That Charli Howard quote in the title has always been one of my favourites.
Last night I read an article by Allie Kieffer, a kickass American distance runner and a solid role model for anyone in sport, not just women and girls.
I retweeted it, shared it, and could not say enough about its importance for anyone, and I wish every little girl who is treading on the edge of athletics, sport and competition could read it. I'm posting it here again with the hopes that it might get to more girls who are starting to feel the pressure that sport and athletics puts on us.
Allie's words resonated with me. Her story could have been mine, minus the national level accolades and titles.
Growing up I was tall for my age at all stages, and I was never what anyone would call "big," that is until I entered sports. I had always been somewhat athletic, and anyone who knows me knows that sports are a huge part of my life now as an adult.
I started figure skating when I was 7. I had always been a skater, playing hockey and skating on ponds. Few people will know this about me, but when I was born my hips were inverted and I was placed in the dreaded "bar and boot" and set to have my legs broken and reset when I turned 16. The doctor had told my parents to put me in skates and it would be the best way to strengthen and help force me to walk normally. It worked.
I took to the ice and quickly advanced to the junior and senior levels. Truthfully, I didn't really have to work hard at it. I was a natural on blades and it was my happy place. Competitions, medals, mornings, days and nights at the rink, coaches who worked hard with me. Some of my fondest memories are from traveling and skating, and the year I finally made provincials and could not believe I was finally there.
Yet, there are other moments that stand out to me, like the time when I was 12 and getting fitted for my dress for regionals. The seamstress wrapped a tape around my hips and laughed, telling me how I was going to have trouble keeping up now that I had the "Mouland ass" (Mouland is my mother's maiden name). It was the first time I ever really thought about how my changing body could affect my performance.
I continued skating competitively until my destroyed knees and ankles made me hang up my skates at 17. Those years were full of comments that I always brushed off and never took to heart but, looking back, I wonder how many girls did? Comments on how you'd have to bend deeper into your knees to get that extra weight off the ice, not sticking your big ass out so far, how maybe you'd get more height if you weren't trying to get so much weight off the ice.
When I finished high school I took a year to coach professionally, and even then the comments did not stop. I remember doing my on-ice competency test and one of the judges' comments being "looks more like a defenceman than a figure skater because of her power and build."
By this time I had gained a bit of weight but I was maybe 150-155 lbs. On my 5'7" frame I was hardly Scott Stevens.
That one stuck. At that point I was starting to feel a bit self conscious. I wasn't as active as I had been, I was getting older, and my metabolism was slowing.
When I went to university in 2001 I did what most people do when they leave home. I gave up my physical activities, I made new friends, I hung out in the UC studying, I ate shitty pastries and takeout while I did, and I gained weight. It went on faster than I had realized. Movie nights with friends and all of those junky snacks piled on and pretty soon I was tipping the scale at 200 lbs.
I remember working in a restaurant and the dishwasher telling me he thought I was pretty, "but you'd be prettier if you lost 20 lbs."
I remember the day I made the commitment to be healthy and turn things around. It was Christmas 2004. My mother had given me a pair of jeans that were a size 34 and I couldn't fit in them. In the new year I took them back to Bluenotes to exchange for a bigger size. The sales associate looked at me and said, "We have some nice styles in the men's section."
I tried to find something I could do that I could afford. I knew I had a membership to the Field House included in my tuition. Why not try? I put on the only semi-gym clothes I could find and strolled in. When I went into the cardio room here was this fit blonde running effortlessly on a treadmill. I could do that, right?
I jogged slowly for less than 2 minutes, crawled to the washroom and threw up.
I came back again though, too stubborn to let a bit of vomit get to me. And I kept it up. I knew I needed to.
But, here is the problem with a lot of us, especially those of us who grew up in rural Newfoundland and Labrador - we have no idea what healthy eating is. I grew up on meals fried in butter and out of a deepfryer. Vegetables didn't exist in our house. They still don't until I go home and then get comments about "rabbit food" and how I'm going to starve to death because I had a salad.
