fat girl running

Brittany Didn’t Need to Lose Weight to Run a Marathon

Photo: Jon Pack/Sundance Institute

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens with Brittany, played by Jillian Bell, going to the doctor. She’s trying to scam an Adderall prescription, telling her doctor, who smells bullshit and spies fading club-entry stamps on her hand, that she’s having a hard time focusing. Instead of the drugs she’s seeking, he suggests she get “healthy” and lose 55 pounds, a figure Brittany calls “the weight of a Siberian husky.” “You want me to pull a medium-size working dog off of my body.”

Bell’s comedic timing, which delightfully elevates a plot that could have easily been a snooze of a journey-to-personal-betterment, is spot on here. A woman sitting behind me let out a loud, “Ha!” I might have, too, had the scene not hit so close to home. Brittany’s current height and weight, which her doctor rattles off, is basically … my body. (I’m a little bit taller.) More specifically, my body which ran the New York City Marathon last fall without losing a pound in the training process. A body that, after over a decade of self-loathing, I finally felt proud to live in as I hobbled out of Central Park wrapped in a silver heat blanket, the sweat on my skin drying into a visible white salt crust. A body that Brittany is about to spend the next hour and a half of movie trying to fix.

Over the course of the film, Brittany — and Bell — loses 40 pounds. Nights of binge drinking and drugs and single-serving boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins turn to glasses of water and early bedtimes and salad after salad after salad. She makes friends through running: a dad looking to get in better shape for his kid and a wealthy divorcée fighting a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband. They, unlike the friend–wannabe influencer Brittany is living with at the beginning of the movie, are genuinely good people. (In their final fight, the roommate tells Brittany not to throw away her “fat clothes,” telling her no matter what she does, she’ll always be a fat girl.) Running also leads her to love, after, against all odds, she falls for the oddball and similarly adrift 30-something Jern, whom she meets when the two are working as house sitters in the same townhouse. (Jern works the night shift, and Brittany covers days. Eventually, they both move into the house full time until the owners come back early and bust them for squatting.)

It’s heartwarming. It’s funny. It gets a little slow toward the end. After nearly a year of training, Brittany, frustrated trying to lose the final ten pounds her doctor prescribed, overdoes it. She gets a stress fracture weeks before the marathon and can’t run the race. She moves into her sister’s basement in Philadelphia, ghosts her friends, and slips back into her old ways, including, cringingly, getting drunk at a birthday party and berating a fat woman and her thin husband. (Brittany later sends the woman apology flowers, saying she lashed out because she just wants what that woman has.)

A year later, Brittany — who now has a job in advertising writing jingles and an exposed-brick apartment where she lives with Jern, who is all but begging her to marry him — does run the marathon. When she crossed the finish line, I cried. (The experience was not dissimilar to my running of the marathon, on a day that also involved a lot of happy tears.) I cried from the first shot of the bus taking her to the starting line on Staten Island to the scenes of the party at mile eight in Brooklyn. I cried when she cramped up and collapsed in the Bronx, remembering the same moment around mile 22 where I hit a wall. Brittany is saved by her friends, who appear on the curb cheering for her to finish. For me, it was a former co-worker, someone I hadn’t seen in years, who was suddenly by my side for half a mile running with me and telling me not to quit on myself.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is a feel-good movie with plenty of heart and humor, and it gets so many things right about marathons and being a woman and having a body. (My biggest complaint with the training arc was seeing Brittany’s feet as she stepped onto the scale to chart her weight loss, her polished toenails looking totally normal. Ask, at your own risk, any distance runner mid-marathon cycle to show you their toenails. They’re usually gross or nonexistent.) When Brittany talks about what it’s like to be seen as a woman when she loses weight, that hit me. My running journey didn’t start off from a desire to get healthy but rather a manic attempt to drop as much weight as quickly as possible my senior year of college by running several miles every day and restricting everything I put in my mouth. It worked. Short term. I got thinner. Professors congratulated me. Men suddenly found me worth talking to and hitting on and generally treating like a visible human. (I’m gay. This did not matter to them.)

Not eating much and running off the measured calories I did permit myself wasn’t sustainable. The weight slowly crept back, but the running habit stayed. It stopped being something I did to punish myself or to change how my body looked and instead became something I enjoyed. I liked the mental clarity. I liked the ritual. I liked how I felt and how I looked, ridiculously defined calves and a sharp tan line where my spandex stopped. By the time I ran the marathon — like Brittany, I took two years to formally train — I looked more like the “before” Brittany than the “after” Brittany. It didn’t make me any less of a runner. In Brittany Gets a Marathon, being fat is portrayed as a starting point instead of just a state of being. Brittany getting her life in order is inextricably linked to her weight loss.

There’s a whole community of proud, fat runners out there. We run 5Ks and half-marathons and full marathons. The extra-intense ones run ultramarathons. (That’s anything longer than 26.2 miles.) We’re not running to prove anything to anybody. We’re not running to lose weight or fix something about ourselves. Though the world often treats us as though we should be. During the 2017 marathon, the same one during which Brittany Runs a Marathon was filmed, Latoya Shauntay Snell was fat-shamed by a heckler. “It’s gonna take your fat ass forever, huh,” a man shouted at Snell, who is a professional chef as well as a body-positive activist runner with a Hoka One One sponsorship deal. Snell finished the marathon. A week earlier, she’d completed a 100K in Arizona.

In that same opening scene, Brittany’s doctor points to a BMI chart and shows her how, at her current weight, she falls into the obese category. The first time a doctor did that to me, I was in high school. It did not inspire me to go out and run a marathon so much as to retreat inside myself for years feeling like I was broken garbage. The BMI scale was invented in the 1800s and has been repeatedly called into question for its inaccuracy. Fat people are all too frequently told to lose weight while doctors ignore their very real illnesses and health problems. (Just Google “fat woman cancer misdiagnosed” and you’ll find no shortage of examples.) This isn’t what Brittany’s doctor is doing when he points out her high blood pressure and refuses to write her a script for a drug she does not need. But it’s not hard to picture that same doctor pointing to that same BMI chart with another patient, one genuinely seeking help.

In real life, Jillian Bell has since started a hashtag campaign for body positivity, #IGotALottaBodies. She recently posted a slideshow of pictures on Instagram showing herself at a variety of sizes, showing love for all of them. It’s a message Brittany probably could have used a little more of. At one point, Brittany runs into her old crappy roommate while on the subway to a half-marathon. Yeah, see, I’m here with all these other very real runners, she tells off her former friend and friend’s boyfriend, both of whom had mocked Brittany during her first weeks as a runner, when she mentioned wanting to try a 5K. But that’s the thing. Even in those first, slow painful weeks running just a block or two … Brittany was already runner. She already had a runner’s body. Lacing up sneakers and putting feet to pavement made her one. Weight had nothing to do with it.

Brittany Didn’t Need to Lose Weight to Run a Marathon