I had to dig out an old photo a while back for a work event. I needed a sports-themed picture from my childhood, a rarity considering my fairly unathletic youth.
I played middle school volleyball for 2 years, preceded by 2 years of little league softball, and that was it. I had flunked out of gymnastics, ballet, and swimming lessons before the age of 5.
“Too tall” for gymnastics at age 3, my mom was told.
“Too clumsy” for ballet at age 4, my mom told me.
And “too scared” for the deep end of the pool at age 5, I told myself.
Team sports were not my “thing”, and you can probably see why.
As a 13-year-old in this picture, I remember being mortified in my volleyball uniform. Even my family chuckled and poked fun at this picture when I dug it from the recesses of the basement.
Short shorts that rode up between my thick thighs. Knee pads that barely squeezed over giant calves. And even my jersey was one of only two that were numbered in the 50’s. Almost every other girl on the team wore a number in the 20’s and 30’s, because those were the small and medium sizes. The 50’s were reserved for XLs.
And that was me. An extra-large in every sense of the word. My feet were too big. My belly too round. My man hands too gawky and clumsy. My jeans were men’s, because they fit over my tree-trunk legs. My chin had doubled already by 8th grade. And those glasses? Definitely an XL. I couldn’t run as fast, jump as high, spike or serve as hard.
And that made me a walking human target.
Laughs. Whispers. Pointing fingers. A short lifetime ago, that wasn’t “bullying”. That was just girls being girls. The social pecking order meted out one derisive look after another. There were no “zero tolerance” policies 23 years ago. (However, I thank the gods of all that is modest and proper that spandex, underwear-length boy-shorts were not part of the volleyball uniform in the early 90’s as they are now.)
There was, however, a coach who encouraged their behavior by constantly pointing out my inadequacies, benching me frequently, and even telling my mother that I really shouldn’t continue with volleyball in high school.
“It wouldn’t be good for her, if you know what I mean,” the coach told my mom. “High school is very…’competitive’.”
As if middle school wasn’t?
So I didn’t continue in high school, and my brief trial of organized sports ended right there. I gained more weight. I walked the dreaded 1-mile fitness test in high school P.E. I balked at any sort of physical activity, knowing it was a set up for failure and ridicule.
I became the band nerd, the choir junkie, the drama geek. And I was just fine with that identity, all of which had non-descript, blocky uniforms that made everyone look fat – choral robes, hideous square-shoulder orange jackets for marching band. Acting on stage allowed me to wear outlandish costumes and be a great “character” actress for my tiny high school. In the public eye, but completely hidden.
Research has proven again and again that your personality, your critical thinking ability, your values, and your emotional intelligence are all established in those early formative years. Why should it be any different with your body image, your relationship to food, the value you place on physical wellness, and your self-worth?
All of those influences – from my obese and depressed mother, to the snickering, petite, and popular girls, to the coach who doubted my abilities – are what helped me decide who I was. Where I belonged – and didn’t belong – for a very, very long time.
I’d love to say that I’ve changed, and I have. I own my journey now, and not my mother nor any of those girls can touch me.
Yet when I was asked to provide this picture, I still cringed. I still looked at that little girl and fat-shamed her in my mind. I heard all of their voices, all over again. I looked at that number on my jersey and almost cried.
I still feel like #54 all the time. Every time I can’t beat my time running a race. Every time I catch a sideways glimpse in the mirror or see a candid picture taken at the wrong angle. Every time my hair frizzes or my skin breaks out. Every time I’d rather cover up in layers than show off. Every time the scale blips up instead of down. Every time I do something clutzy or my body is lumpy and awkward when others are smooth and graceful. There she is – #54 – reminding me of times I’ve failed, or allowed myself to quit.
But I made a choice. I could have easily told the event organizer at work that I didn’t have a picture. I could have picked something from my “cute years” pre-age 8.
I chose to own 13-year-old Emily. I chose to bring her out into the light and let her just be.
Being her made me stronger and more resilient. Being her made me more accepting of others, even if at times it was (and still is) hard to accept myself. Being her made me try harder, made me smarter, made me more well-rounded that just another high school athlete. Being her made me appreciate and retain my childlike qualities, always striving now to relive the childhood I wished I’d had. Being her made me focused on banishing my own misconceptions about what I could and couldn’t do. Being her made me a champion for other marginalized and shamed women and girls. Being her made me stronger than my mother, stronger than the mean girls.
Being her made me, ME.