I am most myself when running--most human, most friendly, most approachable. With my hair stuffed into a faded baseball cap, ragged T-shirt and shorts covering my body and SPF 30 sunscreen my only makeup, all the barriers, props and attitudes of daily life are stripped away. I do things I might not otherwise do. Like greeting everyone I pass--from gorgeous guys I usually find too intimidating to approach to homeless people I normally avoid making eye contact with.
I reveal things I don't usually reveal. Like the stomach I'm not so fond of. After 2 miles, I peel off my T-shirt, stuff it into the waistband of my shorts and run 6 more with my midriff blatantly exposed for all the world to see.
Unabashedly, I share intimate details of my bodily functions with running companions. If one of us accidentally passes a little you-know-what, we don't die of embarrassment. We say, "excuse me" and keep running.
I also spit. It's not a terribly ladylike activity, but I feel a secret pride when said spit hangs together and soars a particularly long distance. It takes a certain talent.
Before I was even a teenager, the world began bombarding me with information on how to project my best image: what to wear, what to say, how to act. Browsing the fashion pages of Teen magazine, I subconsciously absorbed a cardinal truth: the world would, to a large extent, judge me by my appearance.
When I was 12, I became convinced that dangling trinkets from my earlobes would make me irresistible to the sixth-grade boys. After weeks of begging, Mom finally let me punch holes in them (my ears, not the boys). Next, I decided my mosquito-bite breasts required support, so off we went to the Girl's Department at Macy's. The womanly delight I expected to feel that first Maidenform day was abruptly eclipsed by the suffocating pressure around my rib cage. All day I couldn't wait to unhook the clasp and take a deep breath.
As I grew, so did my beauty essentials. Eyebrows got plucked, legs shaved, hair highlighted, fingernails polished, under-eye circles concealed. Not to mention the control-top pantyhose and toe-crushing pumps (how silly I'd been to think bras were constricting).
For romantic occasions, I desperately hunted through the Victoria's Secret catalog for lingerie. When the brown box arrived, I'd hurry into the house, shut the blinds, suit up and cautiously approach the mirror--always to discover an impostor staring back. Back I'd jump into my sweatpants and Bay to Breakers T-shirt.
All these adornments are supposed to make me look smart, attractive or sexy. While they sometimes do, they also distract me from who I am inside.
Running strips away the veneer, brings me back to the basics. With my legs striding powerfully forward, sweat-drenched ponytail rhythmically swatting my back, it's just me out there. No perfume. No WonderBra. Simply a woman with strong legs who knows how to spit, who isn't worried about the wind whipping her perfectly styled hair into a frenzy.
I feel real when I run.
Which is why I often put off showering for hours afterward. I meet friends for coffee, chat with neighbors, sing at the top of my lungs with the car windows rolled down. Raw, exposed, I may look like a Glamour "Don't," but I feel beautiful in a way that's missing when I'm all gussied up like a girl. And I'm in no rush to rinse that feeling down the drain.
Though I still get caught up with my appearance sometimes, my running self is always inside. With each mile I log, she gets stronger, reminding me of who I am and what I'm capable of, telling me not to take myself too seriously. She seeps into my non-running life.
Like last week at the grocery store. Instead of staring at the floor when I spotted a cute guy coming down the cereal aisle, I took my eyes off the Cheerios and said, "Hi!"--right to his face. How'd I get up the nerve? I imagined myself in baggy running shorts, halfway through a 10-mile run, bangs plastered to my temples with sweat.
This piece appeared several years ago in Runner's World as Find Your True Self Through Running by Jessa Vartanian..