Strong Women: ‘Black women in long distance running are a rare breed’

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Strong Women: 'Black women in long distance running are a rare breed'



Women of all ages, sizes, races and abilities can be strong, fit and unbelievably inspirational. But we never get to see them.
Adverts, social media and TV shows teach us again and again that women have to look a certain way in order to be fit.
The only women who get to be strong, healthy and love their bodies are size 6 Instagram models, clad head-to-toe in lycra with intimidating abs and an inexplicable thigh gap.
This is presented to us as the ideal female form, and anything that doesn’t fit that prescriptive mould is wrong, even shameful.
A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active. And 40% of women over the age of 16 aren’t meeting the recommended levels of weekly fitness.
So it’s more important than ever for women to reclaim the narrative and celebrate their inner strength. Regardless of what they look like.
This series aims to redefine what it means to be a strong woman. We will meet some of the incredible ladies who are challenging accepted norms every single day.
Matilda Egere-Cooper launched her own fitness community, Fly Girl Collective, but she says there isn’t nearly enough BAME representation in the world of running.

Matilda and her Fly Girls (Picture: Ollie Trenchard/Metro.co.uk)Tell us about your relationship with fitness
I was one of those kids who kind of looked forward to P.E lessons, but my relationship with fitness really developed when I was at university, and a few stones heavier.
I tried going to the gym but I quickly realised that on a meagre income I had to find a cheaper way to keep fit. Running seemed like a no-brainer because all I needed was a pair of trainers and the willpower to get outside – plus I had loved sprinting at school.
I ended up doing the odd 10k with friends over the years, but in 2011 another friend introduced me to the running community Run Dem Crew, and it became the place where I discovered my love for long distance running and community.
I haven’t looked back since and I now lead my own community Fly Girl Collective, which I created to inspire BAME women to pursue a fitness lifestyle.
Everyone is on their own journey, which is why everyone’s relationship with fitness will naturally be different.
How about your relationship with your body?
I think my biggest obstacle has been learning to accept my body shape. I have an athletic build, a bum and quads for days which, growing up, was either presented in a sexualized context – in hip hop music videos – or wasn’t considered feminine enough.
And when you don’t see women like yourself in wellness and fitness magazines and adverts, it sends the message that you’re an anomaly, which then pressures you to follow the status quo.
But after countless diets and ridiculous exercise regimes, I’ve learned to love my shape; it’s a reflection of my Nigerian heritage and judging by what I see on Instagram, it is very much en vogue. 
As a black woman in long distance running, we appear to be something of a rare breed – unless you’re running at an elite level (and even then, there’s only a handful of us).
I can’t say why that is exactly – it could be culture or the appeal of shorter distances – because we’re definitely out here sprinting. But from a wider perspective, people will naturally gravitate to spaces where they are represented and they can be their true selves.
I was blessed to find running through a community like Run Dem Crew as they’re far from the stereotypical run club, which can often lack diversity at all levels.
Fundamentally, my strength comes through my faith – I’m a Christian – and that’s the fuel I use to stand up for the things I believe in, like representation, inclusivity and female empowerment. But over the years I’ve also managed to achieve things through fitness that I never thought I’d be capable of, like running more than 15 half marathon, two marathons, an ultramarathon, taking part in Tough Mudder and completing the RideLondon 100 mile bike ride.
And as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger!

(Picture: Ollie Trenchard/Metro.co.uk)How do we change the perception of strong women?
I think when women like me are presented in the media, it’s often based on sterotypical tropes, like the ‘sassy’ black woman, or the ‘angry’ black woman, or the ‘exotic’ black woman who’s actually racially ambiguous.
‘Strong’ is often portrayed as intimidating. But I really want this to change because it’s fake news! Healthiness and happiness go hand in hand. I would love to see more black girl joy out here that isn’t defined by looking like a model, being a certain dress size, or mean mugging at the camera.
There are so many negative connotations of the word strong – which is odd, considering that no one ever really aspires to be weak.
But only a strong woman can wake up every morning knowing she will face a barrage of sexism and microaggressions by virtue of just being alive – but still choose to brush her hair, put on her lippie and get on with her day.
More: Health

So I think there are a lot of misconceptions around the word, but it is important to re-frame it whenever we can. Part of my name – Matilda – is a derivative of the Germanic word, ‘maht’, which means strength. So personally, I love the word.
The thing about fitness and strength is that it gives me energy and focus – and it has done so much for my self-esteem and mental health. That is the message I’m trying to share through Fly Girl Collective.  
I’m also three years shy of my 40th birthday, and I am determined to become the best me I can be before then. Because who doesn’t want to be fly in their forties?
Strong Women is a new weekly series published every Saturday at 10am. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch at strongwomen@metro.co.uk.
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