When I was 12 years old I decided to donate my hair.
I ended up cutting off over 10 inches, and I loved it. With my hair barely reaching my shoulders, putting my hair up for soccer was so much easier. A couple days after I got my hair cut, I went out to a field to practice. While I was shooting, I noticed a mom watching me from her car. When my dad arrived to pick me up, she got out of her minivan and came up to us and told my dad what a good soccer player she thought his son was. My dad quickly corrected her, she apologized profusely, and we all laughed it off, but the damage was done. I was holding back tears the whole ride home.
For a young girl already feeling the societal pressure to be more feminine, being mistaken for a boy was humiliating. Honestly, I can’t blame that woman for her mistake. At that point in my life, my wardrobe consisted solely of athletic clothing, and I was far more muscly than most girls my age, so I can see why she made her assumption. Regardless, I made the conscious decision to change my appearance so it would never happen again. I grew my hair out, wore it down whenever possible, and never ever got it cut short again. I started wearing makeup, styling my hair, and choosing coordinated outfts that weren’t just mixing and matching my favorite sweatpants and sweatshirts. I would spend hours in stores trying on jeans, attempting to find the perfect pair that fit over my thighs but weren’t too loose around my waist.
Before this turning point, things had been much different. None of my friends were serious athletes, and none of them looked like me. It was disheartening to hear them complain about how they wished they were skinnier or thinner when in comparison to them, my muscly legs and shoulders felt huge. I started feeling pressure to look more like the girls I saw on my Instagram feed. The ones with legs so skinny they had a thigh gap. The obvious solution was to eat less and count my calories.
I tried to support multiple friends struggling with eating disorders that were tearing their lives apart, and watched innocent diets turn into a mental disorder. Besides, I needed food as fuel for my athletics, and I couldn’t jeopardize my athletic performance for anything. So I turned to what I considered my only other option, covering up.
The only time I ever felt normal was when I had serious injuries. That sounds crazy but when I ended up with a signifcant injury that kept me out of sports for several weeks, I ended up losing weight, even though I was no longer working out. My muscles deteriorated until I started to look normal. But as soon as I was cleared and started training again I would quickly put all the muscle back on. Looking back it’s insane that I was that desperate to fit in that I didn’t mind being seriously injured, but at the time, it seemed reasonable. But when I started my first year at Hopkins, things shifted. All of a sudden the majority of my friends were athletes. And when I finally started to talk about my insecurities my teammates and friends opened up to me about their own. About how they felt uncomfortable wearing dress- es and high heels, how they related to the struggles of finding pants and shirts that didn’t exaggerate their muscular legs or arms. Suddenly girls were telling me that they were jealous of my thighs instead of telling me they wished their thighs were smaller.
I have always been proud of what my body is capable of. I’m proud of how much weight I can squat, how far I can kick a soccer ball, and how fast I can sprint up the field. But my whole life isn’t spent on the field or in the gym. I spend my time at school, out with my friends, at parties, dances, and hangouts. And it’s always a little harder to feel proud of my body when it’s not performing, when it’s just there. That disconnect between the two halves of my life and my opinion on my body in each of them is frustrating.
I’m defnitely in a better place now when it comes to accepting my body, but I still get comments. I know my teammates and friends probably mean them as compliments, but every time they point out my thigh or back muscles, it always triggers that refexive self-consciousness that I try so hard to keep under control. It’s as if my label as an athlete makes people think it’s okay to make unsolicited comments about my body that would be completely inappropriate otherwise. They assume that, as a female athlete, I must workout because I want to look this way and thus I will take all their comments on how my body looks as compliments or even constructive criticism. But I don’t exercise to shape my body and my body isn’t here for them to look at, it’s here to perform. Every workout I have ever completed in my entire life has been to improve my performance in the sports that I love, not to change the way I look.
When I was younger, I only knew about one standard of beauty, the tall, skinny, flawless models that plastered the pages of magazines and fipped their hair in tv commercials. And I knew that I looked nothing like them. But things have changed. Because if I know anything it’s that my friends, teammates, and athletic idols are not only talented but beautiful at the same time. If they can do it, why can’t I?