On an April morning in 1967, Kathrine Switzer ate a late breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and toast. The Boston Marathon wasn’t due to begin until noon, so she had plenty of time to get to the starting line.
When the time came, she pinned the number 261 to her chest and started running through the Boston streets with her boyfriend, coach and friend in tow. Then, in a surprising contrast to the crowd’s cheers, she was attacked by a race official who’d noticed her ponytail and lipstick.
At this time, the Boston Marathon was a men’s-only race, and Switzer wasn’t exactly welcome in the field. After Switzer’s boyfriend warded off the race official by tackling him, Kathrine (registered as K. V. Switzer) crossed the finish line. Her efforts helped make the sport of endurance running more welcoming to women in the decades that followed.
“I wasn’t running Boston to prove anything,” she later wrote. “I was just a kid who wanted to run her first marathon.”
Today — 51 years after Switzer’s run — more than 10,000 women from around the world will compete in the Boston Marathon. The 42.2 kilometre (26.2 mile) run requires competitors to meet strict entry requirements, which means these women are some of endurance running’s fastest professional and recreational athletes.
As a marketing scholar, I study how gender and the body are represented in contemporary advertising. So, while the athletic world shifts its attention to Boston’s runners, I’m thinking about what those runners see in their social media newsfeeds or in the pages of the running magazines piled upon their nightstands.
Ads celebrate and denigrate women
In my research, I’m examining a sample of nearly 60 advertisements taken from the January/February 2017 issues of Runner’s World, Women’s Running and Canadian Running. So far, I’ve learned that Switzer’s run has left a complicated legacy in advertisements targeting female endurance runners.
Specifically, the advertisements celebrate women’s physical and mental strength and, in so doing, support women’s participation in the endurance running subculture. Yet these advertisements can also share a negative sentiment when they tell women exactly how they should look and behave.
Many of the advertisements glorify chasing the “ideal” running body — tall, lean and muscular — through unhealthy diet and exercise habits.
There is a fine line between fitness and obsession, and the advertisements exacerbate this ambiguity. They encourage women to perform at a high level, but they also promote behaviours linked to a condition called “obligatory running,” a kind of run-at-all-costs mentality akin to exercise addiction.
These messages address the body as a machine that mustn’t break down. In one advertisement, for example, a champion triathlete is said to have been “built with chocolate milk.” Elsewhere, a woman is depicted running alone at dawn. The accompanying text praises her dedication and showcases a line of pain relievers, crediting them for allowing her to run through pain.
Since the magazines and advertisements both promote performance, the advertisements either implicitly or explicitly connect products to speed. A dedicated runner is a fast runner, but she is also the owner of an ideal running body. Whenever a woman is shown excelling in the sport, she has an almost masculine shape because she has “run off” her curves.
In an advertisement for headphones, a woman is pictured running up a rock wall at sunset. Her long, powerful strides communicate her speed and agility. With her face in shadow, one must look to her ponytail and floral tights to confirm she is a woman.
On its own, this body type is unproblematic. But considering its appearance in nearly half of all the advertisements I have examined, this body type suggests a beauty standard for women in running. Combined with the fact that no advertisements that I have looked at visually depict a woman engaging with food — the most we see is a woman placed near food — the ideal running body denies a link between performance and food.
No food in the ads
This omission of food in these advertisements is disconcerting because runners need to eat —and eat a lot. Running burns more calories than most forms of exercise, but research shows that runners tend to underestimate their caloric needs. Women may also use diet and exercise as punishment for what they might see as their body’s aesthetic failures.
An ideal running body lacking proper fuel is at risk for a variety of health problems. One of the most serious and relatively common conditions among this market is female athlete triad or Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S), characterized by menstrual dysfunction, disordered eating and decreased bone mineral density.
While the thin, masculine body is certainly prominent in these advertisements, femininity is not left out of the dataset. The advertisements do depict femininity, albeit not in the context of high-performance running. When a woman is shaped in a more feminine way, or is dressed or carrying herself as a stereotypical woman would, visual and textual cues position her as an unthreatening competitor.
For example, in an advertisement for a diva-themed just-for-fun women’s race series, a woman runs wearing a tutu and tiara. She looks bored and her feet barely lift off the ground. Since there is no rationale given for the diva race, it gives the impression of an event meant to contain women and their femininity.
Interpreted alongside the story of Switzer’s run, these advertisements are reminders that bodies are a part of history. Situated within an endurance running subculture that initially wasn’t quite sure how it would deal with the “woman problem,” these advertisements are evidence that female endurance runners are still bound by regulations.
While they are free to enter competitive races, the advertisements communicate that women’s success and value are tied to a certain training regime, body type and style of gender expression.
This focus on the body is a hallmark of the neoliberal ideology that colours Western public life more broadly. In neoliberal thinking, a “good” consumer makes the autonomous, rational choices that lead to physical fitness. Not only is fitness assumed to be more attractive, it benefits the state by saving on the economic costs of obesity.
Studying these advertisements, then, is an important task because advertisements tend to shape — and are shaped by — social norms, giving them a place of power in consumers’ lives.
What runners are seeing in the media can tell us a lot about what it means to be a runner today.
If we know nothing else about these runners, we know that there are a lot of them. A year ago, Switzer ran the Boston Marathon on the 50th anniversary of her debut run. At 70 years old, she was the 9,856th woman to cross the finish line.
Because advertisers have no shortage of female endurance runners with which to communicate, it behooves them not to take another 50 years to change the conversation.