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This Marathoner Is Challenging Outdated Notions Of What An Athlete Looks Like

The wellness industry has historically catered to white, affluent women — in the businesses and CEOs it champions, in the customers it caters to, and in its prohibitive price points. For women of color, carving out space within this exclusionary framework has typically been a self-driven undertaking — one that centers on expanding the idea of what caring for your mental and physical wellbeing can look like. That’s why, in partnership with Clorox, we’re shining the spotlight on three women who are redefining fitness to be more inclusive, accepting, and representative of everybody.
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Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and dieting in a way that some may find triggering. Please proceed thoughtfully.
May 27, 2013 is a day Latoya Shauntay Snell will never forget. After spending a decade of her life working in New York City kitchens, she found that the constant mistreatment she was subject to, coupled with grueling work schedules, was wearing on her mental and physical health. She’d hit her breaking point. 
“People would look at me like I was a big, scary, mythical creature,” she says of how her physical being was perceived at work and in social interactions. “If someone said something insulting and I asserted my boundaries, I would get gaslit and be called an intimidating, angry Black woman.” 
Snell thought weight loss was the solution to a happier life, one in which colleagues and strangers would treat her with kindness — or at the very least, treat her as a human being. “I told myself I had to adapt and lose weight to be accepted,” she says. 
Looking for fitness inspiration, she scrolled through Instagram and stumbled on the page of an elementary school teacher who moonlighted as a fitness coach in her spare time. Snell reached out, the two ended up striking up a friendship, and the woman encouraged her to start exercising. Snell started using Instagram to document her workouts and progress and her account quickly took off. In 2014, she was featured in a nationally circulated magazine. The centerpiece of the story? Her before and after pictures, showcasing the weight she’d lost.
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To the outside world, Snell was on a high, checking items off her long-standing bucket list, like paragliding, obstacle racing, skydiving, and more while working as a freelance photographer and caterer. She was receiving tons of feedback praising her weight loss, but something was missing. “Emotionally, I was just in this dark place where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” she says of feeling the pressure to conform to what her peers thought an athlete “should” look like. At a size six, she was considered too “big” to be a marathoner, so a friend suggested she reduce her caloric intake, on top of the 25-40 hours a week she was already training. Snell developed anorexia as a result. Her health was on the decline — she collapsed on the street one day, which led to a formal diagnosis that shook her into assessing what being “fit” truly meant to her. “I realized that I loved the comradery, the community, and the boost of confidence more than the weight loss.”
As a result, Snell sought out therapy, meditation, and “reminding [herself] over and over again that this is a daily process.” She’s since continued on her journey to live an active, full life — this time, with a mindset that places much less importance on numbers on a scale, and more on showing that there are no limitations to being athletic, regardless of body size. “I've picked up the most weight that I've had in a very long time. I have to remind myself that my weight doesn't determine who I am, my capabilities, or the incredible achievements I’ve accomplished.” Now, with an Instagram follower count of 64K, partnerships with major brands, and more than 50 medals from marathons, cycling competitions and ultramarathons, she’s using her platform to inspire women to focus more on what their bodies can do versus how they look.   
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As a size 16, Snell says most people probably don’t see her as a typical “athlete,” but she’s challenging those ideas head-on. “How is my body a stereotype? People look at me and say, ‘Oh, she’s fat and Black and female, but women are strong. We bring in life,” she says. “I’m not trying to defy stereotypes — I’m trying to rewrite history and the narrative of what an athlete can be.” She continues to shatter these preconceived notions, competing in multiple marathons, including a 100-kilometer run in the desert. “I wasn’t encouraged to do it,” Snell remembers. “I just kept hearing ‘Why the hell would you want to do that?’ But I did it. I was out there for 28 hours, 27 minutes, and 25 seconds.”
Snell knows that her visibility as unapologetically Black, femme, and plus-size is an asset in a field where these attributes are still underrepresented. “I’m a Black woman with very distinct features,” Snell says. “I have tattoos all over the place. I have colorful locs. I have a loud personality. I realized that I was opening up myself to a population who was begging to be seen. All these descriptors that make me me may not be in everyone, but there is someone out there that's like, ‘I can do this too!’”
One of Snell’s biggest beliefs is that reaching one’s personal goals should be celebrated with what she calls “kidnapping” joy. “I have to ‘kidnap joy’ and pencil myself down in the schedule every day. I’m always thinking about how to nourish my body and brain, even if it means finding a corner to have quiet time. It’s mandatory for me.” For her, this kind of intentional self-care also looks like listening to music in the shower, cooking, or getting bubble tea, one of her favorite drinks. 
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As her journey continues inspiring others, Snell says she wants to build a legacy of acceptance and openness in the fitness space by starting a nonprofit that helps inner-city youth lead more active lives. “I want to leave something behind to a community and give back,” Snell says. “What exactly can I do? If I was to leave tomorrow, can I leave words? Can I leave a feeling? I want to inspire the next person to pick up the torch.” 
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741. You may also use their click-to-chat help messaging system.
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