Healthy beats skinny: Fredonia thrower Rachel Williams on body positivity and her journey towards self-acceptance

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Rachel Williams wasn’t sure what sort of reaction she’d get when she wrote an emotionally vulnerable article two weeks ago on the insecurities she’s felt about her body.

A sophomore thrower on Fredonia’s track and field team, Williams’s article expressed her frustration that having a big body is associated with being unhealthy: “I am big. But when did big become a synonym for ‘fat’ or ‘unhealthy’? Being healthy is what young girls should grow up thinking they need to be. Our culture is so focused on skinny.”

Much to Williams’s surprise, the article resonated deeply once she shared in on Facebook, spreading across continents all the way to South Africa. It was a pivotal moment for her, as she realized she could be, “a voice for people to love who they are.”

We met in the Learning Center of Reed Library to discuss the effects of her article, her personal struggles with body image, and the realizations she’s had throughout her journey towards self-acceptance:

Ryan Maloney: What led you to want to write this, and make it public?

Rachel Williams: I was getting ready for bed one night, scrolling through Twitter, and I came across an article about the first plus size model to ever be featured in Calvin Klein. I thought, “Oh, that’s really cool,” and I clicked on it. When I saw the girl, I was like, “that’s not a plus size, that’s like a size four. Why is that plus size?” That’s not cool. For someone my size, it makes me feel really bad about myself if you’re going to consider her plus size. What am I if she’s plus size? So I wrote the article, but I waited a week to publish it because I didn’t know if people would like it. Eventually I just went for it.

RM: What kind of reaction did you get?

Williams: Everyone thought the article was so true. My mom is a teacher in Lockport and she shared it with her friends. They work with a program called “Girls on the Run,” which teaches young girls how to be healthy through running.  There were people in South Africa sharing the article for Girls on the Run. People are just relating to it and I didn’t expect that at all.

RM: What did you expect?

Williams: Maybe a couple people would tell me it was nice (laughs). It blew up all over Facebook. A woman contacted me after she read it who had been in the Marines. She felt like she had to starve herself to get to have the body type that the Marines would want. She told me that the way I’m portraying myself is that way people should be portraying themselves. I was a little bit overwhelmed with how much support people had for what I said.

RM: Even after writing this, and knowing all this, do you still struggle with not having what our culture considers an ideal body type?

Williams: Yeah. I’m a thrower on a track team full of runners. It’s easy to play the comparison game. People play it all the time, and it’s something I’m trying to not play anymore. I don’t want to look at somebody else and think I should look like her. I should try to be the best version of myself.

RM: Have you had any small successes with avoiding that comparison game?

Williams: For sure. After writing that article, I’m a lot closer to being okay with where I am than I was before. Coming to college, I thought it was the end of the world that I was gaining weight. I would go home and cry to my mom all the time. I didn’t want to do it anymore because I kept gaining weight. I don’t look any bigger than I did because it’s muscle, but when you step on a scale and the number keeps going up, you think you’re huge even though you’re not. So I don’t weigh myself any more. When I go to the doctor’s office I don’t let them tell me how much I weigh; it destroys everything. Muscle weighs more. The more muscle you have the more you’re going to weigh. That doesn’t mean you look bigger.

RM: I think my female athletes struggle with this too. Even if you or I would classify an athlete as a beautiful girl, as soon as she gets on a scale she panics, no matter how she looks.

Williams: That’s why I don’t get on a scale any more. If someone asks me how much I weigh I can’t tell them, because I don’t know.

RM: Isn’t there a part of you that’s anxious about not knowing?

Williams: Sometimes. There’re times where I’d like to, but I know it will destroy everything I’ve been working on. There’s so much emphasis on how much we weigh. Even when you go to the doctor they show you the BMI charts. In my opinion, they’re sending the wrong message, because another girl my height isn’t going to weight as much as I do. I may have more muscle, and she might have less. You should look at people for the body type they have, and try to make healthy choices for that body type. For me, I’m not going to run miles to be fit. That’s just not something my body was meant for. But I can lift, and be a thrower. That can keep me in shape and keep me healthy. Someone my height could be 50 lbs less than me and be a runner. But the BMI chart tells me I’m the one who’s wrong.

RM: The part of your article that touched me the most was the scene in the doctor’s office.

Williams: Yeah, they tell me I’m obese all the time. Last year I had a sore throat and I went to the doctor. I left with a sheet of paper telling me I’m obese. What? I didn’t come in because I’m obese. That hurts your soul a little bit (laughs).

RM: Say you have a doctor’s appointment next week; can you confidently go in there and have them say that to you?

