we’re supposed to be shaped a certain way to be taken serious.

When you think about it in the sense of being a black person, especially here in America, a lot of people don’t take you serious because they’re like — I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this stereotype — “The people who always win are African.” So it becomes: “All right, if you’re not going out there to win, if you’re not losing weight, if you don’t fall into any of the boxes that people have essentially designed, then why are you doing it?”

That’s where the heckling stems from. It’s not just laughing at the fat black girl who’s out there running, it’s more like, “Let’s laugh at this person who doesn’t fit this box.”

There are so many people out there, of every background, who don’t fit this narrative of being a stereotypically lean runner, or someone who runs super-fast — and people just fat-shame them, or body-shame them, to such a degree where it’s absolutely disgusting.

Your presence at marathons and in the gym is powerful, because you’re right, it shows people that healthy doesn’t look a certain way. When we take that truth and we place it within the context of black people, what do you think that shows people in our community? Whenever we see healthy people, they’re always skinny and white. What do you think your presence says to black people who want to get into fitness, who want to improve their quality of life, but who don’t feel as though it’s something for them?

Sometimes being present and being visible is a statement of its own. People grow up with the idea that these things are not around, that they’re not “for us.” I also remember growing up and seeing movies with all these kids doing all these extracurricular activities, and I’m like, “That’s not accessible to us.” So it’s the idea that one, so many of these places are not visual. They’re not ... we don’t see these places because we don’t have access to it. And then you combine it with: Can we afford it?

That I’m able to have the ability to do this — even with all the boundaries placed in front of me — I understand now more than ever how much we need to see that. It’s not so much about what I say, it’s about what I do. Regardless of how many people have said, “Well, black people don’t do this” or “Black people don’t do that.” If I am out there living and breathing and attempting, not having to be the best at it, but attempting. That is a powerful statement of its own.

We’ve been told for years that we are only but this good. And I got to a point where I was just like, “You know what? I’m tired of this. I’m tired of hearing that story. I’m tired of believing that story because we’ve been conditioned to believe that story.” If I can change that “I can’t” into a “maybe” into “I can” or “I will,” then that’s mission accomplished on its own. It breaks the narrative and it stops people from being conditioned into thinking that they can’t attempt things or being scared.

Me and my friends talk a lot about fitness and I think it’s a combination of us being parts in our prime, kind of vain and insecure. A recurring theme is wanting to look a certain way or weigh a certain number. I understand the hold that the scale can have on you. At the same time, we have to focus on being healthy, especially considering all of the health issues that “run in black families.” What are your thoughts on that? Why is it important for black people to prioritize their health? Not the scale, not just weight, but their health? 

I look at health as mental, physical, spiritual. When we look at health, we have to look at it from different spectrums. It can’t be limited to, “Well, I’m going to go out here and I’m going to work out because I want to get my body healthy.” Sometimes that shit’s not enough. Sometimes it’s, “This feels like a chore, I don’t feel like doing it anymore.” Or the person who gets excited because they’ve been doing it for six weeks and then all of a sudden they have one bad day and they’re like, “Now I have to start over,” and they feel defeated. We have to reprogram the way that we think about fitness and the way that we think about health — especially as African-Americans — when we do have things that work against us.

It is very easy and convenient to say, “Hey, I’m doing this for health,” but reality is that we’re human. We’re humans and we’re very visual creatures. We want to feel and look and embrace, whether it is from societal norms down to personal feelings. We want to be able to be proud of ourselves, and whatever presentation that may be. So if that is the case and you have a goal that you’re working toward, maybe it does start off from a point of vanity. Maybe it starts off as a point of health.

I know in my case, it was a combination of both. It started off as a point of vanity and I don’t like the reflection that bounces back at me in the mirror. But I was also the same person who used to tell myself, “If I get down to this weight, this is when I’ll start living.” It took for me to actually use my weight-loss journey as a scapegoat, almost as a placebo, to actually learn how to start living. I don’t have to wait for a special look or a special size or a special number to appear on my scale for me to embrace my health.

Because, honestly, my mind is what gets me through marathons.

I have this little sticky note in my bathroom on my mirror that says, “You’re not always going to be motivated, so you have to dig into your purpose and you have to be disciplined.” I thought about that while you were talking. When we talk about health and fitness, however, we never talk about mental or emotional fitness. Reminds me of this meme that says it doesn’t matter how much kale you eat if your mental health is shitty.

It’s very real. I just came back from Tokyo and, not even a couple of days later, I literally found out that two of my friends died. One passed away from heart failure. And this is a guy who was actively working on making his life better. But when I think about it, it was like a part of me was just so bitter. I was like, “He was working toward his health, he was working toward his health to get himself better.” I think about the happiness that he felt with his fitness journey. Don’t get me wrong, of course he’s a big guy. So we were able to see a lot of the weight leave and we saw him visually look better and be brighter. But what I remember is the way that he smiled when he talked about fitness, talked about eating certain types of food, doing certain types of things and taking on different activities. That’s a joy that you can’t get from a number. That’s not something a number can give you.

But it is really daunting to know that we don’t give mental health the play that it deserves because if we did, we would realize that our mind could practically push us to move mountains.

If it wasn’t for my mind, I wouldn’t be here. There were so many times they told me and my diagnosis that I was not supposed to be able to do marathons. I have sciatica, I have disc degeneration, I have a herniated disc — I have so many things that work against me to be a marathoner. And I’m painfully slow at it some days. Some days I can run a 12-minute, 13-minute mile. But there are other days — like last night — where I’m curled up into a ball and I can’t move. That didn’t stop me from getting up this morning and saying, “Wow, I’m only at 50 percent pain today. Now I can actually do something with it.” It may mean that I’m not able to do box jumps today, but I am able to use this kettlebell and move it.

I think sometimes we’re looking for this magic pill or this moment where people give us permission to do the things that we know that we’re capable of doing. If we gave ourselves a little bit more of a try, a little bit more of a chance to embrace some of these things, we would probably shock ourselves to see how powerful we actually are.

Wow. That’s powerful. That’s heavy. What would you say you have learned the most from your journey?

The power of people. I like to say, “Inspiring people who inspire other people who don’t know that they’re inspiring.” That’s been my 2019 mantra. It all just means that as much as I’ve grown over the last couple of years — and I’ve been able to tap into that self-motivation to get myself to do these things — I’ve found that through my own audience, they’ve inspired me on the days when I want to give up.

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