Published Research

Selected Publications


Smith-Tran, Alicia. 2018. “Muscle as Medicine: An Autoethnographic Study of Coping with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome through Strength Training.” Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 10(4): 476-492.

Abstract: How can women who are coping with a polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) diagnosis and subsequent illness management overcome the emotional tensions that arise? I propose that through strength training, a stereotypically masculine activity, women can re-gain a sense of femininity that is lost while living with the symptoms of this condition. Framing strength training as medicine can give women with PCOS a sense of control and empowerment while dealing with a chronic condition that often leaves women feeling powerless, as there is neither cure nor explicit cause. In this article, I use autoethnography to describe the lived experience of the initial diagnosis, illness disclosure to others, navigation of health information and self-management of the condition, while unpacking the feelings of guilt, self-pity, anger and lack of control that arise. This study adds a sociological perspective to the predominantly medical and psychologically focused literature on PCOS, giving an in-depth voice to this condition. While framing ‘muscle as medicine’ can have positive implications, I argue that that an ‘exercise is medicine’ framework can be overly agentic and lose sight of opportunity structures and larger social forces that shape a person’s ability to metaphorically self-medicate in this way.

Smith-Tran, Alicia. 2017. “‘A Chocolate Chip in a Sea of Milk’: Black Women Reflect on the Challenges of Embodying the Runner Identity.” In Women in Sports: Breaking Barriers, Facing Obstacles, edited by Adrienne N. Milner and Jomills Henry Braddock.

Summary: This chapter addresses the challenges of being a racial minority in a predominantly white leisure sport. Excerpts from life story interviews illuminate some of the barriers that obscure the possibility of becoming a runner from black women’s point of view, with a focus on women who run yet continue to grapple with the ways in which their outward appearances and experiences as black women get in the way of embracing the runner identity.

Smith-Tran, Alicia. 2017. “The ‘Black Middle-Class Toolkit’ as a Framework for Understanding the Cultural Implications of Recreational Running.” Sociological Focus (Forthcoming).

Abstract: Despite black women having disproportionately low rates of physical activity, the number of black Americans who participate in non-professional, recreational running is on the rise. Scant research attention has been given to black women who run and challenge the stereotypes about their health and bodies. Likewise, most previous research in this area has focused on the health aspects of physical activity, rather than the sociocultural components specific to middle-class blacks. Using life story interviews, this study examines middle-class black women’s experiences participating in this predominantly white, middle-class activity.  The life story excerpts presented in this article are based on the narratives of three women who are part of an ongoing study of middle-class black women who run. An analysis of their life stories revealed that in addition to losing weight and relieving stress, by participating in this activity they were able to develop their “black middle-class tool kit” (Lacy 2007) to include recreational running and its associated lifestyle components. Their running narratives exemplify three types of identities in the black middle-class toolkit that Karyn Lacy conceptualized: 1) public identities; 2) status-based identities; and 3) race and class-based identities.  The themes that emerged in this analysis contribute to a limited but growing literature on middle-class blacks’ experiences, using Lacy’s theoretical framework to better understand some of the latent functions of becoming a recreational runner.

Smith-Tran, Alicia. 2018. “Racialized Runners: Life Stories of Middle-Class Black Women.” Electronic Thesis or Dissertation.

Abstract: This dissertation explores how middle-class black women narrate race, class, and gender as shaping the experience of recreational running and the development of a runner identity. Theoretically, I approach this study from both a life course and black feminist perspective. The former emphasizes trajectories over time, the process of moving through life’s institutionalized stages, and the significance of contextualizing individuals’ lives within particular social settings. The latter is an intersectional perspective that acknowledges the power in centering black women’s voices and learning about their experiences in their own words. Both of these theoretical perspectives complement my goal of eliciting storytelling that is illustrative of development and change over the course of my participants’ lives.

Based on multiple life story interviews with 25 middle-class black women between the ages of 26 and 59, my findings focus on three themes that emerged from their narratives. First, I argue that running can be understood as a cultural routine that is engaged in as a means for successfully operating in middle-class, dominant institutions. Running is a middle-class leisure sport and cultural practice for which participation is a marker of status, a means for connecting with others of similar status, and a vehicle for promoting intergenerational social mobility. Second, I identify several mechanisms for enabling or hindering the ability to have a salient, “thick” runner identity in order to better understand how health lifestyles such as running can be better routinized by members of racial minority groups with suboptimal health outcomes. Third, I argue that Black Girls Run!—a fast-growing recreational running group for black women in the United States—facilitates efforts in racial uplift, provides an outlet for escaping racial tokenism, and gives middle-class black women a unique sense of like-minded community.

This study makes contributions to our understandings of the latent functions of health-promoting leisure activities, while centering the voices of middle-class black women. Running helped many of my participants manage the challenges of being a middle-class black woman in a racist society.