I recently had the interesting experience of being hit very hard in the head while also simultaneously witnessing some of the most refreshing displays of healthy masculinity that I’ve ever encountered (and yes, those are related).
Allow me to back up — last weekend a most beloved friend of mine got married (this is not related. I am just giving too much context like the oversharer I was born to be). Because I was the bridesmaid with the most flexible schedule, I helped with wedding prep and cleanup which made for three very long (and very joy-filled days) that I wouldn’t give up for the world. My feet, however, may never recover. They were swollen, aching, and blistered from adorable but merciless shoes. After it was all over, I sat on the floor of my mom’s house and massaged them pitifully while exchanging pleasantries with the parents of some longtime family friends who were in town for the wedding.
The youngest son of these friends approached me at around 10:30 (a mere 10 minutes after I had arrived home post-wedding cleanup) and asked ever so sweetly if I would consider playing a game called King’s Base with him and the other young siblings (think a mixture of capture the flag/tag played in the dark). Now, as dearly as I cherish the older siblings, I hardly know this youngest child at all and I was completely taken aback by both his forwardness and politeness in asking me to join their game. I looked around me at the semicircle of pleading eyes (my three youngest siblings and the brother who is only slightly older than him having joined him in the asking) and I caved. How could I say no to such sweet faces? “You can say no” my step-dad reassured me. Nevertheless, I agreed to play.
Now, for further context, I’m not sporty. I mean really not sporty. My whole life I have been the klutzy girl (see title of blog). It doesn’t matter how hard I try, how many times I am shown, or how earnestly people try to engage me in sports or group games — I can’t do it.
And it doesn’t matter what the sport is: disc golf, basketball, baseball, kickball, soccer, ping-pong, tennis, croquet, jump rope, volley ball, running, even quidditch — yes, quidditch for a semester in college — I really can’t do it. And yet, as a child that was raised to play outdoors in a community of friends who had limited access to the internet or TV, I was often forced to participate in group games and sports over the course of my life. As a result, my childhood is littered with memories of not measuring up, of always feeling like I was disappointing my teammates, and of feeling embarrassed and ashamed.
I’ll never forget being held back in my summer swim lessons as a very young child and having to repeat the guppy level (you know, where you swim on paddle boards and blow bubbles on the side of the pool) because I had the swimming ability of a literal rock. I’ll never forget the day in middle school when I got picked last for kickball — after the kid in a cast. He couldn’t even play half the game and my friends still considered him a better option than me. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face in early high school when, after showing me the proper way to throw a disc for the millionth time, I spiked it off the ground four feet in front of me. He was so utterly disappointed that I hadn’t inherited even a shred of his athletic skills. And I’ll certainly never forget the years of playing capture the flag with my friend and her older brothers and the many times they argued over who would be stuck having chubby, slow, and easily distracted Sierra on their team. Even now, these memories kind of sting and they are just a sampling of thousands of others just like them.
Big whoop you might say. Lots of people weren’t good at sports growing up but you don’t see them crying about it online in their mid 20s. And to your point, fair. But I think what made it especially poignant for me was growing up in a community that emphasized gender roles to a very extreme degree. I was constantly being told that my role in life was an inferior one. The Biblical idea of wives submitting to their husbands got lost in translation somewhere and began to mean women submit to all men. One time my friend and I were called into her kitchen to help prepare lunch for her brother who would be home soon because “it would bless him” to have lunch ready for him when he got there. I remember thinking, “Let him make his own damn lunch. I’m not his maid.” To this day I stand by that. If I had already been making lunch for myself that day I obviously would have made enough to share with him. But being called away from what I was doing to specifically attend to the task of making his lunch infuriated me.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing wasn’t even an unusual occurrence. As it was, us girls were already allowed to do less, our parents came down on us harder, and we often had to yield to the boys in matters of play. When our parents were around the boys were often forced to display acts of gallantry towards us and we were forced to let them as a way for them to (begrudgingly) practice the proper way to treat a woman. But being young and immature as well as given differential treatment, many of the guys I grew up with began to form something of a god complex and would take it out on us girls when left to our own devices. They made sure we knew that we were beneath them and an easy way to express it was to dominate us in play.
The angry feminist inside of me — the one I think I must have been born in possession of because she has always been there — would always feel the extra searing heat of shame in the face of defeat. She screamed inside my chest each time I lost or was picked last or didn’t run fast enough because I knew I was mired smack dab in the middle of a stereotype about girls and there was nothing in my power I could do to thwart it. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, when the boys taunted that I was just a girl and could never beat them it hurt because they were right and I knew it. I could never beat them. But, being children, they were always monstrous about it and the standards of our community let them — even encouraged them to be. Knowing that my hands were tied by my own inadequacy and that my mouth was gagged by the harsh gender roles that had been meticulously stacked against me, a seed of self-loathing wrapped tightly in bitterness began to form inside of me.
As a result, I spent years of my life and hundreds of hours in therapy trying to prove my worth to myself in the face of having been measured so harshly by my community. I fiercely and faithfully refuse to play team sports to this day to avoid putting myself in the kind of situation again where I can be so degraded because I know what it does to me. I end up in a depressive funk where I mull over every mistake and disappointment. I take every taunt to heart and learn all over again how it feels to hate myself and project that loathing onto the people around me (whether or not they actually feel it). I have to spend weeks all over again reminding myself that I am happy, that I am worthy, that I live a fulfilled life that I am proud of, and that I don’t measure myself by the same metric that I fell so short of during my childhood.
