How Victoria Lo mobilized a community of runners in an effort to stop AAPI hate: 'Running is like the great equalizer'

Victoria Lo explains how she tapped into her running community to help the AAPI community. (Photo: Victoria Lo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Victoria Lo explains how she tapped into her running community to help the AAPI community. (Photo: Victoria Lo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Victoria Lo's current mission, Chinatown Runners, was "born out of difficult circumstances" as the Chinese-American runner set out to bring a community of athletes through the streets of Chinatown at a time when the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community was faced with racist threats and hate as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But as she takes the time to look forward to celebrating her community in better circumstances — rather than as a reactionary response — Lo recognizes that her current journey holds a lot of similarities to the process of her becoming a runner in the first place.

When reflecting on her relationship with her body, Lo says that it has come a long way from the place where it all began. In fact, she remembers resenting her body at a young age as she dictated her self-worth based on her appearance, her weight and the criticism that she received for it.

"As a child, I was basically diagnosed as clinically obese. I'm five foot three and in high school, I think at my heaviest, I was coming in around 175 pounds. So for a woman of that stature that qualifies as being clinically obese," she tells Yahoo Life. "I was always heavy when I was a child, so I didn't really think that my body would be any other way. I kind of fell into the belief that this is my body, this is kind of what I've been given. And I was never athletic, nobody in my family was super athletic, so that just wasn't part of the narrative growing up either."

Lo explains that she felt "trapped in this body" through much of her childhood, adding that she would "get bullied for it, deal with it and move on." That passive approach to who she was, or was not, and how her body defined her, however, began to change in college when she experienced a great amount of stress.

She was both working and going to school full-time to fund her tuition, which resulted in a busy schedule that left Lo with little time to eat or properly take care of her body. She also took up jogging as a way to manage some of the stress and discovered that the impact of her lifestyle change was losing weight.

"That was a tipping point where I first recognized that I actually had some sort of control over the way that my body looked. But unfortunately, I think being young and still somewhat insecure, especially growing up being ridiculed a lot for being overweight, I kind of took it in an unhealthy direction," she explains. "I just started fixating on other ways I could carve out calories and stretch my day out and try to lose weight that way. So a lot of like restrictive eating. Running was sort of like an additional way to try to control calorie intake or outtake or burn."

And although running gave her a sense of control over her body that she hadn't had before, Lo recognizes now that she was using the sport to run from her problems rather than addressing them. Ultimately, it took her recognizing what she could gain from running to come face-to-face with what might put her health in jeopardy.

"I started getting into distance running after a particularly bad breakup in my early 20s. And I actually started getting really into it from an intrinsic level and realizing this is a sport that makes me feel good and makes me feel a little bit more empowered. That's when I kind of had directly come to head with the fact that I had an eating disorder," she says. "I realized if I want to be able to run a half marathon or full marathon or more, I actually really need to address nutrition and start thinking about it in a more serious way, rather than nutrition being a way to manipulate my calorie intake outtake or how much I weigh. So I usually frame it in such a way that I say distance running or running in general kind of saved me from myself."

Running became a large part of Lo's life as she traveled for different races and conquered hundreds of miles a year. As the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, it served as a welcome escape from "all of the fear of the unknown," until she felt that her identity as a Chinese-American woman was encouraging others to perceive her as "part of the problem."

"Recognizing that all of a sudden people being able to see my face might make them feel some kind of way about me, or wondering if they're moving further away from me or avoiding me because of the way that I look was certainly something that I had to grapple with. It was challenging and very uncomfortable," she recalls. "But I also didn't want to let those anxieties take over and rob me of something that I really consider to be an integral part of who I am and a part of my identity."

Lo acknowledges her sport and her ability to perform it as a "fundamental right," but sees that she wasn't alone in having that feel threatened. In fact, she was overwhelmed by the violence and hate that the AAPI community as a whole was experiencing at the time and decided that the very thing that gave her solace in bad times could do the same for a neighborhood of Asian American people and businesses.

"I started thinking about how can we come together as a community, give back and protect AAPI communities around us. And to me, the solution was to get people to care about these neighborhoods," she explains. "So the whole idea of creating Chinatown Runners and trying to bring different running groups and communities together to run through an AAPI neighborhood specifically is to get them to sort of slow down and experience neighborhoods, see the people and the communities that live there and recognize them as humans and as people who have a lot of history and culture to share with you. And for me, that was the solution to get people to start really looking out for each other and recognizing that these neighborhoods are super valuable."

Almost a year after the February 2021 start of the movement, Lo says that the organization isn't about protesting or solving racism. Instead, it's about bridging the gap between AAPI-centric communities and others to mitigate hostility — an effort that Brooks Running amplified with its "Who Is A Runner" video series.

"Running is like the great equalizer," Lo explains. "When you share the experience of pounding pavement together and sweating together, that's when I feel like you recognize our most basic, foundational similarities as humans. We all go through this movement, we sweat, we endure. And I think a very sort of primal activity like running and running together as a community causes us to really recognize how many of the boundaries we put up around ourselves are truly artificial."

And while she hopes that those who take part in Chinatown Runners will recognize how the experience can bring people together, Lo also acknowledges the deeper lesson that running has taught her about the relationship she has with herself.

"Your body is your one home that you have forever, that travels with you everywhere. And it's not something that should feel like a tug of war where you are trying to force your body into some preconceived notions of what you think other people want it to be or what you think it needs to be," she says. "It's not me versus my body. We're on the same team."

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