Running the gauntlet of everyday sexism and body-shaming as a woman or a girl on the streets of Bishop's Stortford
Running fan Amy Petridis writes about the benefits of pounding the pavements and parks – and the dark side...
A psychotherapist once advised me: “Keep running. Preferably by water.” A wise woman indeed.
Running has had a profound effect on my mental health – it gets me outside, triggers currents of endorphins, burns off excess adrenaline (y'know, the stuff that comes from work stress, family life and, oh I dunno, global pandemics).
A runner said to me recently: “I’m fairly new to running but I’ve already caught the bug. I love the freedom and headspace it gives me and the huge sense of achievement.”
It has also brought me into a welcoming community; other runners saying hello as you pass, parkrun friends and the awesome Girls Go Running Bishop’s Stortford (GGR). And all for the price of a pair of trainers, which is a darn sight cheaper than therapy.
GGR is a club with a difference. Started by a handful of women to connect and empower others, there is no emphasis on competing and there are no committees (so nothing approaching a Handforth Parish Council meeting, thank goodness).
We are just local female runners with a Facebook group who offer support and encouragement. We celebrate achievements, whether they are completing Couch to 5k or running a personal best marathon. We commiserate when people are struggling, or have an injury or illness that has taken its toll. We talk about trainers. Quite a lot.
“I always recommend people to join GGR as it is such a non-judgemental and supportive group, especially for absolute beginners” – a perfect summary from a current member.
Another benefit of this lovely group is finding running companions – and lifelong friends. This is attested to by many women who talk about making “a core group of close friends through GGR – we still run together now”, and “the people I run with now are my closest friends, and I have achieved runs I never thought possible”.
As well as linking up individually, pre-Covid the group organised weekly social runs, at different distances and paces. In lockdown, running in pairs is, thankfully, still allowed. You’ll never run alone, if you don’t want to.
Sadly, there is a dark side to being a woman and going for a run.
For some reason, a proportion of men feel obliged to comment on our bodies, gesture from their vehicles or find other ways to intimidate us. “It makes me feel scared, vulnerable and there to be mocked,” said one.
Another runner recounted this Bishop’s Stortford incident: “A van beeped, turned around and drove very slowly behind me while the driver obviously stared. I felt extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious.
"It makes me so angry and frustrated that women get hassled when we're simply doing our thing. How do we still live in a society where some men feel the need to leer and beep at women? For what?”
The body-shaming and everyday sexism even comes from some male runners. I heard that, at our local parkrun: “A very tall and intimidating man thought it was okay to say 'My mate said just find a nice arse and follow it'. He thought that was okay and didn’t seem to understand that a five-foot-nothing woman might be threatened by it."
The founder of GGR says: “Over the years I've met many women who lacked self-confidence and worried about the way they looked when exercising. Some have even ventured out only when it’s dark because they don't want to be seen. A big part of GGR is encouraging ALL women – all ages, all shapes – to get out there, and we’ve seen some amazing transformations.”
Feeling self-conscious, feeling vulnerable is not some kind of destiny for women and girls. As a society we need to learn that women and girls do not exist to be looked at and have our bodies judged.
To stamp out body-shaming, to allow our girls to grow up enjoying physical activity even as they turn into women (teen girls are notorious for dropping sport, due to the world’s focus on female body image), men need to step up and call out their mates, brothers, colleagues when they see this behaviour. To quote a little-known but articulate reality TV participant: “If in doubt, don’t be a dick.”
The runners of GGR are determined to keep on keeping on – being role models for our daughters, enjoying our community and reaping the physical and mental health benefits of running.
Fortunately, the majority of runs are trouble-free and simply bring joy, a bit of sweat and the perfect excuse to eat that chocolate brownie. We love to see newbies at GGR, beginners and seasoned runners alike. Check us out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/girlsgorunning.
* Amy Petridis is a married mother of two girls, aged 12 and 9, and a member of Girls Go Running Bishop's Stortford.