Learning to love – or at least like – my race photos

By now it’s pretty much part of my racing routine. A few days after running a race, I’ll get the email directing me to my race photos, which I will then follow (even though I know what awaits me, because I am a masochist), and then I will click through my race photos with a growing sense of dismay and horror that supplants the feelings of pride and badassery that once occupied the part of my brain dedicated to feelings about that particular race.

Here, listen in my brain as my internal Anna Wintour starts in with the inevitable litany of criticism.  What am I doing with your face? Why does your face look like a big, shiny eggplant?  That top makes you look like a rectangle – never wear it again. Your thighs look like a waterbed. Your belly is bulging over your shorts. Why are your arms so awkward? Why are you so awkward? Jesus, woman, look at you. How do you even go out in public looking like this?

I still remember, for instance, the time I ran the Bay to Bay 12K a few years ago.  It was a big deal for me, as I had basically run from one end of the county to the other with only a couple of brief walk stops at water stations.  It was an unbearably hot and muggy day, so I’d taken off my shirt and dumped water on my head and did pretty much everything I needed to do to make sure I crossed that finish line.  I was feeling pretty fabulous after the race for a few days – until I saw my race photos that were taken near the finish line.  My hair was plastered against my face, which had turned the approximate shade of red known as “Sunburned Tourist,” my belly was hanging slightly over my waistband and I had this slightly deranged look on my face.

I took one look at the photo and immediately deflated. To this day, my overriding emotional memory is not of pride or excitement in running the Bay to Bay, but rather embarrassment that I did so while looking like such a wretch.  That embarrassment was so strong that it took a few years before I felt comfortable running without a shirt on again.

This is not an uncommon experience, by the way.  There’s a reason why this photo makes the rounds among runners every so often:


Race photos seem to be so universally reviled that for a while I actually thought race directors should just do away with them all together. Why torment us? Is it not enough that we paid money to run around in circles in the predawn hours?  Does this not mark us as slightly idiotic as it is?  Must we have photographic proof of that idiocy preserved for posterity’s sake?  And really, as if many of us need anything else to make us feel any more self-conscious than we already do.

I’d been racing for about five years before my opinion finally started to change.  What did it was a photo taken of me as I ran out of the water during the Escape from Fort DeSoto triathlon earlier this year.  Here, check out the photo:


The photo is kind of goofy, yes?  I mean, beneath the watermark, my mouth is half open, with my jaw slack and my cheeks flopping loosely.  The hot pink on my wetsuit clashes with the fluorescent yellow and aqua of my tri top, which clashes with the construction-sign orange of my swim cap. And I just don’t even know what to say about the swim cap situation on my head.  It makes me look like a freaking Conehead.  (I come from France.)  By traditional aesthetic standards, it’s kind of a mess, and not even in the Monet sense.

That doesn’t keep me from loving the shit out of this photo.  I look at this photo and I don’t see all of the things that an art critic would find wrong with it.  Instead, I look at this photo and I remember how I felt when it was taken.  I had just completed a swim leg in which I never once flipped over for a backstroke.  I felt strong and powerful through the whole swim leg, and when I finished my swim and started charging through the surf, I remember feeling a little bit like a Bond girl.  (I just needed a dagger strapped to my thigh, and also cleavage.)  And the look on my face, while hardly model perfect, is still beautiful to me because of the intensity and focus I’m exhibiting in this moment.  I don’t normally get to see myself looking this way.  When I do see myself, it’s to check to make sure I don’t have pepper in my teeth or to put on some mascara before going to work.  It’s not while in the middle of doing something tough and physical.

The fact that I love this photo, as goofy as it is, as much as I do caused me to pause and consider all of the other race photos I’ve taken, especially the ones I disliked.  And I realized that I did not like those photos for a very simple reason: they were not pretty.  I was not pretty in them.  In fact, I kind of look scary in a lot of them.  I am not one of those people who usually remembers to wave at the camera and smile, often because I am too focused on racing to pay the photographer much mind.  As a result, my photos usually show me looking really intense, like concentrated Bitchy Resting Face, and not at all graceful or poised or any of the other qualities we generally associate with good photos of women.

When I am in the middle of competing, I am a beast.  I am scary.  I am everything but pretty.

I was shocked when I realized just how thoroughly I had internalized the idea that I must look pretty at all times, even when competing in athletics.  The idea had been so deeply ground in my psyche that when I was confronted with photographic evidence of my not-prettiness, my reaction was shame and embarrassment, as if I had done something wrong by showing not-pretty sides of myself in public, like I had broken the social compact that says I get to exist in public spaces provided I don’t offend anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities in the process.

