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Instagram and other social media platforms are full of accounts related to fitness and weight loss. “Transformation” photos flood the web, along with diet and exercise tips designed to teach people how to achieve their ideal body.
To be considered “fit,” it seems as though you have to have six-pack abs, eat clean for every meal and work out for several hours every day. Diet culture masquerades as fitness culture, and various diets that could be harmful for some people, such as keto and low-fat, are on the rise.
The idea that simply eating clean, working out daily and getting enough sleep can turn the average Joe into a fitness guru is normalized on social media. Images of the ideal woman, either a buff, muscled fitness coach with an extremely low body-fat percentage, or a tall and thin marathon runner, seem to be everywhere online. These ideals are simply impossible to reach, nor healthy, for many individuals. Ultramarathoner Latoya Shauntay Snell is working to change that image and reconfigure the way society thinks about who is fit, and who isn’t.
On Snell’s website, she describes herself as a “recovering self defeatist” and “a walking contradiction.” Although she now successfully runs marathons and ultramarathons multiple times a year, her journey did not start out smoothly.
In 2012, her doctor diagnosed her with multiple health problems that were related to her weight. “My doctor didn’t think I’d make it to see 30 years old,” Snell states on her website. Faced with this reality, she decided to make a lifestyle change, and started exercising in 2013.
Although she had never been a runner, Snell was inspired by a man she saw running on the track who seemed happy and carefree. After an old friend made a Facebook post that he had signed up for a half marathon, Snell was compelled to do the same, even though she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Somewhere along the way during her training, she fell in love with running and never looked back.
Snell’s running journey caused her to lose over 100 pounds by the time she competed in her first marathon, but this weight loss was not achieved through healthy habits. As Snell states on her website, “Learning the hard way that nobody trains for a marathon with four hours of sleep, working 12 hour shifts, working out two to three hours a day, six days a week on 1200 – 1400 calories isn’t healthy forever changed my perspective.” She would often over-exercise and skip meals, and engage in unhealthy drinking habits.
Although she expected that losing weight would make her feel healthier and happier, she faced the same amount of backlash as before, and ended up in the hospital during her first full marathon training due to health issues. Mentally she was struggling, even though she appeared to be living her best life.
After her hospitalization, Snell had another wake-up call and decided to focus on fitness and health, not just weight loss. She realized her relationship with food and exercise had not been healthy, and dedicated her time to becoming stronger, both physically and mentally. She incorporated foods that energized her into her diet and became committed to a fitness routine.
Although she gained weight, she became healthier and more fit than ever before, as she was no longer at risk (health-wise) the way she was before. Her body wasn’t the only thing becoming stronger and healthier, as she also became more confident and her outlook became more positive. As Snell said in an interview with Elle Magazine, “I think you gotta start with what your mind needs, and you bring the body along with it.”
Although Snell is used to preparing her body and mind for the harsh conditions of marathon and ultramarathon running, she was not used to preparing herself for hecklers on the trail. Despite her achievements, Snell faces trolls both online and on the course. After publishing her piece for The Root, “I’m a Plus-Size Runner and I Got Heckled at the NYC Marathon,” Snell went viral for telling the story of how she rose above the man shouting insults at her near mile 23 of the race.
While she let his comments get to her at the time, when she finished the race she no longer felt bitter, as she realized she had conquered battles that her harasser would never understand. “I am powerful because I believe that I am,” she wrote. “And I owe nobody an explanation for what moves me.”
Snell brings awareness to fatphobia in the fitness world and calls the industry out on its problematic ways. As she states on her website, her journey has led her to becoming an “accidental activist.” In her writing, Snell points out the double standards plus-sized individuals face in society. Many trolls, under the guise of concern, express that it isn’t healthy for someone of her size to be running. On the other hand, plus-sized individuals are told again and again to “just exercise.” Snell’s story proves that no matter what lifestyle they live, plus-sized individuals will be ridiculed and judged by random people, and this needs to change.
As a black woman, Snell faces obstacles directly related to her identity. Growing up, she viewed running and fitness as a predominantly white sport, and statistics support her point. Running USA’s National Survey from 2017 found that out of the 6,500 runners surveyed, only 7 percent identified as black. Snell is often one of the only black participants in her races, and white individuals are portrayed much more often in fitness and running magazines as well as on fitness-related social media accounts.
Snell trains with the organization Black Girls RUN!, which was founded to create more representation of African-American women at long-distance running events and tackle growing rates of obesity. The organization provides black women with the resources they need to take on the running world and sustain a fitness regime while supporting each other along the way. Black Girls RUN! focuses on mental health and sisterhood, not just training.
Despite the hate that Snell receives from time to time, the response her story received has been overwhelmingly positive. Her Instagram account has over 23,000 followers, and each one of her photos receive dozens of positive comments citing her as a role model and an emblem of body positivity. Snell chooses to focus on the positive messages she receives, not the haters who probably have no idea what it takes to run an ultramarathon.
In a world where the pressure to be perfect is exemplified on social media, it’s refreshing to see Snell bring awareness to fatphobia and body positivity. Fitness relates to how you feel and what your body can do, not your size in jeans. The fitness industry needs to be reshaped by individuals like Snell, who creates positive change through her activism and vulnerability. With more stories like Snell’s, the fitness world will become a diverse, accepting place.