Sports Stars Making a Social Impact: Kelly Roberts is helping to redefine what strength looks like

The only way I can redefine what strength looks like is to show different body types actually doing the work. I hate that brands NEVER showcase anything other than slim models/athletes with six packs and sculpted muscles unless they’re doing a body positive moment. Most of the universe will never have this type of body. […]

The only way I can redefine what strength looks like is to show different body types actually doing the work. I hate that brands NEVER showcase anything other than slim models/athletes with six packs and sculpted muscles unless they’re doing a body positive moment. Most of the universe will never have this type of body. I hate that we never see 40, 50, or 60+-year-old bodies personified as strong. Or larger ones. But the #SportsBraSquad allows us to see all types of body types personified as STRONG!

As a part of my series about sports stars who are making a social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Roberts. Kelly is named by Women’s Running and Competitor Magazine as one of the twenty women who are changing the sport of Running, Kelly Roberts is the self proclaimed former President of the “I F*cking Hate Running Club”, podcast host, endurance athlete, and body positive activist. Kelly is the founder of the #SportsBraSquad, a movement redefining what strength looks like and the Badass Lady Gang, a free fitness movement building community in over 60 cities around the world.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?

In 2014, I went viral for taking selfies with “hot guys” while I tried to survive a half marathon I didn’t train for. A year and a half earlier, I was struggling with grief after the devastating and sudden loss of my younger brother and feeling lost after college.

I found that training for my first half marathon (followed by marathon) gave me direction and something to do other than sit on the couch, watch reality TV, and scroll through social media and see all my friends chasing their dreams. I was never athletic and hated working out. I had a toxic relationship with my weight and body image and running became a way to stay active that wasn’t about weight loss. (Although, if I’m being honest, I thought if I ran a marathon, I would finally be a skinny runner. SPOILER ALERT, I lost 0 pounds.)

After I ran my first marathon, I realized that the only person who didn’t believe in me, was me. It was then that I decided I couldn’t sit back and let my life go by just because I didn’t know what to do next. I decided to move across the country to NYC and lived with my sister. We shared 6’ by 9’ room in midtown, got a job as a receptionist, and a few months later, I went viral.

With the attention I was receiving, my sister encouraged me to start a blog but I was hesitant. My entire life, I tried to hide what I’d gone through and the shame I felt from people. I didn’t want to subject myself to the ridicule of the internet. I remember my sister telling me to just give it a try. Worst case scenario, I delete it after a month.

To my complete and total surprise, I loved it. My blog became a way to help others see themselves in my story. I found that there was a community of other men & women that ran not because they were fast or athletic, but because they were like me, surviving a loss, heartbreak or something else and running gave them a sense of direction and something that they could feel proud of.

I focused on generating funny, evergreen content that was missing in the space. (I quickly learned that the athletic world isn’t great at making fun of itself which was an opportunity in and of itself.) And over the years, my blog evolved into a storytelling platform focused on redefining what strength looks like.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

There’s too many to count!

I once took a selfie with Prince William, Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry during the London Marathon in 2017. I’m apparently one of the only people in the world who has a selfie like this because as it turns out, royal selfies are a huge no-no and everyone in the UK knows better. I later learned that in classrooms around the UK they use my selfie as a teaching lesson for school children.

Going viral for taking selfies with hot guys is easily the funniest and craziest thing to ever happen to me.

A former sponsor once brought me to Berlin to run the Berlin Marathon and at an event I met two of the fastest world-famous marathoners. I made a joke that I couldn’t imagine running a marathon in two hours and one of them said they something like they couldn’t imagine running for four hours and they laughed harder than I’ve ever seen two guys laugh in my life. I have a picture of this moment and it still makes me laugh out loud.

I once was was at a race in Dallas with a bunch of elite athletes and Olympians. All of the athletes and I were at breakfast and they were all getting ready to go for a run and invited me to come along. They encouraged me to join and said “We’re just jogging. It’s a shakeout.” And I asked what pace they were running and they were like, “Super slow. 7 minute miles”. I passed on the fun run because I probably would have died.

What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Define what success means to you because when I was first getting started, I never imagined that my blog would amount to anything. It started as an outlet for me to be creative because I felt like my 9 to 5 job was killing my soul. All I originally wanted with it was to help women see and feel that running was doable, encourage them to overcome what they may be going through, and to make everyone laugh.

