What ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Gets Wrong About Running While Fat

The story we’re too often told about fatness and running is that body size is an obstacle to overcome in our quest for glory.

Right after I watched the trailer for the Amazon Studios film Brittany Runs a Marathon, I thought about the time I had forgotten to buy energy chews right before a 10-mile marathon training run. I walked to the grocery store in my running clothes—spandex leggings, a technical shirt with the name of my local running club on it, and New Balance 860s.

I put two packets of chews on the conveyor and started to pull some money out of my belt pack when the cashier said, “These are really good.” I told him that it took me a while to find a flavour that I liked, but that I prefer chews over gels any day. “Oh,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “Are you a runner?”

I get that a lot.

I’ve built up quite a collection of anecdotes about people who don’t believe I’m a runner at all, let alone a marathoner. Highlights include the clerk at the running store who assumed I was there to buy a gift, the trainer at my gym who stoically passed all the other people on treadmills but gave me a thumbs up, and the volunteer at packet pickup who gave me detailed instructions on how to pin my bib.

As annoying as these interactions are, I can’t really blame anyone for the oversight. Movies like Brittany Runs a Marathon keep telling the same story about what it’s like to be a fat runner: temporary.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

The film, starring Jillian Bell as Brittany, is a classic before-and-after story. Sometimes called “fitspo,” these real life stories of transformation are meant to inspire or motivate people to reach their fitness goals. They often come in the form of celebrity magazine profiles (“How she earned those curves!”), fitness product advertisements (“I did it, so can you!”), reality TV shows, social media hashtags, and films like Brittany Runs a Marathon. What they all have in common is the idea that if you follow the same workout plan as the person in the story, you’ll achieve the same result: a more perfect body and life. The hero of the story wins by defeating the villain of their former self.

Before she starts running, Brittany is sad and lonely, prone to self-destructive behaviour and overindulgence resulting in an out-of-control life. As a runner, Brittany shows commitment by not partying too much before a weekend long run. When she starts running, Brittany is portrayed as fat, gross, and childish. After her first workout running around the block, she returns to her apartment so drenched in sweat that her family comments on it during a video chat. Then we see a montage that depicts Brittany becoming slimmer, more stylish, and more confident with each workout. Her weight loss continues and she finally reaches the New York City Marathon finish line glowing, but not sweaty.

The story we’re too often told about fatness and running is that body size is an obstacle to overcome in our quest for glory. You may start out fat, slow, sweaty, and out of breath, but stick with it long enough and you’ll become a svelte, glowing running machine.

I am a fat runner. I know this because I can’t assume that running stores will carry clothing in my size. I started running for the same reason that Brittany’s friend Seth (Micah Stock) does—to show my kid that I could do the impossible. I joined my local running club and started running for 30 seconds at a time. As I bumped up against each new milestone, I had to quiet the voice in my head that told me I didn’t get to call myself a runner. Thirty seconds became a minute, then a mile, then a marathon. I have emotional highs and lows like every other runner. I can tell you stories about racing in terrible weather and every time my watch failed to connect to my GPS. I have a prerace ritual, a set of mantras for when I hit a wall, and a certain way I like to tie my shoes.

The author, Kate Browne, finishing the 5K during the 48.6 mile Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World in 2018.

My favourite scene in Brittany Runs a Marathon is when Brittany arrives at the New York City Marathon to finish what she set out to do. The camera pans across the starting corrals as the announcer welcomes 50,000 runners from all over the world to the race. After the race begins, we see spectators cheering and jangling cowbells along the course. I related to all the emotional highs and lows that Brittany faces—the exhilarating start, midrace boredom, fear when another runner is carried off on a stretcher, and the frustration when pain sets in. The overwhelming wave of joy when you catch your first glimpse of the people who love you in the crowd. Those are the things that being a runner is all about.

Reading, watching, and sharing running success stories can inspire people to make big changes in their health and fitness. The problem is that we keep sharing the same story over and over to the exclusion of runners who look like the villains of their own story. Every fat runner I know has had an experience of being shamed, discouraged, or excluded for daring to take up space in our sport. L. Shauntay Snell was publicly fat-shamed during the 2017 New York City Marathon, the same event Brittany trains for and completes.

When we start telling more diverse stories about what it feels like to be a runner in bodies of all kinds, we can open up new possibilities for inspiration. I am not a before-and-after success story. I weigh just as much now as I did when I started running in 2014. If I thought I had to lose weight to reach my marathon goals, I would have quit a long time ago. I would have missed so many opportunities to prove to myself that I have what it takes to succeed. Everyone who wants to run a marathon deserves the chance to make that experience part of their story.

The truth about running while fat is that we are not here to be your before inspiration. We are here to enjoy the endorphin rush, the postrace beverages, and the pride that comes with being able to say “I’m a runner.” Just like you are.

Brittany Runs a Marathon tells an inspirational story that represents one way to reach a marathon goal, but it is not the only way. The film will no doubt inspire lots of people who never thought a marathon was attainable to take that first step and start training. These people may or may not be fat. But I want anyone who aspires to run a marathon—no matter how unlikely it seems—to know that a before-and-after is not required. You are not temporary and your body is not the villain. If you want to find fitness inspiration, start by looking in the mirror. You are the hero of your life. The villains you are fighting are the stereotypes and prejudices that make you feel like the end goal should be a dramatic physical transformation. And we’re all rooting for you.

Kate Browne, Ph.D. (@drkatebrowne) is a pop culture writer who specialises in body image and digital media. She is the creator of Taking Up Space, a blog about marketing tactics in the health, wellness, and fitness industries, and VP of Communication for the Body Positive Fitness Alliance.

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