Athleticism, it seems to me, is something to be protected.
Like an endangered animal, it needs to be coddled a little, given just the right environment and the chance to reproduce in a controlled space. After a while, it will thrive in the wild. But at first? It needs protected status.
Because it has a natural predators.
There’s the dreaded nay-sayer. This is a tiny internal bug that does big damage. It wiggles its way through your ear into your brain and sets up housekeeping. And it whispers, “you aren’t good at this. You will never be good at this.” Over time, the nay-sayer collapses your self-confidence. It might be microscopic, but it is loud and left unchecked drowns out any evidence that you can, indeed, do this.
And then there’s the bully pig. This one is an external threat that often hits in childhood and adolescence, but can strike at any time. Nay-sayers live in clouds around the bully pig. The bully pig has an acutely developed radar for any sign that you are feeling confidence or having fun. It strikes, and strikes hard, when you least expect it. The bully pig literally or metaphorically kicks your legs out from under you, sits on your chest and screams in your face that you suck. This is not a subtle predator.
The well-meaning oh dear is an insidious enemy to athleticism. On the surface, it’s a sweet, kind little animal that seems to only want what’s best for you. It directs you to pursuits that you are more well suited for. The oh dear wants you to succeed, and would deny strenuously any suggestion that it means you harm. This predator kills your athleticism with kindness. An oh dear might even encourage you to participate in more suitable athletics–swimming instead of dance, in my case. In your childhood, the oh dear might have shaken her head and lamented your clumsiness or hugged you as she told you that not everyone can be a fast runner, and wouldn’t you like to just quit? He might have packed away your basketball if you couldn’t get the hang of free throws or made sensible statements about spending money to keep you included in a losing soccer team. As an adult, you might find an oh dear watching you a little sadly as you lace up your sneakers, offering up better ways to spend your gym membership money or reminding you that you’re too old to learn to ski.
Lastly, we find the media bird. This is not a pecking, picking little sparrow. The media bird is a pterodactyl ready to eat you whole. It comes at you from all points, squawking that you are going to die if you don’t fit its very narrow range of perfection. It both insists that you can do it! and that if you do, but don’t shrink in size as a result, you are still going to die and it’s all your fault. The media bird is a fear monger. And it is everywhere. It’s oppressive presence often results in the despairing feeling that there is no point in being an athlete if you do not lose weight as a result.
Yes, athleticism deserves protected status.
Your athleticism deserves to be protected.
Here are half a dozen ideas for how to do that:
1. Check out the defiant athlete list on this site. It is full of people who have held on to or rebuilt their athleticism despite the predators that might have killed it. There are resources out there–find them and use them.
2. R emind yourself that being athlete does not equal winning first place ribbons. All it requires is showing up and moving with purpose. In fact, disconnect the words athlete from the arbitrary idea of ‘good.’ The point is not whether or not you are ‘good’ at something, the point is whether you enjoy the process of participation.
3. Find body-positive outlets for your athleticism. If you have a large-body yoga class near you, consider joining it. There are some athletic pursuits that are safe places for fat people. Belly dancing and roller derby come to mind. Conversely, if your heart is in surfing or marathon-running or some other sport where fat people aren’t the norm, carve out you place in it and burrow in.
4. It can be difficult to make room for running/walking/riding a bike/rollerskating/lifting weights or whatever it is that you want to do. Doing so requires you to decide to find a way to put some of your resources of time and maybe some money into it. Especially if you are the type that doesn’t take much for herself, finding an hour or a few dollars and holding on to them can be very empowering.
5. Disconnect moving your body from weight loss. This might take some time, especially if you are unraveling years of this kind of thinking. But it is possible. A mantra might help. Repeat I am an athlete as many times as it takes to make the daydreams about a smaller body go away. Also, remind yourself that having thoughts about weight loss does not mean that you are a defiant athlete failure. One thing that I’ve found helpful when the indoctrination gets overwhelming is to turn ‘thinner’ into ‘stronger.’ Replacing the word ‘exercise’ with ‘training’ has helped as well.
6. Nurture a healthy sense of fuck you. That’s right. If you need permission to be counter-culture and abrasively protective of your right to athleticism, I hereby grant you with it.