When We Stopped Obsessing Over Teenage Girls’ Skinniness, They Became Faster Runners

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Photo: Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

We are in a "golden age of girls running," according to an article in Running Times: More teenage girls are setting impressive marks at just about every distance than ever before. And these girls' speediness can be traced in part to the decline of certain dumb, unhealthy ideas about body image.

As Mark Bloom wrote in the article, which was published last month:

A new athletic aesthetic makes muscle development in girls culturally desirable, says Cheryl Cooky, associate professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Purdue University and a specialist in women's sports and gender issues. This, she says, has caused a shift in how athletic girls are "experiencing their bodies."

As Salazar puts it, "You want muscle on you. In the long term, being skinny is a negative."

By skinny, Salazar means the old, extreme model that urged up-and-coming female runners to be as thin as possible. That viewpoint, at one time the cause of a culture of eating disorders, is increasingly passe.

Cooky says a growing body of research on what's known as the female athlete triad has emphasized how essential good nutrition is to a runner's health. "Scholarly attention put issues of amenorrhea, osteoporosis and eating disorders on the map," says Cooky, a veteran of five marathons herself. "Female athletes have learned there are dire consequences in attempting to keep weight down."

Running coaches are just as susceptible to cultural mores and gender norms as everyone else, of course. Back in the day, skinny was even more in than it is currently, and coaches wrongly applied that ideal to running. As body-image norms inched toward sanity, so too did the training regimens, and girls got faster as a result.

Mark this down as the 12 zillionth useful reminder of how much social pressures affect ... well, just about everything.