Based on a True Body: How Running Photos Lie to Us and Why it Matters

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Hello! I'm Lindley, I'm fat, and I'm not a runner. I'm not a hidden yogi (though I do enjoy a wobbly tree pose on occasion). I'm not a jogger. I don't lift weights. In fact, I'm not an athlete at all. Not in any way, shape or form. My physical activity level can be best described as "aspires to be a housecat."


So why am I here, on a blog called Running Life? I'm the only photographer and entrepreneur creating stock photos that honor and celebrate athletes in large (or fat -- I use the word as a neutral descriptor) bodies. I'd like to share why it matters which images appear on the cover of running magazines, why the bodies you see in the media don't match the ones you see at races and how you can get involved in representing bodies like yours.


Based on a True Body


Photography is both descriptive and prescriptive. It's descriptive because it captures the world and people around us, but it's also prescriptive because photos of people are so ubiquitous in our digital world that we photographers create what is considered "normal." And unfortunately, photographers grow up and live in the same world as everyone else: one that both emphasizes and rewards compliance with cultural beauty standards.


That also means that photographers get rewarded when the images they create also comply with cultural beauty standards. Photographs in which the subjects meet those standards as closely as possible are what sell, both to stock photo clients and to private clients (such as wedding photos or family portraits), so photographers train not only in how to use posing and lighting to make people appear as thin and "flawless" as possible, but how to use Photoshop and other digital tools to manipulate people's bodies further.


That's why everyone you see in images in magazines, on TV, in ads and on social media looks so perfect. Those images are based on a true body -- like a movie that's based on a true story -- but here's what the process really looks like:


  1. A model is chosen who is usually young, thin, white or light-skinned, and as close to the beauty ideal as possible.

  2. The photographer uses makeup, apparel, posing and lighting at the photo shoot to increase the model's attractiveness.

  3. The digital images are manipulated to remove fat rolls, acne, scars, signs of aging, and other "blemishes." Teeth and eyes are whitened, skin is smoothed and hair is added or removed. Some images, like the ones used on magazine covers, are even composited, with body parts from different shots switched out to make the model look even more impossibly perfect.

  4. These fantasy images become the professional standard, and most photographers who enter the field strive to outdo their competitors and make their images even more unrealistically perfect.

As I write this post, the company Adobe, which produces Photoshop, has just come out with a new tool within the software to age or de-age a subject. With a few clicks, years can be added or removed.


In this environment, is it any wonder that almost every image we see is based on a true body?


What the heck are stock photos?

Stock photos are the images that many businesses -- from small to large -- use in their advertising, social media, websites and more. Companies buy them from central websites (which usually pay the photographers who took the photos a certain amount of money per sale, though the industry varies) because it's way cheaper to do it that way than to hire a photographer and get custom photos made every time you want to make an Instagram post.


There are many photographers who specialize in stock photography, and you can find just about anything you're looking for -- as long as you're looking for certain types of bodies and no one else.


Why, as an athlete, do I care what photos companies use?

Take a moment and picture the last image of a runner you saw that was part of an advertisement or article (in other words, not a marathon or candid photo of someone you know). What did the person look like? Was it a young, very thin white woman with blonde or brunette hair in a sleek ponytail, wearing athletic-but-sexy clothing, with perfect skin and no sweat, frozen in a perfectly-postured running stride with one foot on the ground in some beautiful location? The answer is very likely "yes."


Does that person look like you? The answer to that may be "yes," because there are indeed a few people whose bodies look like that not-really-a-true-story of a photo, but for the vast majority of people, the answer is no.


And what a crying shame that is, because so many people of so many different appearances and sizes and shapes and ages and ethnic heritages and levels of ability are runners!


Representation matters. When the vast majority of humans aren't represented, and only one type of body is, that's a big issue, because we know from studies and common sense that the bodies we see represented around us -- especially the bodies we see celebrated and honored -- become what is "normal" to us. And when the bodies that are represented are not only all from one small population, but are then altered beyond what's possible for human bodies to achieve, we can't possibly measure up. That affects both our body image and our sense of what's possible for us.


