Being Gender Non-Conforming as an Endurance Athlete

running, sociology

The concepts of gender non-conformity and endurance sports may seem entirely unrelated, and in a sense, they are. But something that I have been thinking about recently is how intertwined they have been in my life, as someone who has questioned my gender identity, largely in part due to athletics.

Before the 1960s when the amazing badass Kathrine Switzer decided to run the Boston Marathon despite opposition due to her being female, running (and many other athletic activities) were seen as “unfeminine”; women sweating, exerting themselves, and showing any sort of power or dominance, especially in the public sphere of athletics, was unsightly. People even believed myths that women would lose their uterus and actually turn into men if they participated in athletics, but alas, here we are fifty years later, our uteruses still intact. While we don’t have the same restrictions on athletics due to gender anymore, athletics has definitely called into question my own gender identity in the past.

I started running in middle school, and enjoyed running in my free time before I decided to start competing on my high school’s cross country team and later, long-distance track team. There were many aspects of the sport that made me less secure in my femininity, whether or not that was a negative or positive thing for me to experience is irrelevant, but nevertheless this was/is something that I still experience.

As far as running with other females goes, I never felt quite right running in “the pack” on my cross country team; the girls ran in one group and the guys ran in another. Talk of boys and makeup and clothing and gossip bored/puzzled me, so I usually would end up singing songs in my head and waiting for the run to end. There was never any animosity or resentment against any of the girls on my team, just an unsettling feeling of disconnect that I carried with me throughout the few years that I spent running with them.

In addition to my inability to relate to other girls, I never menstruated throughout my competitive running years, and still don’t menstruate (although I have twice in my life). This perplexed the many doctors I saw throughout high school and beyond, who suggested I go on birth control to give my hormones a boost…which really just means replacing my insufficient hormones with synthetic ones. Ah, the joy of being a hormonally imbalanced female! I turned the offer for a prescription down.

Needless to say, years of running with girls who I couldn’t connect with on any level and years of wondering what the hell was wrong with my female reproductive system translated into years of not being able to connect with girls in general and feelings of brokenness, and, well…I still have this issue. Correction: I still have this experience. Because something that I have learned through these years of self-questioning and self-doubt, wondering why I prefer running shorts over skirts and sneakers over Uggs and never wear makeup and love to sweat and suffer for extended periods of time is that there’s nothing wrong with me.

There’s nothing wrong with me.

I am a woman; I identify as a woman. But I do not conform to the woman on the pedestal, the woman who conforms to the traditional feminine ideal. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with conforming to this ideal. There is something wrong with the fact that I felt alienated because of my inability to conform to this ideal, this internalized feeling that I carried around for years that I was someone who needed fixing. I needed some “girlfriends”, a boyfriend, to take some pills, to fix myself up into something that I’m not/never will be. This is something I’ve come to accept only through athletics, which has made me question what the hell it means to be a woman. But really, I was asking the wrong question for such a long time.

The real question is: what does it mean to be a human? To breathe, to laugh, to cry, to fail, to achieve, to overcome and all the same succumb to the many things we are taught from day one, how to exist in the world and why we exist in the world. Slowly but surely the lines that have been drawn in my head telling me who to be and how to act in relation to this idea of being a “woman” are being erased, to the point where at the end of the day I’m proud to be the person I am, regardless of how well I fit into my gender stereotype. It has taken a long time to come to this point, and it’s something I still struggle with at times, but thanks to running, I’m coming to appreciate and accept all stages of this journey and embrace them with open arms, knowing that they will shape me into the woman, athlete, human, that I am becoming.

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