When I was younger, I was a competitive figure skater. Looking at me now, you might find this surprising. From ages 4-16 I competed in out of town tournaments and often came home with at least one medal each time. I woke up early for practice before school, and was back at the rink after school, practicing at least 5 or 6 days per week. Costumes, routines, tight hairstyles, glitter, hairspray, and bruises were a big chunk of my life for a long time. I loved skating, but I eventually stopped to pursue other things.
I was always on the chubbier side and I developed earlier than lots of girls, and I definitely stood out in a sport that was dominated by very thin and athletic girls. One particular incident in my skating career sticks out as a turning point in my life. I was sitting on the bench at competition with 8 other girls (together, referred to as a “flight”), all of them thin, blonde, and dressed as Barbie while I was not as thin, a brunette, and dressed as a baseball player. It was 1998, and “Barbie Girl” by Aqua had just come out and was so popular that each of those 8 other girls in my flight were doing their routines to that song. I did mine to “Centrefield” by John Fogerty. I was 7 years old at this time, and I already knew I was different from those girls; I knew I looked different than them, but I never thought of that in a negative way. One girl in the flight, we’ll call her Casey, wanted to rub my face in the fact that I was different. While waiting for our flight to be called for warm-up, Casey stood up and went down the line of girls still sitting, pointing at each one and saying “Skinny, skinny, skinny”. When she arrived at the end of the bench, where I was sitting, she screwed up her face and took a sharp breath in. She deemed me “not skinny”, and all the girls laughed, like we were playing some twisted game of Duck, Duck, Goose. We were all 7-9 years old. That was the first time I had a negative body image and also the first time I thought you had to be skinny to be involved in sports. I had to compete against Casey for the rest of my career, as we were always in the same bracket, and every time I saw her, it stung a little more.
Through my later years of figure skating, I was still thicker than the other girls, and though I had pushed that incident from my mind, I couldn’t help but hold on to that negative image of myself. When I eventually quit figure skating, the way I saw myself had something to do with it, though I never said that out loud. Despite the notion that only thin girls were athletic, I still played other sports in high school. And I was ridiculed for it (particularly by other schools during tournaments). My teammates were cool and supportive, but each tournament came with fat-themed nicknames and jokes yelled from the stands while I was serving a volleyball or taking a penalty kick, and I knew they were directed at me. I remained publicly stone-faced, but internalized all their comments. Skip to university, where I still played intramural sports, but my self-esteem had severely deteriorated.
Skip even further, to the present, where I play intramural sports for my law faculty year-long. For the very first time, I hesitated to sign up, being afraid that my self-esteem and my body image couldn’t take any more. Up until this point, I had been bullied in grade school and high school, had some nasty stuff said to me by boys in the street or at the bar, and had heard girls criticizing me when they thought I wasn’t listening. Most of this behaviour was regarding my weight. Cut back to me standing in front of the sign-up sheets for sports: for the first time ever, I walked away. I didn’t want to spend one more year being the team’s token fat girl. A chubby thorn among the thin and dainty roses. Two weeks later, when the final day to sign up came, I was persuaded by two girls in the year above me to join a few teams so we would have enough players. I told myself that I was in higher education and that people weren’t mean in that way anymore, that we had all grown up and seen the light about body-shaming. I was wrong. My most recent jab came just a few months ago, during a girls soccer game while I was taking a corner kick. Behind me in the bleachers were the boyfriends and friends of the girls on the opposing team, and as I backed up to get a running start I heard one guy say, “I can’t believe they let the fat girl take the kick.” He didn’t hush is voice, he wanted me to hear.
During the past year or so, I have gotten a lot better about the way I see myself. And it took a lot of self-inspection to see that the comments from these other people weren’t my problem anymore. I currently play softball, volleyball, and soccer intramurals, allowing me to play sports at least twice per week. The people I play with (both girls and co-ed teams) are amazing, and we are all friends. In addition, the presence of thicker girls in the realms of sports and fitness is growing, and that really helps. In 2015, Women’s Running magazine featured a plus-sized girl on their cover (see below). Model Ashley Graham has been extremely vocal about the time she spends in the gym or playing sports, her message being that you can be a part of a team, or be as fit as the next person, and still be thick. More and more, athletic clothing lines are offering plus-sized options, including Old Navy, Forever 21+, and, most recently, Nike. This is really amazing progress, but the stigma still stands that bigger girls can’t be athletic or fit. In many men’s sports, being the biggest person on the team is seen as being an advantage, but everyone scorns the thick girl even when she possesses drive, motivation, and/or an amazing skill set.
The point of this novel-length post is this: Size does not automatically equate to health or fitness. Sports are a big part of my life, and I won’t let anyone tell me I can’t play because of my size, and neither should you. Trolls will offer their unsolicited opinions and tell you that promoting an “unhealthy body image” (ie: being bigger) is wrong, but what is truly heinous is making assumptions about someone’s abilities, personality or life experiences based on their appearance.What’s that saying about a book’s cover? I hope all you folks see yourselves in your best light. Whatever size you are, you can do whatever the hell you want.
PS If anyone was wondering, I beat out all those Barbies for the gold.