So back to the story at hand. After all that very long interlude you may be asking, why, Sierra, did you agree to play King’s Base at all with a history like that? Well, because I thought I was playing against a bunch of kids ranging in age from 10-15. I figured my 15 year old brother could be on one team and I could be on the other and we would be about evenly matched. And because they asked so nicely, let’s not forget.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when both of the college-aged sons of my parent’s friends stood up to go outside and play with us. My heart sank to my toes — suddenly my fears bubbled up and grabbed me by the throat: loser, not good enough, klutz — all echoed in my head. But I had already agreed to play and I had vocally and consistently refused the outs that my step-father had given me. I had to play. But I also suddenly feared the ridicule of my peers in a way that I hadn’t for years. If I had known that they were going to play, I never would have agreed.
I tried to tell myself that this time would be different because this time I would hold my own (why? Literally no reason. I haven’t become faster or stronger or more coordinated so I had no reason to believe anything of the sort beyond the fact that I am super good at lying to myself). And let me tell you — it was a big, fat, steamy lie. I did absolutely horribly. In the first round of the game my ten year old sister and I (teammates, I might add) both ran to tag the same guy and cracked heads so hard my teeth slammed together and I saw a burst of light. I hugged her to my chest and apologized (to her for headbutting her and to everyone else because our team lost when she and I went down). I kept seeing spots in my vision and felt the curling finger of nausea in my stomach for a good thirty minutes after impact, but I was determined to keep playing because I wanted to prove that I was better. I needed to prove that a little mild brain trauma wouldn’t stand in my way.
Honestly I should have quit while I was ahead though (or rather, less behind). A few rounds later I was chasing someone and ran headlong into one of the college-aged guys (again, he was my teammate. Only this time we cracked knees, not heads, so it was an easier pain to shake off). Then just a few rounds later we switched teammates and, confused, I very aggressively tagged several people who had previously been my opponents but were now on my team. With one exception, these “friendly fire” tags remained the only people I tagged throughout the five or six rounds that we played.
To put it simply, I made an utter fool of myself through and through. Later that night I sat in the shower (literally sat, too sore to stand) and surrendered myself to the shame and self-loathing that I expected to wash over me. I braced myself for the play by play of every dumb move in agonizing slow motion to grind my self-confidence into a powder as the angry part of my feminist spirit roared in self-defense. I expected to grapple with that anger for weeks before I tamped her back down and reminded myself that anger is not an appropriate response to pain, before I reminded myself that the feminism I want to maintain is driven by a longing for mutual respect, that just because I had embarrassed myself didn’t make me less of an equal to my male counterparts who had beaten me so thoroughly in a game of speed and agility.
And yet, despite my openness to it, the shame didn’t come. I was shocked. Instead, the playback that hovered in my mind’s eye was centered on the number of times my teammates had high fived me and congratulated me for my little successes. I remembered how every time I hurt myself they stopped the game to make sure I was really and truly okay (the guy I plowed into even unnecessarily took the blame for our collision when it was calculably my fault). I remembered how that despite all of the smack talk and competitive airs, no one had ever targeted me. I hadn’t been made to feel small and useless, but had been verbally confirmed as a valuable part of the team. Now, for the record, that could not be more untrue and I know it. All I had functionally done to “help” was make the teams even, but even so, I had been graciously and lovingly included. Any smack talk that was directed towards me was in good spirit and tactfully dodged the subjects of my clear inferiority or any mention of my gender as a possible cause.
And that’s when it hit me: competition in team sports that is driven by gender shaming, by pointing women out as the “lesser” sex, by excluding, or by hassling is a picture of broken manhood. A real man (be he 11 or be he 21) is a man who high fives his klutzy teammate and tells her he’s glad she decided to play. I’m not saying coddle me or lie and tell me I’m good, but be made to feel like I was accepted — warts and all — literally saved me from a month long emotional spiral.
Now, I know that my revelation that sexism exists in sports is hardly new — professional athletes deal with that kind of crap all the time, so why do I feel like I should be exempt from the heckling? I guess the difference in my mind is that unlike Serena Williams or Megan Rapinoe, or Billie Jean King before them, I can’t just win the crap out of my sport to shut the haters up. I fit all of the stereotypes about females in sports that every knuckle-dragging misogynist has ever wielded to try to delegitimize a queen and I really hate that about myself. I want, like in so many other areas of my life, to be able to rise above the criticism through hard work and excellence.
So to then be graciously included in the face of my deficiencies reminded me that there are real men with a real understanding of masculinity who don’t feel the need to shame me when they win or blame me when they lose. That those who fall short of grace are themselves the deficient ones. It was a very liberating realization (albeit not a terribly profound one on the large scale of social insight).
Now, will I start engaging in more team sports with my new enlightened perspective? Probably not. I’m still a hazard and a general embarrassment to myself. But I do like to think I can start to gently let go of the barbs of my childhood and have grace for myself in the face of that embarrassment because someone finally set an example of healthy manhood in competition that I can look to as a litmus. I will never be good at sports, but somehow it took 23 years before a guy outside of my immediate family made me feel like I didn’t have to be — that I could play for fun and the company I provided is what made my presence desirable. Basically, it took 23 years for me to experience what it felt like to be treated like a human being in a sports environment and that long overdue contrast freed me from the binds of toxicity. I hope it will liberate others as well.
Until next time,