What made this even more disconcerting is that I consider myself to be a woman who is not particularly vulnerable to cultural beauty standards.  I mean, I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I often go to work with my hair in a wet ponytail, I schlub around in flip-flops and tank tops, and my nail polish is usually chipped.  I’m kind of lazy about this stuff and I don’t feel bad about it, because I think it’s bullshit that women are expected to do all of this extra stuff to be considered presentable while guys can splash some water on their heads and be just fine.

And yet there I am, cringing over the fact that photos taken of me as I run the twelfth mile of a 13.1-mile race aren’t pretty.

When I put it like that, the whole thing seems silly.  I mean, no shit I’m not going to look pretty when I’m racing. I have other things on my mind at the time than how I might look compared to the imaginary Perfect Woman that lurks omnipresently in the minds of many women.  I’m sweaty, I’m spitting and shooting snot rockets, I’m fishing my shorts out of my butt crack, I’m probably in pain, I’m focused on getting my ass across that finish line as fast as I possibly can.  I am too busy being and doing to care how I look to others.  It’s only when I see the photos – when I have the opportunity to see myself as others might see me – that I am taken out of myself as the subject of my life and start seeing myself as an object to be looked at.

I think I knew that on some level, which is why I objected to the very existence of race photos for the longest time.  But what I’m now coming to understand is that the problem isn’t with the photos themselves but with the way I am interpreting them.  The photos were problematic to me because I wanted to look at them and see photos that conveyed attractiveness, poise, symmetry and elegance, but instead I saw messiness, scariness, awkwardness and not-prettiness.  (I am not using the word “ugly” because I don’t feel the photos are ugly. They just aren’t pretty.)

That is a psychological fight I am never, ever going to win, because, as Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost Fifty) puts it, the values of conventional femininity are directly contradicted by the physical demands of sports performance. I am not willing to sacrifice my performance as an athlete for the sake of looking pretty, and so rather than hating my race photos for not meeting that standard of prettiness set by the imaginary critic in my head, I’ve decided that I will be much better off if I start evaluating my photos by different standards, perhaps according to the experience I was actually having at the time of the photo.  (Plus, it’s worth remembering that we don’t owe prettiness to anyone.  Prettiness is not the price we have to pay to have the right to exist in public, okay?)

You know, I shouldn’t say this is silly. It’s actually quite understandable.  I mean, we live in a world where female athletes – and women in general – are constantly being evaluated in terms of their looks.  We don’t have to look beyond this past weekend to see that. Marion Bartoli wins Wimbledon and one of the first things a commentator remarks upon is how she isn’t “a looker.”  It happens so often that it’s become cliche at this point.  This conversation usually cycles around professional female athletes, but it occurred to me while reading about Marion Bartoli and stewing on this post that there is no reason why amateur female athletes like myself should be assumed to be immune to this pervasive expectation.

In fact, I think the fact that so many of us look at our race photos and cringe because we failed to be pretty or beautiful in them is just one of the many negative ramifications of the wider social obsession with the appearances of female athletes.  Maybe we aren’t consciously making that connection, but I think a lot of us do hear what is said about professional female athletes – especially ones who are not conventionally attractive – and maybe deep in our hearts we think that if this is what is said about a professional elite athlete, what on earth are other people thinking about us?

I don’t want to let that mindset win, and so I’m doing what I can to resist it.  Learning to like my race photos may not keep Twitter bros from keening whenever they are forced to look at a woman who doesn’t give them a stiffy, but it’s certainly a start.

56 responses to “Learning to love – or at least like – my race photos

  1. I too have had that reaction when looking at race photos – too big, what crappy form, I must be the slowest, dorkiest person on the planet. But then I realize that almost everyone (male and female) looks big, or dorky, or slow, or crappy. I am not a photographer, so I like to believe that is difficult to get a good shot of someone, especially running, looking un-dorky, slim and fast. And,when my legs look large, I reframe my thoughts and choose to think – “how powerful they are.” Works sometimes!

  2. Yes! I’m like this with photos and videos from my weightlifting competitions. I made peace with photos first (holding perfectly still with a lot of weight overhead looks badass, no matter how red/sweaty/deranged one looks 🙂 ). Only a month ago could I bring myself to watch any videos, even though I knew seeing what I did right/wrong would help my performance. I wanted to live secure in my mental image of myself as a powerful Amazon, not the floppy, red-faced, troll-monster I feared I really was. I finally made myself watch a video- my training partner recorded and edited the video, not watching would be rejecting a wonderful gift. For the first time I saw myself as I actually felt- determined, powerful, badass. I sat and cried.

