10 Feb 2015

#ThisGirlCan - Thoughts on exercise and body image

Whatever people's feelings are on the #ThisGirlCan campaign (aimed at getting more girls and women to exercise), I'd hope that we can all agree that its aim is a noble one. As someone whose relationship with exercise and body image have been tricky, to say the least, I commend anything that's aimed at making girls feel like it's not shameful to do sport. Some may say it's patronising to assume that girls don't want to exercise because "I might get sweaty and it would look bad!" but the sad fact is, those feelings persist. We don't all want to admit to it, because that might make us look shallow and silly and like bad feminists. But as someone who still hates even being looked at when I'm exercising, I'll stand up and say yes, one of the off-putting factors about doing sport is that it might make you look like shit.
 
And this is where women are in a double bind. Society laughs at women who go to the gym in full make-up and fashionable logoed stretchy shorts, while at the same time criticising those who go scrub-faced and in old jogging bottoms. Make too much of an effort? You're a shallow bitch. Don't make enough effort? You're a slovenly cow. The same goes for body shape and size. Too slim, you're overdoing it or you must have a problem. Too muscular, you'll get called a man in a dress. Too curvy, you're not trying hard enough to reduce your shameful size. 
 
Is it any wonder that from aged 15 onwards, girls exhibit the biggest national drop-off in sports participation? Would you want to enter the wasps' nest of having your body, appearance and ability scrutinised when you're already feeling at your most vulnerable? As a formerly overweight person who loathed sports as a child (and for most of my adult life), doing exercise involves a massive departure from my comfort zone. Doing it publicly, even more so. Doing it as a team, even even more so. As soon as I'm asked to do anything involving physical coordination, I feel awkward, dorky, embarrassed and doomed to fail. I hate being watched. I hate being assessed. Sometimes I've left a roller derby training session, gone into the bathroom, repeatedly banged my head against the wall and cried in frustration at what I perceive to be my total failure to pick up skills that others seem to have no problem with. If I feel like this at age 31, how can I expect a teenage girl to want to deal with all this?
 
Six years ago, I lost 3 stone and have managed to keep it off ever since. What no one ever mentions in a weight loss success story though, is that you'll always be a fat girl in your head. It never leaves you. You'll always remember being one of the heaviest kids in your class at school. The one the sports teachers regarded with barely-disguised contempt. The one puffing at the back in the cross- country runs. The one who could never run the course in below 14 minutes, never mind the required 10. Standing on the rounders field hoping no one ever, ever threw the ball to you because you'd fluff the catch and let your whole team down. Viewing team sports as nothing more than a chance to make all your friends hate you for being so slow and uncoordinated.
 
That's not to say you don't get past it. That's not to say you can't find an amazing, body-positive sport full of encouraging people at the age of 29, and realise your body is capable of things you never thought possible. That's not to say that you can't discover in yourself an ability to keep plugging away, to keep getting back up when you fall, to laugh off your mistakes, to realise that your friends aren't watching your every error and that they really don't care, anyway. That's not to say you can't surpass all your expectations and actually end up on a team, win awards, even impress your family - who generally treat the idea of you doing any sport as a hilarious joke. Recently, I attempted skiing for the first time ever in my life, something I would never have had the guts to try had it not been for two years of roller derby showing me that I could pick up a new skill at this ripe age. While on the ski trip, someone asked me if I wished I had given skiing a go earlier (my dad has been asking me to go on an annual basis for nearly two decades, and I always, always said no). My honest answer was "No, I think this was exactly the right time. I just wouldn't have had the confidence before."

Roller derby gave me that confidence, and for that I will be forever grateful. I hope other women and girls find the sport that does the same for them. It takes a lot to undo the damage left by Nietszchean school sporting culture, disdainful teachers, mocking family members and a toxic media landscape that dooms the female body to forever being unacceptable. But despite all that, I've found that #ThisGirlCan, and not only that - #ThisGirlDid.

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