I’d be lying if I said exercise didn’t help me get through the pandemic. When I found out that my 2020 graduation had officially been canceled, I got my bike out and angrily cycled for 10 miles. And when I started to feel cooped up after moving back in with my parents after four years of independence at university, going for a run every other morning really helped me let off some steam. For me, exercising was a way to stay in control when it felt like my whole world was falling apart.
I’ve enjoyed working out since my early teens, and I can probably pinpoint the start of me beginning to run, at around the same time I started to read Young Adult (YA) fiction. Like most girls, I was starstruck by these badass female protagonists taking center stage in a fantasy novel, but unlike most girls, I was also totally in awe of how much they worked out – and worked out not to lose weight, but because they actually liked exercising.
Up until then, I thought exercise was just a way to lose weight or a punishment for what you ate. Exercise and weight loss were intrinsically linked, and I firmly believed girls only worked out as a way of getting skinnier.
However, back when YA was just Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, I used to devour the pages of Tris Prior training to be accepted into Dauntless. That scene when they play capture the flag, and Tris scales the Ferris wheel with Four? I couldn’t get enough! It seemed Tris actually took pleasure in waking up every morning to train with the rest of the initiates.
In a world now dominated by female fitness influencers who frame going to the gym as a celebration of what all body types can do, it seems odd that I grew up with the idea that only boys could actually enjoy exercising, while girls only worked out to drop the pounds.
When I was younger, I would go into school and attend physical education (P.E.) lessons where the girls would spend longer gossiping about boys in the changing room than actually playing hockey on the field. Yes, there was also the fact that there was no way in hell I was risking getting sweaty when 14-year-old me had just discovered how to sneakily wear foundation without the teachers knowing, but I still used to come home and live vicariously through the girls actually enjoying working out in the pages of my YA novel. Most evenings, I used to take off that makeup and go running, as well.
I began seeing these characters not as a vision for the future of feminism, but as a reflection of society today.
As it became normalized for girls to actually enjoy lifting weights and going to the gym, I began seeing these characters not as a vision for the future of feminism, but as a reflection of society today. But still, I couldn’t help myself being drawn to the characters in these books that actually enjoyed working out as much as I did.
Take the popular YA series, The Shadowhunter Chronicles, for example. Despite the books literally centering around a race of angelic warriors who spend their lives training to fight demons, I was still captivated by the character I saw the most of myself in, Emma Carstairs, a sarcastic blonde only child who uses running as a way to manage her excess anger.
the serotonin from going running on a beach and pretending you're emma carstairs >>>
— carmela ↯ 20 (@desolatemood) July 17, 2020
Once I realized exercise could actually be enjoyable, it felt like the world opened up. I would spend just as long getting ready for a run, as I would deciding which songs to put on my workout playlist. And since it was YA protagonists that showed me working out wasn’t actually meant to be a joyless experience, I made a YA workout list, as well.
The Divergent soundtrack, music from The Hunger Games movie, and any other songs that made me feel like an angelic warrior saving the world from evil, and not like a sweaty tomato running laps around her local suburb were quickly added. “Blood in The Cut” by K.Flay, and “Problem” by Natalia Kills, are two of my favorites.
And just like most things in life, my exercise journey with YA characters has finally come full circle. When most young adults started to regress to their teenage self in the pandemic and rewatch the Twilight movies on repeat just to feel something again, I was reminded of when I first fell in love with the female protagonists in my YA books—the girls who not only lifted the stigma about working out just to lose weight but also shattered the illusion that boys were the only ones who could enjoy exercising.
The female protagonists in YA books got me to fall in love with working out. And now, when my friends are tagging each other in memes about how if they ran even one mile, they would surely keel over, I can thank Tris Prior and Emma Carstairs that I can make it to at least two.
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