BY INES MADRID
Kelly Roberts started to run to save her own life. After the tragic and unexpected loss of her brother Scott, running became the therapy and helping hand she never imagined.
In dealing with her grief, she also discovered how she didn't love her own reflection in the mirror.
And in the process, she founded the Badass Lady Gang and She Can/And She Did running groups. In addition to marathon plans, community runs, and coaching, the platforms encourage women of all shapes and sizes to find their inner athlete.
Kelly is currently training for the Chicago Marathon, where she is hoping to earn her Boston Qualifying time. In the middle of marathon training, she shared her experience on the path to how loving yourself frees you to live your best life.
1. When did you begin to love and embrace your body, and decide to challenge the stereotypes of what a female athlete should look like?
I don’t think it happened in a moment. Most of my life, I was obsessed with weight loss like pretty much every other woman I've ever known. I wasn’t athletic, so an athletic build wasn’t something I thought to aspire to. I didn’t want muscle, I just wanted to be a 00 or look like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Destiny’s Child. But I didn’t really understand or take a sledgehammer to our traditional feminine beauty ideals (thin, nice, quiet, spend your money on appearance and take up as little room in the world as possible) until I ran a marathon. It was the first crack to that construct and two years later, when I started chasing a BQ, it finally fell apart.
I’d bought into the lie the food industry sold us that weight loss is as simple as calories in versus calories out and if you were overweight, it's because you weren’t working out enough. And there I was, eating a healthy and balanced diet, running 40+ miles a week, cross-training and strength training, and I was still a US size 10/12. I didn’t understand why I wasn't losing weight even though I was eating healthier and running stronger than I'd ever run in my life. I finally decided I was tired of feeling sad and disappointed every time I saw my reflection or a picture of myself.
2. How do you feel about being a role model in the body positive movement?
In the beginning, it was overwhelming and hard to process. I started this movement called the #sportsbrasquad and for the first two months, I was terrified to run in my sports bra so I WENT THROUGH IT. I felt so much cooler when I ran in my sports bra but I was so insecure. Eventually, I came to realize that if I spent a fraction of the time I spent tearing myself and my body image down as I did building myself back up, I'd probably be happier. But I spent my entire life consumed with what other people may or may not think about my weight and size. So it took a lot of work to relearn how to talk to myself and what strong and healthy actually look like, but it changed my life.
3. What would you say to your 13 year old self now about body image?
Don’t ask to go to Jenny Craig, ask to get into therapy. And stop giving away your power. The only person who needs to believe you’re beautiful is you.
4. What's been your approach to dealing with the negative comments and hate mail on social media?
It still makes me anxious and honestly, it makes me feel really unsafe. Especially at big races when people can track me or find me. I know most of the threats or hostility are just people yelling into a void and projecting their issues but sometimes, it's scary. I definitely have gotten better at managing but whenever I feel extra sensitive or anxious, I just put my phone in a different room for a day or two and go off the grid. I try to only be on social media when I have to be. I use it for work and if I want to keep up with my friends, I FaceTime them or find time to hang out face to face. They all hate that I never like their photos but I just can't be on there. So stepping away has been the healthiest adjustment.
5. Why do you think it is important to have diversity of voices in running?
By celebrating and highlighting one body type, we're selling this notion that anyone who doesn't have that body type has more work to do. Which is bullshit. I've lost over 75 pounds and I'm here to tell you that weight loss (or really, hating yourself) isn't a sustainable goal or a very motivating reason to get active. If you can't feel empowered in the skin you're in, you'll never be happy when you look the way you think you need to look. But when you see people who look like you kicking ass and accomplishing feats that you've always considered to be impossible, you don't feel like an outsider or an other. You feel seen and capable. Sure, we’ve made steps forward but there’s no in-between. It's just two very opposite ends of the spectrum and if I had to choose between one body type or two represented, I'd choose two. But I shouldn't have to choose. We need to see people of all different races, ages, and body types represented. I want to see people who look like me when I’m not marathon training. Who are healthy even though they have stretch marks and cellulite. People who look average. I'm fine being average. Average is beautiful too.
6. What has been your motivation to continue the fight against the archaic beauty standards of the female body and of athletes?
I can’t imagine not being vocal about changing what feminine beauty ideals have done to our perceptions of health. They're ruining lives, holding us back, and they're making us sick. Until they change, which I don’t think is going to be anytime soon because convincing people they’re not good enough is a multi-billion dollar industry, I’ll be telling stories about what matters most: How getting active in ways that empower you will change your life and it has literally nothing to do with weight loss.
7. What has been your proudest moment so far? The hardest to overcome?
#Sportsbrasquad. Without a doubt. It forces you to reckon with what you say to yourself which is the only way to make real changes. The hardest to overcome has been staying relevant.
8. What do you say to yourself when you are feeling low?
I try to keep my self-talk as accurate as possible but when I’m feeling low, I try to ask for help from my friends and family. More often than not though, when I'm feeling sad, I try to find some perspective and find the fun wherever I can. Smiles are earned is a saying that really has saved my life.
9. Can you share a moment when someone told you the impact your courage had on how they viewed themselves?
I just got an email today from a woman who has been dieting and trying to figure out what was wrong with her for thirty years. She told me she's a lawyer and has completed 70.3 distance ironmans and marathons and yet she always saw herself as fat and needed to lose weight. And then this weekend, she just kind of realized she wasn't unwell or unfit. She was really strong and was tired spending the few moments she had when she wasn't raising her children, working, or training for some badass endurance race consumed with guilt for not being thinner. So she joined the sports bra squad and told me that she didn't think she would have come to that realization had I not put out the challenge to pay attention to what she says to herself when she looks in the mirror. That was pretty special because now she's going to mirror that behavior to her children and hopefully end the cycle of working out to lose weight and instead, finding sports because they're such a powerful way to join a community and challenge yourself.
10. What role do you think the larger running community can do to embrace and promote diversity?
Just use your voice when you don’t see a diverse range of ages, body types, races, and looks. It doesn't have to be a, "Grab the pitchforks, let's get em!" type of tweet or comment. We can speak truth to power politely. It's hard, but it can be done. And don't be shy with your story. We all suffer in silence which is why change hasn't come sooner. Speak up and speak out because your story may inspire someone else who relates to you. There are people watching you thinking, "If they can, so can I"