Something magical happened once I realized athleticism isn’t about body type, it’s about trying your best

When I was a little kid, I was small and broad. I thought of myself as big because I spent most of my time with my lithe cousin, built — even as a child — for long sprints and graceful dances. I was built for something else, but I didn’t know it yet. All I knew was that she ran faster than me and wore a smaller size and, even at 8, I understood what that meant: She was an athlete, and I wasn’t.

When I hit puberty and suddenly started gaining weight in a number of awkward places, everyone around me confirmed my suspicions. I got picked last in gym (side bar, why do gym teachers let this be a thing?), I was teased for my size and figure, and I was discouraged from continuing on in my third-grade soccer team because “maybe sports just weren’t right for me.” When I asked a teammate, my aforementioned cousin, what she thought, she had the nerve to say it plain:

“Michelle, you’re too big.”

So I gave up. After soccer, I had a brief stint with my school’s volleyball team (which, in defense of everyone involved, I truly was terrible at) and then I basically tapped out of athletics. I concluded that everyone was right — sports just weren’t right for me, because athletes looked a certain way and I was far from the mark.

In high school, I started to develop a serious body image problem. It had always been there, but a combination of general teenage pressures and budding mental health issues brought things right to the surface. I became obsessed with all the stuff you shouldn’t be obsessed with when you’re 15 — among other things, I memorized the body mass index formula — and spent a solid four years in a constant state of trying to lose weight.

In college, things got much worse; then, shortly afterward, much better. I spent the first half of my freshman year shedding weight at an unreasonable pace as I grappled with poor grades, financial stress, an unstable social circle, and a boy who rejected me because, as I found out through a friend who didn’t realize what she was saying until it was too late, he “only liked skinny girls.”

A little after that incident, I stopped hanging out with my college social circle quite as much. I started spending more time with a high school friend who had gone to a different school in the same city. He was a natural born athlete who had just started doing a Brazilian martial art called capoeira. I mentioned that it looked cool, and he invited me to join him at a practice. I remember privately thinking it was an awful idea, but I was also so startled that he even considered asking that I went along. I loved it, but was awful at it and pulled a muscle in my second practice. It was way above my skill level, but it awakened something in me I’d been ignoring for a long time.

I started going to the gym. I figured out that I hated running, but loved the way running made me feel; I didn’t care for the atmosphere in the weight room, but I liked seeing my lifts get heavier and heavier week after week. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve tried lots of different sports, and I’ve found I’m good at some and awful at others.

The thing that’s stood out the most, however, is that no matter what physical activity I do — whether I’m good at an activity, horrible at it, or somewhere in between — I like myself better after trying. My body hasn’t changed dramatically (I’m still broad, I’m still overweight, I still carry that weight in some conventionally unattractive places) but the way I feel about it has.

It’s a lot harder to feel bad about my waistline when I know I’m a competent runner. It’s difficult to care that I don’t look like a model in a bikini when I know I can rock climb for hours. Looking a certain way has never come easily to me, so I assumed athleticism wouldn’t, either. But it has. I am an athlete, even if Lululemon doesn’t carry clothes in my size.

I’m not saying picking up weight-lifting or going on a canoe trip is a magical answer to body image issues. It certainly hasn’t cured mine, and I still have days where my negativity is louder than my pride. However, focusing on what my body can do instead of what it looks like has made a world of difference.

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