  3. Everything about this post is truly, intensely beautiful. The subject/object part especially. The snot rockets … maybe not quite as much. But man, you have really taught me something here. Thank you.

  4. When I see other (i.e. non-professional) people doing exercise all I can think is “dang good on them, I need to get my lazy butt to the gym” rather than ewww they aren’t pretty.
    I think we are luckier than athletes in that we are not in the public eye and the pressure to look good even when running miles or heaving heavy metal around comes from within ourselves and not from other people. However the fact we put the pressure on ourselves to look good whilst doing something that requires getting sweaty and badass says a lot about societal pressures nowadays.

    In a kinda similar vein I laughed as I caught my reflection leaving the gym today as I was a sweaty dirty mess and yet I knew in less than an hour I would be taking my 2yr daughter to her pre-school with my hair washed, make-up on and looking good (rockin my wonder woman converse). I kinda like the contrast of lifting weights me and mum me.

    Inverdale is a dick, even in his apology was a non-apology in the way he said “if he offended” oh just fuck off.

  5. Thanks for this! Whenever I look at videos of my deadlifts, all I can see is my double chin, which is really only there because I have good form and am focusing on a spot on the floor in front of me. But does that matter? No. I hate that any amount of looking down gives me a double chin. And the saddest part is I love doing deadlifts and always feel like such a beast – until I watch the video. But next time that happens, I will remember this post and I will let myself feel like a beast again.

    • Yes! You are a total beast, especially if you are so into lifting that you video your DLs and watch them to improve your form. Just the fact that you are doing that means you are a certified badass. Don’t ever forget that!

  6. Thank you for the post. By the way you actually look badass in the photo. You look determined as if nothing is going to stop you from reaching your goal.

    • Thank you! I felt really determined and proud coming out of that water, and I’m glad it showed up in the photo. 🙂

  7. Great post! I really connected with this one. Despite running a great time at my last 5k, I remember looking at my race photos and feeling self-conscious about how fat my legs looked. I need to remind myself that it’s a freakin’ race! No one’s judging how great I look when I cross the finish–it’s just me and the clock.

    • Well, and also let’s remember that people are most likely not being nearly as critical of our appearances as we are of our own. How often do you look at other people’s race photos and pick out the flaws? I never do this. I only do it to my own photos. When I see other people’s photos, I’m usually like, “damn, they look so tough.”

  8. GREAT POST!!!!

    Actually just had one of those moment when seeing my face in a race I did with a client (and so did she for that matter).

    And I actually think you look super good in this photo! It’s funny how we see things in photos that no one else would ever even notice.

    I’ve felt the same way about race or competition photos. I make the sumo snarl face when lifting really heavy sometimes and at first it was sort of embarrassing to see it in photos.

    Now I don’t care because I just know it means I was freaking busting out the heaviest, best lift I could!

    Although I still have problems taking photos of exercises for my posts because I can’t relax my face. I can’t worry about how it looks while I’m trying to demonstrate exercises to the best of my ability.

    It’s funny how we are brainwashed into thinking we should look perfectly relaxed and put together because that is how the POSED models look when exercising.

    That is not reality. I embrace my very beautiful sumo snarl face! 🙂

    • I think the photos you’ve done for your recent posts have been really good! (Plus it’s really useful to see the moves demonstrated that way.) Again, I think it’s like you said, a lot of us have a tendency to fixate on things in our photos that no one else would ever, ever notice. It’s a habit I’m going to work hard to break.

      • Well thanks! That is why I do them but it is never easy seeing them haha

        It’s a habit I’m also going to break and one I’m super glad you shed light on! 🙂

  9. Great post! It’s interesting… all of the things you pointed out as being “wrong” with the picture, I couldn’t see at all. I didn’t see a conehead, I didn’t see cheeks flopping, clashing colors… all I saw was a strong athlete!

  10. This was something I used to worry about, and still do, from time to time. I’m a curly-haired ginger with fair skin. I get red when I’m warm, and my hair frizzes, even in a ponytail/headband combo. I see it in the mirror at the gym every day. It means I’m working hard, so I embrace it. The dudes at the gym get to be red faced and sweaty, and they grunt, and wheeze, and make faces. I’m doing the same things they are, so why shouldn’t I get to do that?
    But I used to worry. About the red face, the splotchiness, the frizz. The pit stains, the spreading sweat stains on my chest and back, the sweaty butt prints I left on the machines and benches before I cleaned them. All of it. But then, honey badger stopped giving a fuck. I don’t know why, really.

