Friday, March 18, 2011

Angry Letter to Runner's World and Rodale Inc.

Dear Runner's World and Rodale Inc.,
I recently took up running, following the excellent Couch to 5k program. In the past five weeks, it transformed me from a reasonably healthy bicyclist who hated running, to someone who gets up excited to lace up her sneakers and plug in her headphones for an early morning run. Living in a society that is singularly addicted to media, especially that which caters to a particular facet of identity, I was excited to subscribe to Runner's World and eagerly anticipated monthly inspiration, advice, and even product pushing. I like magazines. I love magazines and subscribe frankly, to too many, from Bust to Vanity Fair to Relevant. My tolerance for the crappiness of mainstream media offensiveness (particularly toward women, for which the magazine industry is notorious) allows me to purchase the occasional copy of Cosmopolitan in an airport and read my roommate's copies of Glamour without hating myself, my life, or the publishers.
I sometimes even buy products I learn about in magazine ads. Really, I'm a sucker for products.
But, oh, Runner's World. You started out as merely annoying. While I was subscribing online, I had to go through no fewer than six individual pages offering me additional magazines and books for additional cost. But I was a good sport. I even ordered The Runner's World Training Journal for $9.95, rightly assuming that it would give me my sought after "gold stars" for sticking to my running plans and help me prepare for races. So I played your game, chuckled at my consumerism, and looked forward to my first issue coming in the mail.
Then you got more annoying, Runner's World. Since I subscribed (mind you, I still haven't gotten an actual issue in the mail), I have gotten at least one, usually two emails from you every day. These are not the mildly annoying, sometimes informative emailed mini-issues I get from RealSimple and Self. These are pleas for purchase. You really want me to buy stuff, even if it's completely inappropriate for my demographic and has nothing to do with running.
So I always delete these emails without reading them. Perhaps I shouldn't have. Perhaps if I'd read them, I wouldn't have been completely shocked and appalled at what I got in the mail along with my invoice.

The invoice was clear enough. $15.00, I can swing that. I'm feeling good about my Running Diary, and very excited for my first issue. I'm even starting to forgive you, little Runner's World for all those emails and inappropriate advertising.
But then...

Enclosed in my invoice is not only an offensive ad, but an offensive ad which so stabs at my complicated relationship with running that I felt some serious and palpable rage.

Rodale Inc., and by extension Runner's World, you want me to buy Men's Health Huge in a Hurry. But that's probably not appealing for me, you understand. So you throw in some extras. Extras like Rocket Fuel Foods, Supplements For Super Strength, and in case we're wondering what all that leads up to, Seduction Made Simple.

In case you can't read the flimsy copy, Seduction Made Simple promises men can "forget about pick-up lines and meet markets [sic], [since] Seduction Made Simple will show how to get girls to pick you up and take you to bed." It will also "make her putty in your hands!" and instruct men to "meet new girls by meeting new men." The women your target men are seeking are only referred to as "women" once, in the subtitle advertising "How to draw women like bees to honey." (Letter writer's note, I'm not sure bees are actually drawn to honey, apparently they create it. But you're not going for a Pulitzer here, I understand.) The rest of the time, these unsuspecting women who are about to be the beneficiaries (or victims) of instructed charm (and newly huge muscles!) are described exclusively as "girls." This is such an old way of infantilizing and dehumanizing women that it's tired. It's a way of not seeing women as actualized human beings with lives and stories, but rather as childish playthings, much like the "artfully" posed woman in her undies on the cover. You can almost hear her cooing that she didn't really mean to go home with that strange man, he was just so seductive!

Now, Rodale, I'm used to this stuff by now. I'm used to books aimed at men trying to rope in women using stereotypes, deception, and ingenuousness. But this advertisement, despite being sent to me, a woman (not a girl, by the way), strikes at the heart of what I try to overcome through my health lifestyle, of which running is an integral, important part.

You want to know one of the reasons I took so long to start running, Rodale? My main, my number one impediment was men hollering at me on the street. This happens enough while I'm just walking around in the city I call home, but running down the street seems to give these men a license to shout lewdly about my body, the smiles they feel I owe them just for standing there, and various things they would like to do to me given the chance. And I can see why, Rodale. These are the kinds of messages they are getting from even supposedly health-oriented sources of media like Runner's World.
I run for myriad reasons. I run to get to know my city at a unique pace that's not walking in an iPod haze and not riding a bus or Metro. I run to be a part of my neighborhood, so I can form a network of passing acquaintance with the mothers dropping kids off at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, the Wonky-types in black framed glasses riding fixed gears to their government jobs, the old couples sitting on the porches of their row houses reading The Washington Post, the ever-friendly crossing guards who seem so genuinely happy to be at their jobs. I run to know my neighborhood, to be eyes and ears in my little nook of the District, a nook which has found itself pushing out crime and evolving its character over the past several years. I run for my health, and because it makes me feel strong. I lift weights as my running cross training because it helps me feel safe and capable as I face those readers of Seduction Made Simple, since men who read something like that are also men who might not take rejection from an actual, complete woman with the utmost of grace.
I looked to Runner's World to reinforce these gleeful qualities of running. Not to profit off my "you go girl" attitude while simultaneously reminding me what I really am to them and their advertisers - a childish, two dimensional cutout that can be thrown in as a free gift after the men of the world pay four installments of $7.99 each for a guide to building "huge" muscles.
Women and fitness have a complicated relationship. So much of it is about what you can buy, and who you can attract. Women who are seen as having good bodies are seen as acceptable in a wider sense than the physical, and you, Rodale, are ready to sell me the products to get me there.
Last week, a few miles from my house, two women were brutally attacked in a LuLuLemon store. One was murdered and both were raped by two men who followed the fitness store's employees when they went to retrieve some belongings after hours. So far, no leads have been reported and this is one more reason I walk the longer, better-lit way home from work after dark and work hard to be aware of what's going on around me. Rodale, I don't think you're responsible for this attack. But I do think it's a symptom of the juxtaposed struggles we face as a society that a store where women pay $100 for yoga pants and get bags printed with empowerment-lite mantras ("dance sing floss and travel," "friends are more important than money") is a store where misogyny and depersonalization of women was taken to its most depraved extreme. LuLuLemon's bags tell me to "do one thing every day that scares [me]." You know what scares me, Rodale? Running as a woman who has a right to exist as herself and not a stereotype scares me. Getting to know new men when I can't be sure they see me as a person and an equal scares me. Entering a conversation in a bar in a world that hosts rapists scares me. Insisting that I have a right to be here, and to run down the street unmolested scares me. Returning your invoice marked "canceled, no thanks" does not scare me.
Your methods are flimsy and your message is tired. And your willingness to sell out even the punchy, commercialised dillution of feminist empowerment that comes with a world of fitness-minded female runners in favor of a predatory culture of sex offenders has shocked even me out of my love for publications and products. I have no doubt that I would be entertained by the content of every issue of Runner's World and even get a lot of good knowledge from its pages. But the price you asked with your invoice is much too high.

Erica Walters


  1. YES, YES, and MORE YES.

    Thank you for proving (once again) that we are more than just "putty." We are brains, too.

    F Runners World.