Success to me has always been to create and grow a community both online and in real life. Over time, I had to learn how to monetize so that I can survive; but my aim has never been to be the best or most well-known blog in the country. I choose quality over quantity every time and aim to create a safe space for women to be seen & heard.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My sister Samantha is the person who has had the most profound impact on my life. Without her, I never would have gone viral. It was her idea to make a community Buzzfeed post after the race. She strategically placed the link onto sites on the internet where she knew it would get traction (like Reddit) and websites that she knew that editors & producers searched for stories. She also emailed the post out to other editors that she knew — which all together resulted in a viral story. She is also the one that encouraged me to start my blog in the days after going viral.

She’s works in social media marketing and she is the one who helps me brainstorm and develop ideas that have grown into the movements that they are today. Still to this day, I have a really hard time pitching myself to brands. I absolutely hate it. But my sister is always there reframing the way I see an idea or opportunity, so I can feel good about reaching out to and working with the brands I partner with.

It’s really important to me to have a strong support system of women who hold me accountable when I back away from an intimidating challenge or encourage me to stay the course when something starts to stick. A few years ago, right before things really went to the next level, I wasn’t making any money and I was ready to quit. Blogging stopped being fun and I was feeling really burnt out. My sister constantly told me to keep going and told me that what I was doing was working and that I couldn’t give up yet. I never could have done any of this alone, because it can be a lonely job at times.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

The movement I’m most proud of is called the #SportsBraSquad. I always knew that the way I spoke to myself about my body image was destructive but I really underestimated how many other women were struggling with a destructive body image as well. The stats are horrifying. The National Eating Disorders Association found that 70% of women report they don’t like their bodies and that 89% of women have dieted by age 17. Dove conducted their own study and found that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.

It’s shameful that we’ve let this happen and that we aren’t doing more to change.

The #SportsBraSquad started because I didn’t think I was skinny enough to work out in a sports bra even though I was running and working my ass off in the thick of an NYC summer. One ridiculously hot and humid morning, I had 15 miles to run and I felt like I was going to pass out a mile in. I decided to throw my middle finger at the voice in my head that was screaming “KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON! WHAT IF SOMEONE TELLS YOU YOU’RE FAT!?!” And just ran in my sports bra. Once I posted about it on Instagram, I immediately started to see the comments roll in. Things like, “I could never feel confident enough to run in my sports bra.” Or, “If I lost another 10 pounds, then I could join the sports bra squad”.

The only way I can redefine what strength looks like is to show different body types actually doing the work. I hate that brands NEVER showcase anything other than slim models/athletes with six packs and sculpted muscles unless they’re doing a body positive moment. Most of the universe will never have this type of body. I hate that we never see 40, 50, or 60+-year-old bodies personified as strong. Or larger ones. But the #SportsBraSquad allows us to see all types of body types personified as STRONG!

I was tired of being led to believe that my body, a US size 10–12 body that I work my ass off for, wasn’t good enough. And I knew that there were lots of women trying to undo the beauty ideals we’ve been sold for years, so I joined them. Now, I see women of all shapes and sizes proudly running and working out in sports bras. Sometimes, they yell “Sports bra squad!!!!” and wave at me while they run by. It still makes me really proud to know that out there, women are questioning the images being sold to them, how they feel about their own strength, and what they say to themselves. Change is happening.

What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?

Storytelling. I got my undergraduate degree in theater and if there is one thing my degree taught me, it’s the power of storytelling. Much of what I do is make my community feel represented, seen, celebrated, and included. I know that my voice is just one voice, but by creating movements that allow for my community to be heard and seen as well, the message gets amplified tenfold. The Sports Bra Squad launched because I challenged other women to try it, post a picture, and then share what it was like. Some loved it. Others hated it. Others were too afraid and still wrote about it. Over 37k photos are currently hashtaged to the #SportsBraSquad

Movements like “This is What Strength Looks LIke”, “Sports Bra Squad”, “She Can And She Did” or “Why I Started Running” prompt the women in my community to share their voices and give everyone a chance to see themselves in other people’s journeys. Much of my audience has been convinced that they’re before pictures and should work harder to lose the weight. These women eat healthy and run half marathons and marathons for fun but because they aren’t slim, they aren’t allowed to be seen as healthy.

It’s hard to show up when you don’t feel like you belong. I go out of my way to make sure that my community knows that they aren’t alone and then go a step further and connect them with each other. And they do the same to the women in their lives and communities.

Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

For so long, I felt like I didn’t belong. I ran by myself because I was intimidated by running groups. I lived in constant fear that someone would tell me that I wasn’t a real runner or that I was too slow to be a runner. And I see it all the time, people qualifying their accomplishments by saying, “But I’m slow. I’m not a real marathoner”. Once I moved to New York, I was afraid to run in the dark by myself so I tried a few different running groups. The first one I went to, I got dropped and ran by myself. I felt embarrassed that everyone had to wait for me.

A lot of other people are either too intimidated to show up to a running club or have bad experiences like I did. So I launched the Badass Lady Gang because I wanted to create a movement that was as inviting and inclusive as possible. Not only can you join virtually, but in over 60 cities around the world, there are Badass Lady Gang’s offering free weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly workouts. And because we have women of all different athletic levels, the runs are designed so that we’re never outside of yelling range from one another. In a 30 minute window, someone can complete 4 miles or 1.5. It doesn’t matter. We’re a community first and a fun workout second. It’s all about showing up for yourself and your community and giving the 30 minutes your best effort.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

One that really stuck out to me happened during the NYC Marathon last year. I’ve had a couple rough marathons after setting really ambitious goals and somewhere after mile 15, both of my quads started cramping and my goal went out the window. I immediately let go of my time goal and started focusing on helping people around me. I went up to a girl who looked like she was in a really rough place and when she looked up at me, she grabbed me and started freaking out. She took out her music and told me that her brother had passed away like mine and after he passed, she was having a really hard time without him. She somehow found my story and even though she hated running, she decided to run a marathon.

I get a lot of women coming up to me before or during races to talk about their losses. Those are the stories that really stick with me because running really was the only thing that helped me pull myself out of the grief rabbit hole.

What are your 3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I found running sooner, but I’m really grateful I found it when I did. I think I understand how complicated weight loss and body image are because I used to be obese. I understand how hard it is to get started because I dieted and tried to work out for so many years and always quit. Before I started running, I wasn’t open to or ready to change. I don’t think there’s anything I wish I would have known because I don’t think I would have heard it.

We put so much pressure on people who aren’t ready to change. Not being ready isn’t something to feel ashamed of. Sometimes just surviving and getting through the day is hard enough. When someone is ready to change, they make it happen.

The only thing I wish I would have known was that I belonged. And to get a better sports bra.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to take back the word diet. The multi-billion dollar diet industry has made dieting a nasty word about restriction and guilt when in reality, your diet is just the food you put into your body to stay alive. Cheeseburgers? Simply a piece of your diet to be enjoyed in moderation if you like cheeseburgers. Kale? Just a healthy vegetable to be enjoyed if you like kale. Not into kale? There’s plenty of other vegetables you can add to your diet. We’re lucky to have the ability to put food on our tables. It’s insane that so many of us lose sleep over restricting ourselves or feeling guilty about what we did or didn’t eat.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson,

One of my teachers in college, Alexandra Billings, saved my life. She’s this force of nature of a woman, a true guardian angel, and she really helped me see myself and feel hopeful after my brother passed away. But in her classes, she used to always use this quote.

I’ve always been ambitious and outspoken. But because I was so insecure, I sometimes used confidence to hide the fact that I spoke to myself like crap. My inner dialogue was awful and because I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, I assumed others felt the same way about me as well. Marianne Williamson’s words really resonate with me because I came to realize that it doesn’t matter how I’m being perceived. Loving yourself isn’t the same as loving the image of yourself.

It’s hard to take up space when you don’t feel like you belong. A while ago, the running community went up in arms when my sponsor at the time called me a professional athlete. People wrote pieces about the fact that I should be ashamed of myself for calling myself a professional athlete (even though I never said it). Learning how to deal with other people’s public perceptions of me was really tough. It made me want to shrink and apologize. But something Alex always told me was not to apologize or make myself small for existing and living my truth. The world’s big enough for everyone and as long as you know who you are, their opinion is not your problem. It’s ridiculous that it took me as long as it did to care about the way I talked to myself instead of focusing on what others may or may not think about me. But I’m there. And it’s liberating.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Hillary Clinton is a woman I’ve looked up for most of my life. My Grandmother went back to college in her forties to become a lawyer. She later went on to become the first woman on the City Council of Tustin and then Mayor, but I remember her telling us about Hillary Clinton. How wonderful it was that women like Hillary were fighting for women’s rights. I remember her telling us that one day, she’d be President.

After the 2016 election, it’s impossible not to want to thank her for enduring the way she has. For inspiring so many and for fighting for the rights of so many with dignity and optimism. She’s devoted her life to helping others and even though so many have tried to push their cruel perception of her onto others, she’s managed to stay true to who she is. And I think that’s truly inspiring.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring

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