Until just a few weeks ago, I had no idea that "runner's face" existed. Of course I'd seen distance runners with skinny faces on my weekend runs but I hadn't actually twigged that this was something to worry about – let alone a Problem With a Name.
I was first alerted to this potential source of anxiety by a beauty tips article in a running supplement. Runner's face was defined as "the gaunt, skeletal look you end up with if you run for fun or fitness". The beauty adviser roped in a cosmetic physician for help. He suggested a temporary fix: "The atrophied fat pads in a jogger's face can now be safely replaced with hyaluronic acid fillers."
While the "condition" can afflict both men and women, the fear-mongering is clearly targeted at women. (This deeper look at an "exercise-related beauty issue" is typical of the genre.
What nonsense, I thought to myself, and hoped never to hear about runner's face or hyaluronic acid ever again.
No such luck. I stumbled over another mention of runner's face when I was reading Alexandra Heminsley's marathon memoir. Running Like a Girl is a no-bullshit book about running for women that is candid about the realities of hangovers, marathon corsetry, bad runs, and other neglected matters. It's great.
Runner's face features in the running myths section of the book and Heminsley sanely counsels a combination of sunscreen and not worrying about it. I'm training for a marathon at the moment and, to be honest, I'm more worried about whether I'll get in enough long runs than I am about runner's face. It's an anxiety I think I can resist.
After all, I've looked in the mirror after a lot of long runs on warm days. Seeing yourself in several shades of sweaty scarlet can be a bit of a vanity killer - but who cares? After running for a few hours, I feel pretty marvellous. Oranges are entirely delicious, water is wonderful, chairs are genius inventions. The world is rosy, why not my cheeks? I wear sunscreen and a hat and I enjoy the time I spend outside.
Again and again I hear female runners say they tackle long distances because it makes them feel fantastic. Plenty of people start with ideas about weight loss – but I've never heard anyone say that the best thing about running a marathon is trimming down (or that the worst thing was losing weight from their cheeks). It's glorious to discover that your legs can take you so far.
This is why the whole concept of "runner's face" is so insidious. It threatens to take us away from the joys of running and right back into prescriptive ideas about how women should look, act and perform. It's all very well to want to run a marathon – but just think of what might happen to your face! This kind of policing happens too frequently in sports – strong, muscular, fit athletes are castigated for failures of femininity, rather than celebrated for their achievements.
Women get hit with a barrage of contradictory messages about their bodies – and "runner's face" shows how tyrannical and unachievable the regime can be. Fat is deemed to be a bad thing – but not when it's on your face. Chubby cheeks are charming; chubby thighs are not. It's an impossible race to win.
Some runners like to glam up. Heminsley wore electric green eyeliner when she ran her first marathon. In my book that makes her an awesome candidate for running beauty adviser. Others couldn't care less how they look when they run – no prizes for guessing which camp I fall into. There's room for everyone out there – but we should be suspicious of beauty ideals that distract us from what we love about running, especially, in my view, if they involve "injectables".
By way of post-script: the runner's beauty tips first came my way via an outraged ultramarathoner, a woman who runs truly awe-inspiring distances. I have no idea where she gets her get up and go from – but I'm pretty sure that not worrying about looking gaunt helps you clock up 100km runs. She's a friend of a friend so I haven't really had the occasion to inspect her cheeks for signs of sinkage – but I can say that she smiles a lot more than most people do. That's the kind of runner's face we should hear much more about.