First, I start with a little story from my illustrious (snort) past.
I was always an athletic girl, by which I mean, I enjoyed sports and was reasonably good at the ones I managed to try. My parents never wanted to let me join any club leagues or even play on school teams because they didn’t want to/couldn’t pay for it, and didn’t want the added burden of having to drive me to games and pick me up. In the tenth grade, I convinced them to let me try out for soccer, as there was special “Activity Bus” that had been set up by my school which would take me to a school close enough to my home that I could walk back after the daily practices. For games, I had convinced them I had enough friends whose parents were willing to drive me.
So, I ran for about two months in preparation for conditioning (two weeks) and then tryouts (one week). I made it though tryouts and somehow managed to make the junior varsity soccer team, even though I was competing against much faster girls, girls who had been playing soccer in club leagues for 10 years. I had a very good “kick” and I was fearless, which made me a pretty good defense player. Playing defense meant my relative slowness wasn’t a disqualifier.
I played well enough my first year to make it to the varsity team the second year. I cannot overemphasize what a triumph that was for me. Being in the eleventh grade was no guarantee that I would be placed on the varsity team, it was strictly based on performance. I had competed against more slender, better-trained girls, girls I looked up to for their prowess on the field, and I had been chosen! I played first-string that whole season, too. I felt so good about myself and about my body. I was fit and as slender as I’ve ever been (mid-130’s). Even though my stepmother continued to chastise me for my disgusting, fat mid-130’s body, and even though she continued to try through various methods to force me to lose weight, I was at the lowest post-puberty weight I’d ever been, and at my fittest. By anyone’s standards, at the time I was a very, very healthy normal-weight girl, exceptionally fit, and there was nothing I needed to change.
But the summer between my junior and senior years, my parents moved to a new school district, and although I begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay at my original high school (I had several solutions for how to make it work, none of which are important for this story), they wouln’t let me. My new school was huge: instead of about 800 kids in my entire high school, I had over 1,000 in my class. I didn’t know anyone and my shyness was kicked into hyperdrive. When it came time for the soccer season tryouts, even though I was walking distance from my new high school, so the need for a special bus was gone, I was too self-conscious to try out. I was fat, fat, fat, and disgusting. Even though I’d spent that school year on a self-imposed “fat-free” diet of mostly fat-free pretzels, fat-free animal crackers, and marshmallows, and abused ephedrine, I hadn’t been able to break below 130 pounds. I was afraid to wear shorts in front of the slender girls trying out. I was afraid I would be too slow and my strong “kick” wouldn’t be valued or wouldn’t be that impressive against the other girls trying out. I was afraid of running the 10-minute mile test required to join the team and failing. I was afraid I was too fat.
I didn’t try out.
The next year, I went to college, a school with a huge network of intramural teams, which I also told myself I was too fat, too short, too slow to join, so I didn’t. I haven’t played soccer since, and though I’ve toyed with various athletic endeavors since then (running being the most compelling so far), I have enjoyed none of them with the passion I enjoyed my brief two-season soccer career. I have never regained the self-confidence and pride I had when I made the varsity soccer team my junior year. I have never again been impressed with my body and its performance the way I was back then.
I wonder now, if I hadn’t been under the impression that I was too fat to be a soccer player, if I would have stopped playing. If I hadn’t stopped playing, would I have gained as much weight as I had? If I hadn’t stopped playing, would I have built up my self-esteem more than I have in the intervening 13 years? Would I have had the confidence to try other athletic pursuits, would I, instead of turning to surgery, have filled my life with healthy things and loved my body for its physical prowess instead of hating it for refusing to conform to the crappy expectations of our culture?
I wonder if our society, and crappy parents like mine, don’t set up girls who are round, or stocky, or chubby to be excluded from a lifestyle that includes athletics. I wonder if we tell girls they are too fat for bathing suits, if they avoid joining the swim team or going to the gym to swim laps. I wonder if we tell girls their thighs are far too disgusting for soccer/basketball/softball shorts, so they never try out for the team. They assume they don’t belong, so they don’t learn to love sports and the feeling of a body performing well. Then, when they spend their days doing something that doesn’t require exertion and a revealing outfit, they, sadly, get fatter. Its like we’ve set them up to fulfill the destiny we told them was theirs to begin with: being a fat couch potato.
I wonder, if we tell slender girls who have the “right body” for athletic pursuits, if we encourage those girls to wear bathing suits and shorts proudly, if we encourage them to become the kind of person that makes sports part of their lifestyles. I wonder if those girls learn to desire the validation they receive for having a slender body, and are determined to maintain in, by exercising regularly. I wonder if they fear losing approval of society and parents if they “let themselves go.” I wonder if we set them up for maintaining that body at any cost, even eating disorders.
I don’t intend to make a broad generalization here, that all fat girls were discouraged from playing sports, leading directly to a letter-jacket in Fat Couch Sittings, and all slender girls were encouraged to play sports and end up starring in their own personal Nadia movie. I am just contemplating whether the relationship between believing I was too fat to play sports and quitting is something that is happening to girls on a broad scale, and didn’t just happen to me. I also am not trying to blame my own poor choices on other people, but rather to remove some of the guilt I carry around for “letting myself go.” I am harder on myself than anyone else ever is.
On the flip side of this coin, discovering the Galloway groups I run with was a major boon for me. I have been able to stick with it, in part, because there are plenty of people of all shapes, sizes, and ages plodding along on our long group runs. Our long group runs are organized into pace groups. So there’s a 9-min mile group, a 10-min mile group, etc. all the way up to a 14-min mile group, which is mine. Each group, led by at least two leaders, stays together for the whole long run. The person that sets the pace is the slowest in the group, and if someone pulls a muscle or twists an ankle, they are never left behind. The whole group (or at least one of the two leaders and usually a couple group members who want to be supportive) walks the rest of the route with the injured runner. No one is ever made to feel bad for being unable to keep up. Its an amazingly supportive environment that has given me confidence to keep it up. I’m never too fat or too slow or too untrained to run with Galloway. Its a philosophy that makes for a transformative experience for many, many people who have felt excluded from athletics in the past. I am so grateful to be a part of that.