The post Charlie shared recently was from one of her ski racing colleagues, who has suffered with an eating disorder.
Unfortunately this is a story that almost every female athlete I know has gone through. It's not to say I don't know men who have suffered through eating disorders, but in my experience as an athlete it's simply not the same volume - I'm talking about every. single. girl. It's horrifying. So I wanted to write a post about how this kind of thing started for me, and how it links to the fact that from day one of existence, girls are given a set of rules they have to comply with. It's essentially linked to societal view of "normal" that in sport, women are trying to deconstruct to make the pathway more equal. I thought I'd share part of the book I'm writing below; it's extremely personal, but unfortunately I think it's a terribly common story for girls who start sports in high school. Certainly in my generation of athletes it is.
The next ten years of my life began. I’d developed arm muscles. I didn’t really wear makeup or jewellery. I liked ‘girly’ stuff; I just didn’t really wear any or behave ‘feminine’. What was super confusing, was that while I didn’t really care if people asked me if I was a boy or a girl - I just found it odd - was that now things like “man” and “tranny” and “do you have a penis” were being thrown at me. I can't even imagine how much more complex that experience can be for young people discovering things about themselves like how they'd like society to see them based on how they feel on the inside.
The names didn't matter to me, but the viciousness with which it was thrown at me was bewildering. I’d not done anything wrong. I actually thought of myself as a nice, enthusiastic kind of person. But every single day, I was being attacked in school. It was even physical. One time after P.E. I was feeling super stoked that I’d helped win a hockey match. I got on fine with all the girls - bar one or two, like any high school relationships. But I got ambushed behind the changing rooms by three boys. They tore off my shirt, to ‘see if I was a girl’. It was incredibly aggressive, and traumatising. I think this kind of thing happens a lot in high school. I was by no means the most bullied or downtrodden in the school, and horrifyingly, my experience probably wouldn’t have even made the top 5% of worst experiences of what assholes kids can be. It’s an aggressive, abusive, tribal reaction to someone who doesn’t immediately fit into a box. I still don’t, so I’ve kept that part of my personality which is hard to categorise, which I’m happy about. What happened next was truly horrifying though, and while I think it shaped my attitude to authority in later years, I think this kind of management must have damaged countless kids.
I wasn’t a snitch or a grass, but I was pretty traumatised by being attacked. I went to my next class in a jumper, because my shirt had been torn, and when I was asked to take it off, refused. I got sent to the office of my head of year. She asked what the problem was, and I burst into tears and told her everything. About how violated I felt, about the name calling and intense hatred thrown at me in hallways. About how groups of boys intimidated me enough to make ridiculous detours around the school. How I hated beyond anything walking to a table in the lunch hall, because it was like a walk of shame. I ignored most of it, but it’s hard when it’s every single day. She responded:
“Why don’t you wear a dress?”
I think that in the UK, in 2020 at least, this attitude has changed quite a lot. But what really gets my blood boiling is the idea that "things are improving, so we don't need to shout quite as loudly". There is an overwhelming sense that I'm doing something wrong by telling my personal story here. It is extremely uncomfortable to think about people reading it, but at the moment, women have to measure what they say SO CAREFULLY in order to not come across as (delete as appropriate):
Manly (I know)
Not caring about any other issues (for example, I am discussing young women's experiences in high school. I am not discussing young men's experiences in high school, but I feel the need to acknowledge that I give a giant shit about that set of issues too).
In 2020, I have still sat down and listened to someone use "gay" as a derogatory term. I couldn't believe it. Now I have to acknowledge that I'm not trying to take away anyone's right to free speech. But are we really so low on creativity, us, the most linguistically diverse animal ON THE PLANET, that we can't find a way to say we don't like something that doesn't aggressively alienate a HUGE amount of the population? Also (sorry, Bember is on a rampage) how is it that CALLING THIS OUT is more frowned upon than actually doing it in the first place?!
So the next post I do, I promise, will be canoe slalom themed. But these issues are too important to me and my experience in sport to ignore. These experiences have shaped who I am, and I believe as an athlete it's my responsibility to address them as modern issues. I'm inspired by the other women I know in sport. I'm inspired ALL the time by people who don't feel that they fit in anywhere in society, but try as hard as they can anyway. It's normal for men to sit and commentate at women's sporting events and evaluate their feelings and life situation in a way they wouldn't for male athletes, so I'm going to bloody well talk about them. What we need to do, is try and imagine how we'd feel about it if all the language used for women in sport, was applied to men in sport. Then ask ourselves, truthfully, how does it feel? Does it feel weird? And then try and understand why it feels weird.
I still don’t really fit into boxes. I love dresses, and makeup. I just don’t put a massively high value on them. I love my sport, and I think I’m thought of as ‘tough’ in terms of training, effort and resilience. I also love reading and poetry and art. I don’t feel the need to change to fit better in my ‘box’. I’m trying to use imagery and stories to illustrate things that make my life now incredibly valuable to me. One of those things, that makes life a little more valuable, is how many men I also know that are without hesitation, picking up these issues and wearing them proudly too. Thank you.
Don’t be sorry.