Skip to main content

Latoya Shauntay Snell Isn’t Running for You, or Anyone Else

How the “Running Fat Chef” creator reclaimed her relationship with her body through candidness, vulnerability, and never, ever backing down.
Latoya Shauntay Snell-100 influentail

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

Chef, writer, activist and runner Latoya Shauntay Snell, the mind behind Running Fat Chef, never thought she would get into sports, let alone make an entire career out of athletics. But after enduring a life-changing injury in culinary school, she set out to understand her own body and her relationship with it and to share that vulnerability candidly with a global audience. Now four years into being a sponsored endurance runner and Global Athlete Ambassador for the international sneaker brand Hoka, Snell reflects on the all “happy accidents” and hard no’s that led her to the success she has today, as well as her hopes for the future of fat, Black, queer or disabled athletes—or as she hopes they’re eventually called, without any qualifiers, athletes.

Snell is a native New Yorker (she came up in East New York, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights) who credits her city with instilling in her a sense of fearlessness, the key to surviving many of the incalculable odds that were stacked against her. Her work to understand her body’s needs, and eventually her diary-turned-blog Running Fat Chef was never designed to be a movement, she says, nor did she think it would be something people would care about. It was her unfiltered experience navigating a world ripe with straight-size body standards, toxic relationships with food, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and a million other reasons why Snell began to artfully carve out her own space.

“What I wanted to accomplish with my blog was to tell unadulterated stories about the highs, the lows, the beauties of what you experience as an athlete, and as a plus-size athlete in this space. I wanted to talk about the other layers of intersectionality,” Snell says. “I’m not just plus-sized, but I’m an unapologetic, profanity-using Black woman who happens to have invisible disabilities. When people cannot see a visible condition, you realize quickly that they don’t have much sympathy or empathy for the way you move, and the way you live your life.”

When Snell took what she felt was the biggest bet on herself by enrolling in culinary school to chase her dreams as a chef, the lows got really, really low. Unaware of what was happening to her body at the time—and even feeling betrayed by it—she was later diagnosed with disc degeneration, moderate level sciatica and an acute herniated disc. Her immune system was crashing down, she says, and her depression had caused her to gain significant weight. Her doctor didn’t think she would make it to see 30 years old.

“I just got to this place where I couldn't turn my neck, and so I just couldn't laugh anymore. It was the way I couldn't laugh, the way I couldn't move, the way that I felt miserable. The way that all of the joy was just taken away from me,” Snell says.

As she considered her options, she settled on one that folks had been telling her, unprovoked, her entire life: She was going to try to lose some weight. But what started out as a weight loss journey would end up transforming her entire sense of self-worth and become an intentional, tumultuous, terrifying and joyful journey into understanding what her body was capable of, despite what she had always been told.

“Initially I thought weight loss was a remedy. It actually felt like a remedy. What I realized is that it was actually a gateway for me to see that I was capable of doing all these things. It was really never about the weight loss. It was about taking a chance to actually listen to my own voice for a change. May 20th, 2013, was the day I got into fitness,” Snell says. “But the running part? That was supposed to be a bucket list item for me, one and done.”

Toya FD Studios-Latoya Shauntay Snell

Snell found community with like-minded Black women in running, returning to her roots in Bed-Stuy to join the local chapter of Black Girls Run. Watching the joy these Black women were experiencing from running together at the crack of dawn helped her understand running as something she could do well, and thanks to these women, something that she could feel held and seen within.

“I fell in love with the idea that I can run long distance, and I can do it more than once, that I wasn't just a one-trick pony at this,” Snell says. “I love the people that I've met. I remember being like, why are these people so happy at 6 a.m.? Nobody should be this happy without coffee. Before I knew it, I ended up falling in love with the community.”

But the high brought another low as she was running a marathon. Around the 20th or 21st mile, she says, a white man on the sidelines started violently heckling her, mocking her weight, her ability, whether or not she could finish and whatever else he felt like saying. Snell took her story to a Black digital publication, The Root, and it went viral shortly after. She panicked.

“I’m thinking, ‘O.K., people are going to forget me. This will probably last about seven days.’ But they were angry for me. I woke up and I was in People magazine. What am I supposed to do with my life now? When you run away from things, when you’re not used to seeing yourself succeed, it shocks you in a weird way,” Snell says.

But of course, more fame brought more haters and harassment to the point that Snell was violently doxxed online. But she remained steady, anchored and focused on the people who needed her, who looked like her, whose fitness journeys and relationships with their bodies were just beginning to look hopeful.

“That’s what got me to stay here. If enough people believe in me, why should I leave? Why should I abandon this space? I’m not looking to make 10th place. I’m not even making 100th place. I love moving because it is a way to celebrate that I’m still here,” Snell says. “Every time that I go out there, I use my phone and document almost every mile, I’m able to take someone else along for the ride, and I’m talking to them, Hey guys, this is a small one, I’m feeling great, or, O.K. it’s mile 10, and this really sucks, but I’m still going.”

Snell is acutely aware that fatphobia and diet culture are powerfully embedded into American society, and that the task of undoing some of that internalization is daunting at best—and impossible on a bad day. Though some headway seems to have been made in recent years, a body positivity movement that seems to have written many Black women out of the narrative has become the speaking majority for a much more dynamic group of people. According to Snell, this has been especially contentious in modeling and commercial spaces as brands realize they cannot continue to pretend an entire demographic of consumers doesn’t exist. Often hastily thrown together, shallow efforts from brands to “keep up with the times” have come with intense complications, especially across racial groups and diverse fat body types that are generally excluded from these conversations.

“I’m so happy that my face and my body and people like me are now being recognized. What bothers me is that some of us are still being paid less than others to do the work that we've been doing for years. Is it super performative for companies to think that, well, if we brought a Black person in the room, we brought a fat person there, we did the work. It is so mediocre, and as soon as you say something, they remind you they’re doing you a favor,” Snell says. “You don't get the option to walk away or run away because you feel uncomfortable. I can not wash away the color of my skin. I could lose some weight, but I mean, it's still not going to change any of the conversations in the narratives that's going out there… Where are disabled people in this? Where are trans people in this? I see the problematic layers, where we’re being considered a monolith.”

Today Snell is set on highlighting local charities that support folks like her, and of course, continuing her training—she’s completed close to 200 running and cycling races— as well as her work as a brand ambassador for Hoka. After completing her very first triathlon in the middle of the pandemic, Snell focused her efforts on fundraising for the Audre Lorde Project, the namesake charity of the late Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who dedicated herself to confronting racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

When it comes to Snell’s future, though, she’s taking it one day at a time, focusing on herself, and of course, listening to her body and using her voice to amplify other like-minded athletes.

“I know that my story is the best contribution I can give to someone else who doesn’t think that their body is capable of doing things people tell us we’re not supposed to do. When people look at me, they usually look at my body as a body full of ‘no’s’. They say, ‘You're too Black to do these things, you’re too fat to do these things, queer girls don’t do this, you have too many disabilities,’” Snell says.

“But I am a person that tells myself before anybody else that I am capable….I’ve already tried everybody else’s way of doing it. Actually taking the chance on myself feels amazing.”

Empower Onyx/Sports Illustrated present Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports

Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.