This week, in honor of the passage of Title IX 40 years ago, I’m talking about girls and sports. (Although Title IX is about more than just sports.) Read the first part, where I talk about raising brave, possibly athletic daughters, here.
I was like my girls once: I was an average, dirty, suntanned little girl who spent all day running around with my friends. We did “bike ballet,” in which we performed dance-like moves while cycling around and around our cul-de-sac. But it wasn’t too long before I started feeling distanced and disconnected from my body and from physical activity. I ultimately ended up believing a few things I now recognize as myths:
- Athletic people are born, not made.
- Fitness is a chore.
- My talents were in my mind/brain, and therefore not my body.
Elementary gym class was tough for me (Tori and others write compellingly about how damaging PE can be to young women). I was no longer an equal among equals: a lot of kids were stronger and faster than me. I wasn’t sure what changed. In my “All About Me” book from second grade, there was a page devoted to our dreams and wishes for the future, and my first wish was to win a race in gym. I remember getting a new pair of sneakers and thinking “This is it!!”
I challenged my best friend to a race and lost. What the fuck?? My gym teacher clearly thought I was a defective model and I started to dread gym and recess as scenes of humiliation. I read more books, took singing lessons, and wrote plays. I thought that some people were just naturally good at athletics, and some are not.
Puberty only enhanced my bodily disconnect. Life as a curvy girl started in 4th grade. I was beyond self-conscious: I obsessed over clothing, wondering how to best hide my bra straps from anyone, how to mask the bulk of pads in my acid-washed jeans, how to deal with the strange way kids’ clothing now fit me. Tragically, my way of coping with these changes was to don career-wear hand-me-downs from one of my aunts, and… yes. My grandma. I wore adult clothes from the late 1980s and tried really hard to feel like a grown up. I never felt at home in my new skin.
Teen magazines did not help. I obsessively read Teen and YM took every quiz about my body type and scrutinized the pages for advice on being a girl who was “top heavy” or had a “tummy roll” (Where was my New Moon?). Most of the advice involved wearing bulky sweaters with leggings (this was the early 90s, after all). I started making fitness resolutions in my diary in 5th grade. I once made an exercise tape using my double tape recorder, ripping songs off the radio and interjecting “sit ups” and “jog in place” every minute or so (you try doing jumping jacks to Roberta Flack’s “Set the Night to Music”… it doesn’t work). I occasionally busted out my Mom’s Kathy Smith’s Fat Burning Workout tape, which I remember thinking lasted at least 90 minutes, but was closer to 30.
What can I say: I do not now, nor have I ever really enjoyed fitness. It quickly went from a joyful pursuit to an enormous chore in my young life. It became a “have to” rather than a “want to.”
Yet, I was more obsessed with sports than ever during 5th and 6th grade. I spent hours practicing my tennis serve against the garage door, annoying my Dad more than once for getting balls stuck in the rain gutters. I read Steffi Graf’s biography and hounded my BFF to play more tennis with me. I practiced batting obsessively in my front yard, checking out books that I didn’t understand about baseball statistics and wondering what it would take to become the first female to play for the Chicago Cubs. I rode my little sister’s banana seat bike hither and yon, sometimes for hours. I think it’s fascinating that:
- None of these activities “counted” as fitness to me, or were really validated by anything I read (“Ten tips for killer arms” did not include “shooting hoops for an hour”).
- My concept of sports never brought skills (batting, backhand) together with general fitness. I never really thought about how baseball requires running. It never occurred to me to jog as part of a general “be good at sports” plan.
- I never tried to play for a team, ever (I think I was too embarrassed, considering that by 5th grade most of the kids on teams had been playing for years – the professionalization of youth sports was a problem even then).
By 8th grade, I’d given up on ever being good at sports. So I just started to have fun. I became an enthusiastic cheerleader for our scrappy volleyball teams in 4th period gym. I lead the Terminators to dominance at the intra-class field competition we had, striding through a vigorous 12-minute mile and then cheering my peers. I flat-out loved badminton and volleyball. By then, most of the actually talented female athletes were in 7th period sports because they played for the school teams, so the rest of us were just a ragtag group of girls fulfilling a PE requirement. My gym teacher loved me. She gave me a sportsmanship award and asked me to be the basketball team manager. I still deeply regret that I didn’t take up that opportunity. It just seemed too crazy to me at the time: me?! Hanging out with basketball players??
I fulfilled my gym requirement and never played a sport again in high school. I took weights in 12th grade, which let me gossip with my friends without breaking a sweat. I was excelling in school and figured, as always, that I was more of a brain than a body. I believed that there was nothing I could do to change that.
I spent my first year in college moping around campus wishing my shitty boyfriend would love me. After he moved away, I got mad and vowed to do everything different. When I returned to campus for my sophomore year, I did something completely batshit insane: I joined the women’s rugby team.
(To be continued.)