The origins of the marathon come from the Greek legend of Pheidippides. The story goes that Pheidippides ran 26 miles (or 42.2km, hence the oddly precise distance when measured in kilometres) from the town of Marathon to Athens to proclaim the defeat of the Persians. Upon arrival, he dropped dead from exhaustion and the marathon distance was born. I know “hey, this killed a dude so let’s make it a regular event” isn’t great logic (although, see also: archery, javelin, shot put, boxing and probably most sports that came out of Ancient Greece) but, even today in an age of gel shots and cushioned socks, it speaks to the enormity of the physical and mental challenge.
Recently I ran my first marathon, in the wake of which I have experienced a number of states. Some of these were expected: hunger – wow, I was so hungry; the inevitable metamorphosis into a more-prune-than-human state after hours of blissfully soaking in every possible repository of hot water; a few days avoiding all inclines and gently lowering myself down stairs as if my limbs were that of a tin soldier; and an extended period of tiredness I still cannot shake. I expected, to some extent, all of those states. What I did not expect was to feel a lingering sense of uneasiness; a niggling sprain of the mind triggered every time someone said “oh well done, you must be so proud”. I knew if this had killed an Ancient Greek and yet I was just hungry and tired, I should feel a sense of accomplishment. And yet, I didn’t.
I feel lots of things. Basically, this sums me up. I feel things after thinking about things too much and analysing things until I feel like I could map their genetic make-up in my sleep. A marathon was something about which I expected I would feel proud. My discomfort, probed and prodded by people congratulating me and inquiring as to my tired muscles and sore shins, stems from this question that I keep coming back to: why do I run? What made me run 42.2km and the countless kilometres in training? Why do women like me – young, professional women who try and do one million other things – run? When I run a marathon and try to outwardly appear as that misnomer of a woman who juggles All Of The Things, am I simply playing the very game I purport to reject? Have I built myself up as someone who, by projecting this image of doing All Of The Things, fosters self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in other women? And the perennial question insofar as my brain musings, am I a bad feminist for all of these sins against the sisterhood?
Recently I was asked to speak at an event for young women as an “inspiring woman”. The purpose of the event was to “empower girls to be an active member in the community… to achieve things they would not necessarily think they could”. I was asked to discuss “what I had done so far and how I had been able to get there at such a young age”. At first, I was flattered. It’s quite nice having your ego stroked by a stranger. Then my mind turned to how I felt about being classed as “inspiring”. I realised that being inspiring means having achieved a few milestones that can be nicely summarised or rattled off in a 50-word blurb. It means having a scattering of letters after your name, the more the merrier. It’s a box ticking exercise of what it supposedly means to be successful as a young woman in 2013. It took me back to the high school arms race: who could pack the most badges onto the lapel of their blazer; who could have their name read out in assembly the most; who was, in retrospect, the entirely fucked up notion of a prefect (which, ever so ironically, Word suggests I change to “perfect”). I had been that 17-year-old and I thought I had left her far behind.
I couldn’t make the event, so there was never any decision as to whether or not I would speak. I think I would have and I think I would have gone along and tried to make a case for why we are looking for inspiring women in all the wrong places. Why doing things like marathons and law degrees don’t make you inspiring. They might make you employed and fit, and they might be things you value – god knows society does – but in no way should they be seen as some kind of formula for respect. I would want to tell those girls how, actually, as of late I have been a pretty terrible daughter and sister, struggling with the non-existent relationship with most of her immediate family. I would want to tell them how often exercising as much as you do in the lead up to a marathon is borderline disordered behaviour and probably worth a trip to a therapist rather than a self-congratulatory status update. How I have an ever-growing pile of parking tickets. How I am unsure of how I fit into the social justice space that I spend a lot of my time occupying as I am someone doing pretty damn well out of the existing structural inequality in our society, and is it really possible to lead change when essentially you seek to benefit from maintaining status quo? How with all of this Doing Inspiring Things lately, I’ve been the most tiresome, difficult and flat out unpleasant person to those closest to me. Right now, I feel like the most inspiring woman to me would be one who was kind and generous in spirit and time. How actually an inspiring woman is just a decent human being.
Because here’s the thing: lately I’ve been feeling really hollow. When I think of being hollow, I always have this image of this majestic but decrepit old tree being slowly eaten from the inside. A tree that’s hanging in there but, really, is just a few ant bites away from collapsing entirely. I feel like soon those ants are going to get in, have a little gnaw, and the whole facade will crumble away. I feel like the endless platforms from which we shape and project our identity have left me feeling flat, left me feeling false, and like I’m not actually that person in that instagram or in that status update.
Which brings me back to my marathon. “My marathon” – like it’s a child, or a first step or some other kind of life-defining feat. When I look at the reasons behind why I would run a marathon, and when I undertake that excruciating exercise of extracting the true reason why I did this, I come up empty in terms of inspiration. For me, a marathon was an exercise of pride, of perfectionism, and, if I’m going the whole-hog with the honesty, an exercise of self-loathing. For many women, the marathon has evolved from a mode of relaying victory at war to a declaration of victory in a more insidious war: the war against the self.
After the run, many people said many nice things to me. I projected an image of easy, breezy, just-ran-a-marathon-now-time-for-brunch Di. Part of me reasoned “hey, it’s OK to feel proud about this, if you post it on Facebook it might be a nice change from the stream of cute dog pictures and articles about social and criminal justice”. I wanted to let people know because their response would perhaps make it seem more worthy, more of an achievement. Maybe it would make me feel proud.
I feel so happy for every person who undertakes a marathon and does feel proud. But seeking affirmation as a means to feel proud, that is where the hollowness breeds. We should seek to achieve in a way that make us feel good about ourselves, do the things we truly value – not the things we feel like other people will deem valuable and worthy of acknowledgement. I’m ignoring the complex interplay between what we value and what we’re told to value, and sometimes the former is so obscured by the latter it’s difficult to see what’s us and what’s just a sum of the world in which we live, but for me there was no sense of pride in running a marathon. My reasons were tied up in projecting an image of someone who has it all, someone proclaiming victory in the race to be a perfect woman.
Being able to run a long way or contribute time to a cause says nothing about how inspiring you are: it simply says a lot about where your priorities lie. I want young girls to have role models, but so often we shape our role models around problematic and unattainable ideas of what it means to be a woman. Those young girls don’t need to hear from a bunch of women who have achieved success in the normative sense of the word. They basically live inside a billboard for that picture of success every single day: success looks thin, rich and powerful, and accessorised by a sprinkling of adorable children.
Holding up this image of a successful woman feels like setting a generation of young girls up to fail. Prioritise family? Well, get off the corporate ladder. Building your career? Uh oh, is that the Bad Mother Brigade I hear coming after you? Care about how you look, you’re shallow; don’t care about how you look, you’re letting yourself go. Be strong-minded, but don’t be a bitch; eat well, but not too well; get eight hours sleep, but you better believe you’re the one picking up that crying baby.
Why do we seek inspiration in a way that ignores the fact that there is no one ideal? Why do we hold on to this notion that there is some kind of hierarchy of success out there to which young women should aspire? I’m going to make an assumption that not one woman on that panel would have been a woman who had spent the last ten years raising a family. Not raising a family AND. “Just” raising a family. Because that wouldn’t be enough: raising a family is a side-project, something you’re expected to do on top of your career and your pro bono work and your camellias and your marathon and your Wednesday night date night with your beloved husband.
I don’t subscribe to this myth that there are inspiring women, and by default “just women”; and I feel a far greater sense of accomplishment to be able to finally project an image that doesn’t leave this gaping sense of hollowness than I get from running any distance.