Williams: They’ve always said it to me, and I think it will continue. But it’s easier because I have people in my life who are supporting me. My parents are avid supporters of making sure I’m healthy. I was a bigger child, but my parents never talked about how I should look. My mom never told me I need to lose weight. They gave me healthy meals, and put me in sports. That’s just who I was. It helps me more now than it did in high school or the beginning of college because I was so much more self-conscious then. It’s hard to do things when you’re that self-conscious; when you can’t look at yourself and say, “wow, you look nice today.” When you can’t do that it becomes impossible to live a life that’s meaningful or worth anything.

RM: It’s hard to focus on anything other than yourself.

Williams: Yeah, and that’s not how I want to live my life. So that’s a really big inspiration to get to a point where I can say, “you’re fine just the way you are.”

RM: When you talk about living a meaningful life, what does that look like to you?

Williams: I just want to be somebody who other people can come to. I’m going to be a music therapist, and my ultimate goal is to work with in a cancer hospital.

RM: Why?

Williams: My dad had cancer when I was in 10th grade, so I watched him go through that at Roswell Park in Buffalo, and they don’t have a music therapy program at the moment. I’m interested in working with cancer patients on pain management to help them through chemotherapy, and even in bereavement groups for families. It’s something that could be really beneficial for a lot of people. I want to give everything I have to offer into something like that, but first I have to love what I have to give. Self-acceptance is the first step.

RM: Do you have any thoughts or advice about the benefits of getting stronger? I think in females it can be a missing piece of their athletic profile.

Amanda Bingson, Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw

Williams: Strength is just something that’s natural for the sport that I’m in, but it helps with other sports too. Strength helps with jumping, strength helps with running. The runners on our team don’t do the same type of lifting, but they still lift. A lot of girls are afraid of getting strong because they think it’ll make them look manly. I really look up to (Olympic gold medal hammer thrower) Amanada Bingson. She was featured this year on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s Body issue. She’s all about body positivity. She talks about being able to be strong and still having a feminine persona, because strength doesn’t define who you are, it just adds to who you are. She’s not afraid to tell people how much she weighs. She’s really, really happy with who she is. That’s somebody I look up to a lot because she’s not someone people would consider to have a perfect body type. I don’t think there is a perfect body type.

RM: But there is in our culture.

Williams: Yeah, but I don’t know anybody who has the exact same body I do. How can there be a perfect body type if nobody has the same body? Is there one person in the world that everybody should be like? I like the idea of being happy with yourself even if you don’t think everything about you is perfect.

RM: I want to ask, too, about the fear coaches have, particularly male coaches, in approaching female athletes about their weight. Male coaches are scared to talk about it, and might be confused if they even need to at all. Do you have thoughts about coaches approaching that in a compassionate way?

Williams: I don’t think “weight” should really be a factor. I think if somebody wanted to say something about that to me, they should come at it from a perspective about health. If it’s someone who can still perform well, maybe talk about what they can do to help with their performance. You can say, “if you eat these foods, and do these workouts, it’ll help with your performance,” rather than, “hey, go on this diet so you can lose some weight.”

RM: When you talk about health and performance, what are some things that you do?

Williams: I don’t eat very many white breads or “white” carbs like that. I eat a lot more whole grains. Before and after lifting I try to get all my carbs in. Then I go for lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and all that. But I’m not against having a treat every once in a while. If you want some ice cream, have some ice cream, it’s not going to destroy your performance. It’s about balance. I’ve been working on it for a long time. I eat healthy, but that doesn’t mean I’m dropping a bunch of weight.

RM: And we associate healthy with dropping weight.

Williams: Yeah, dropping weight. I eat well, and I don’t drop weight, but that doesn’t mean I’m not healthy.

RM: Is being healthy what’s motivating your right now?

Williams at SUNYAC Indoor Track and Field Championships
in February

Williams: I’m motivated by the fact that I could be somebody that people look at as a forerunner for body positivity in college. College is really hard with stuff like that. I have so many friends who aren’t happy with themselves. I’ve been a culprit of that in the past, but now there’s all these younger girls and moms who are on diets. Don’t do that, because your daughter is going to think there’s something wrong with her, too. Knowing that I could change minds and try to be a voice for people to love who they are is motivating. I guess I didn’t realize that a lot of people feel the same way I do until I wrote this article. Me accepting myself is motivating too, because it’s never happened before.

RM: Is there anything else I should know? Something I might have been too ignorant to ask about?

Williams: We talked a lot about gaining muscle, and being okay with that, but there isn’t one thing you need to do to be healthy. Even if you’re someone who goes to the gym and walks on the treadmill, when you do that you’re healthy. You don’t have to be anything spectacular like a collegiate athlete to be healthy, as long as you’re doing what you need to do to take care of your body.

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