    • Love this! Whenever I see women who are sweaty and red-faced at the gym, I never judge. Instead I’m totally in awe of how hard they’re getting after it. It’s proof that she’s totally dedicated and focused on what she’s doing, and I fully support that!

  11. Pretty? Maybe not. But cool? Definitely. Because you’re doing something bad ass and you’re doing it with intensity.

    I’ll take cool over pretty any day!

    • This reminds me of a shirt Spikes and Heels sells that says, “Be Pretty on Rest Days.” I kind of love that a whole lot.

  12. This absolutely hit home for me. Thank you, thank you, for articulating it. My favorite lines (the ones I need to drill into my brain) are: “I am too busy being and doing to care how I look to others. It’s only when I see the photos – when I have the opportunity to see myself as others might see me – that I am taken out of myself as the subject of my life and start seeing myself as an object to be looked at.”

  13. That photo looks like complete and utter badassery to me – you absolutely should feel proud of that one! And ALL the others!

  14. I love that race photo! I aspire to have a race photo that looks like that. You look like a kick-butt competitor in that pic!

  15. Thank you for putting this into words. I have dissected and hated every race photo ever taken of myself, filling my head with critiques like my face is too red, my wild curly hair is frizzing around my face, my stomach looks like its sticking out, my leg looks huge, etc. What I really should be thinking is look at how damn hard I was pushing my body at that moment and how incredible that is. With your words in the back of my mind, hopefully I’ll be able to do just that.

    • Aw, I hope that my writing can help turn that around a little bit. I know it’s not easy because I struggle with it all the time, but maybe if we just make the effort to reframe our thoughts, we can all be a little kinder to ourselves in our moments of triumph. 🙂

    • Word. Those are the same things I see when I look at my race photos. How dare I judge myself harshly for not looking good at mile 22 of a marathon, right?

  16. Caitlin, I immensely enjoy your posts more than you can appreciate. I’m a guy who likes to run/bike/race/tri/Du, etc. and be a little competitive for age-group (bigger dreamer than actual). First stumbled on your story about a cycling time-trial in pouring rain (laughs so hard I had tears). Your writing is really (don’t know the word) ..ing me. Hope you don’t mind my sharing your stories with a few people like coach Melissa Dalio with you. Keep it up and even though I’m a guy, who is also a Nurse Practitioner, think a lot of guy athletes would love your stories, especially with the “very humorous” twist!!!

    • Thanks, Tom! You know, I know my blog is definitely female-focused but the truth is that I think athletes have a lot in common no matter our gender. I can relate to a lot of the stories I hear from male athletes because I’ve experienced myself, and I’m always glad to hear from male athletes like yourself who have the same experience with my writing. I totally don’t mind you sharing my writing with others – in fact, I am honored. 🙂

  17. I didn’t think you looked goofy at all. I thought it was a great photo because you looked like you were in charge, strong, intense, and focused. I thought this before I read what you thought of the photo.

  18. As with a lot of commenters, I thought your swim photo was awesome – the photographer was obviously in a good position to get a good shot there because it’s nicely framed, as well as showing exactly what you’re there for (… the comparison to the Roxy ad is inevitable, right?). Thanks for this post – for your willingness to confront in public the demons that assail the rest of us in private!

    • Thank you! Yes, the photographer did a good job of framing the photo and getting good focus. I can’t imagine how difficult it has to be to do race photography, and so whenever one actually works out, it’s like finding a unicorn at the end of a rainbow. 🙂

  19. I’m convinced that I cannot take a good photo while I’m doing whatever I’m doing (usually lifting), because as you and other commenters have implied, if I can stop and pause for a cute photo in which I look a certain way, then am I really focused on what I should be doing?

    And as others have said, this is a fantastic photo–you’re getting shit done, you’re in the moment, and you’re focused. It’s also a well-composed photograph, which is probably something that’s really difficult to do as a photographer (I can’t imagine having to sort through so many photos in so little a time frame to get them ready in a few days!).

    In short: fuck pretty. We’re here to work.