"Healthy" was preached to me as the number on a scale and I can remember decades of my mother yo-yoing on diets, starving, trying to lose weight. It was never about exercise, strength or being fit, it was the number. Skinny was pretty and skinny meant healthy.
I started running more and more and I fell in love with the sport, the clarity it gave me, and how I could once again get back to feeding my competitive streak. It filled a lot of voids, but then someone made a comment that triggered something in my head:
"You're getting so much faster, you should look into races...if you were smaller you'd kill it."
I look back now and realize so many girls, be they just starting out, moving into the next stage of their running careers, or even at elite levels like Allie, are told we could be faster and better if we were smaller. Our potential on the road, on the cross country course, or in any sport held back by the size of our bodies.
And we believe it. We believe it often and we start tracking calories instead of nutrients, treating food like a noose and a curse rather than fuel to power us through our sports.
To spare details, I did. I counted everything, I ate low fat everything, blocked with sugar and low in nutrients, the numbers mattering more than what I was putting in. I restricted, I starved and my size came down. I got faster for a bit, but then I didn't. Then I got slower, and then I got injured.
My recovery was slow and the weight went back on. I slumped into self loathing and feeling poorly about myself and that now, while my running mates were hitting the roads and knocking off times, I was "fat" again, and "slow."
I started to get back slowly and I was always hampered by injury after injury, illness after illness, and after a bout of pneumonia I took a long look at what I was doing and started some research.
And I said no more. I quieted those who told me skinny would translate into fast and I threw out the scale. I started working out and working harder, focusing on healthy and strong instead of skinny.
And my times started going down. I started building muscle. And I got faster.
I ran varsity cross country and I made the travel team. I competed at the Atlantic University Sport Championships at 30. I got better as a runner, as a triathlete, and I felt better as a person.
And now I'm 35, almost 36 and in the best shape of my life. I feel strong and confident. I'm healthy and I feel good about myself, knowing my best racing season is likely coming this year and all because I've taken the time and long slog to build strength and do it right (and huge thanks to my kickass coach Tara Postnikoff at HEAL Toronto).
But I still hear it - "You're looking a bit heftier than you were," "I don't understand how you're as fast as you are being the size you are," "If you keep triathlon training you'll be too bulky to be a good runner," "You can't be a hockey player and fast runner because you'll get too big."
Even last night a friend said, and meant absolutely no ill will, "Lbs lost mean minutes lost."
False. All false.
Numbers on a scale will never translate on the road, court, ice or field - your strength, determination and will bring those results. Will all of us become elite distance runners? Absolutely not. It is all about personal goals and achieving them. We cannot let an arbitrary number and the bullshit we are shoveled about body image take over and ruin our potential selves.
I wish I could sit with every little girl who is lacing up sneakers, skates, dance shoes, putting on skis, and tell her to never believe the lies - but I know the messaging is strong and it is rampant. We all grow up in a world that tells us our worth is measured by the numbers on a scale, that beauty comes from the number on the size of your pants and not the level of fight and determination that we have.
And it is wrong. It is so wrong. We need to change the narrative and we need to do it now so no more little girls look at themselves and choose to skip dinner.
We need to raise strong girls, confident girls, who walk out into the world at either a size 18 or a size 2 and know that they have the potential to kick ass and change the world - and they will.
Women like Allie tell important stories and are changing the narrative. We all have a role to play in making sure we do our part. We need to make sure the message gets out, and we must be conscious of fostering the desire and drive to fight and persevere.
If you haven't already, have a read of Allie's article: https://www.self.com/story/my-weight-has-nothing-to-do-with-how-good-a-runner-i-am
Take the message to every little girl in your life. Tell her she is strong, that she can achieve, and that she can change the world no matter what anyone or the scale tell her.
And tell her that in the end the strong come out on top - and we'll kick your ass.