Representation Matters

Back in 2016, I'd been running my own body-positive and fat-positive photography business for about a year, working with clients -- primarily women in larger bodies -- in portrait and boudoir photo sessions. Then Getty Images, the stock and red-carpet photo industry behemoth, put out a much-hyped "body-positive" photo collection. I'd been in the fat acceptance and body positive communities for a number of years by then, and everyone around me was really excited at the release of the new collection, which was advertised as "inclusive."


I was so sad when I dashed over to look at the photos and discovered that the "inclusive" photos didn't include anyone who looked like me: only images of relatively small-bodied people who were, once again, digitally altered to remove all their "flaws."

I'll be honest: I got mad. Where were the bodies I see all around me in daily life? Why not include EVERYONE?


That's why I started creating stock photos myself. We all deserve to see ourselves. We all have bodies that are normal and okay.


Taking diverse stock photos

Though I'm a dedicated non-athlete, stock photography takes a surprising amount of flexibility and stamina. I spend a lot of time doing squats, stretching up high and jogging around as I work. Making photos that are actually diverse, though, starts months before the actual photo shoot.


Here are a few of the components that go into each final image:

  • Planning shoots and images that reflect real-world situations -- no thin white women laughing alone with salads!

  • Recruiting models (mostly folks who find me and volunteer; very few have modeling experience) who are the most marginalized people I can find.

  • Paying models a living wage for their work so that people who might not otherwise be able to afford to take the time or energy are more able to.

  • Creating safe, respectful, and boundary-friendly photo shoots so that people in bodies that are often not respected in the photography world feel comfortable working with me.

  • Doing what are called "global" edits on each image (like color balance and brightness) without changing the individual bodies shown in the photos.

  • Using current and respectful terms to describe the bodies in each photo in website titles and captions.

There's a lot of serious work that goes into the photos, but the photo shoots themselves are a lot of fun! A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of working with fat athlete and activist Ragen Chastain. Since she, unlike me, is a runner, we got some wonderful shots of her in motion. It was also a freezing winter day, so what you don't see is her huddling in a coat between each shot! The other thing you don't see is us faking some of the running shots, since it was easier to get her in focus if she wasn't actually moving.


Some other funny scenarios that have happened on my photo shoots include the day we tried for the third time to do a fun, sunny beach shoot (it rained! again!) and the class full of yoga students -- all teachers themselves with tons of stamina -- I photographed for hours (I thought my thighs were going to shrivel up and fall off my legs!).


Calling all athletes in underrepresented bodies!

If you live in a body that is fat, non-white, uses a mobility device, or is otherwise underrepresented by mainstream photography, I'd love to photograph you for stock photos! Like I said above, most of the people in my stock photos are not models. Many of them have never worked with a professional photographer before.


You don't need to have any prior experience or training to work with me. All models are compensated with their choice of either a certain number of finished images per hour, or an hourly wage per hour of modeling. (I prioritize the most marginalized people in my photos, particularly fat, BIPOC and LGBT+ folks.)


Many of my prior physical-activity-related photos have been yoga-related, since yoga studios have been easy to access here in the Pacific Northwest, but I'm expanding my work into all sorts of directions. I'd love to better represent the real lives and bodies of runners.


I live outside Seattle and most of my photo sessions are based here, but eventually I hope to photograph people all over the United States and the world. If you'd like to get on the list of potential models that I reach out to for model calls, you can contact me at lindley@bodyliberationphotos.com.


Lindley Ashline (pronounced LIN-lee, she/her) creates photographs that celebrates the unique beauty of bodies that fall outside conventional "beauty" standards. She is also the creator of Body Liberation Stock and the Body Love Shop, a curated resource for body-friendly products and artwork. Find Lindley's work and get her free weekly Body Liberation Guide at http://bit.ly/bodyliberationguide.



Coach MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC. Click HERE to download her most popular training plan, Tenacious AF, free!

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