  20. I love your photo. That photo is inspiring to me. It’s pure focus and effort, not coneheads and slackjaw. I love your post. So your training clothes don’t match. Whose do? Only instructors and people who go to the gym with makeup on (I’m in Vegas, it happens.) Rock on with your bad self!

  21. So, I dont’ consider myself an athlete but this is what I see:

    A strong woman. Focused. A goal in mind. Driven and may I just add, awesome strong body.

    I do know what you mean. Every woman does. Right now as I am going through this “fixing my metabolism” stuff I wake up every day and what I see in the mirror is not what others see. I am going to write a post about it, uhm, again, because it is really amazingly annoying and disturbing and stupid. 🙂

  22. I decided to comment before reading the rest of the entry under the photo or the other comments.

    To me, you look great. What I see in the picture is a strong, determined and fit woman, focused on her race. No messing around.

    I have a few dorky pictures and videos of me performing karate katas or dueling, but aside from analyzing my technique (I’m no professional), I never feel ashamed that I look more fat/sweaty/less flexible than others. At least I have the guts to get into such a thing.

    I was never a fan of criticizing pictures. When (if) I get old, I will look at them and wish I could still do the things I am doing now, in my twenties, at the same pace, just as vigorously.

    Thank you for your fabulous blog. This is, I believe, my first comment, but I thoroughly enjoy reading every single entry.

  23. I loved this article.
    I HATE my race photos – because when they’re taken, I feel about as beautiful as I ever do. Tough, strong, fighting, beautiful. And when I see the photos I see ugly, ‘sturdy’, sweaty, fat arms, short and slow. The times when I’m happiest and when I feel the most beautiful are generally the times when I am actually the least pretty – after a race, having cycled up an Alp, having hiked all day. At your suggestion, I’m going to try and remember the moment and embrace the photo! Thanks. And the swim photo is AMAZING!

  24. Thanks for linking to the post about the commentary on Marion Bartoli. I was actually thinking of contacting you to get you to write a blog post on it (since I don’t read any other blogs on this topic). Being Scottish, Wimbledon is a massive deal to me (especially since Murray won 🙂 ) and I was shocked and dismayed at both Inverdale’s comments and the Twitter hate-fest following her win.

    You look great in your race photo by the way: so focused and determined! 🙂

  25. First time i visit your blog and WOW this post hits home. Just two weeks ago I made my self feel terrible for a couple days because of race photos and I vowed to never look again…or to flip the photographer off. Thanks for writing such a great piece.

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  27. What a fantastic way to look at race photos! Who hasn’t looked at themselves racing and cringed? You’re insight has made me rethink all those pictures I’ve shuddered at and ignored for so many years.

  28. Being a beast and a beauty simultaneously!! Even though I’m not a runner, I totally relate!

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  30. First time commenter. Found your blog from Skepchick and I just love your writing. I find myself agreeing with everything you say and you are quite an inspiration to my workouts.

    “The photo is kind of goofy, yes? I mean, beneath the watermark, my mouth is half open, with my jaw slack and my cheeks flopping loosely. The hot pink on my wetsuit clashes with the fluorescent yellow and aqua of my tri top, which clashes with the construction-sign orange of my swim cap. And I just don’t even know what to say about the swim cap situation on my head. It makes me look like a freaking Conehead. (I come from France.) By traditional aesthetic standards, it’s kind of a mess, and not even in the Monet sense.”

    I’ll be honest – I thought NONE of those things when I saw your picture. I saw a badass, strong women kicking the shit out of a tri. Which I love to do too. I know that I judge myself way more harshly than others might judge me, and I wonder if the same thing was happening here.

    • I know, it’s kind of embarrassing to lay my thought patterns out there like that, because I am aware that, like a lot of people, I am way more critical of my own photos than I am of anyone else’s. It would never occur to me to think those things about another person’s race photo (or photo, period) and yet it almost happens reflexively with my own.

      The good thing about posting this was that it showed me how ridiculous I was being, and since then I have really cut myself some slack when it comes to my race photos.

  31. I have to say that I see a strong, powerful woman showing her strength and power in that photo. I find it beautiful for so many reasons that have nothing to do with the ideal look of a perfect woman. (That’s a concept that I, like many, loathe.) I just power, energy, strength, determination…all beautiful things to me. 🙂

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  33. Excellent, excellent post.

    And maybe this isn’t the appropriate time, place, or mindset, but as a guy who happens to find women beautiful, y’all have no idea how attractive a woman working hard actually is.

    When I see a woman working out I see a person who isn’t afraid to live life moment by moment.

    And that’s just awesome.

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