Monday, January 30, 2012


This Wednesday is National Girls and Women in Sports day. As part of the Women Talk Sports Network, bloggers were asked to do a post about why sports are important to either us or girls or women. I could write many posts on this topic, but I'll limit it to one, for now.

Leading the race in cross country in high school

So often when I do any kind of interview or read any books or articles about women athletes, a common theme emerges that relates to self-esteem and self-acceptance. There's no doubt a sport can help a young girl feel empowered. Many times in my blog posts because my blog in general focuses more on eating disorders and addiction, I focus on the negative aspects of taking things into the dark and slightly absurd world of over training and under eating, but even for me there was a time before all that when running gave me freedom, strength and a better sense of self.

Before I started running, I rode horses. Before that, I was kind of lazy. I've mentioned plenty of times that I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid for being fat and the youngest in my group of peers. Oddly enough, back then fat always was accompanied by ugly, so I grew up thinking I was both. It's hard looking back and accepting that I was neither. I was maybe a little chubby, but far from what is considered fat and nowhere even close to obese, though the way I was teased made it seem so. For years I felt awful about myself. I was not athletic, always came in the back of the pack in races or athletic events, and had no real self-esteem. 

When I was in grade school, out of the blue I got it in my head that I wanted to start riding horses, and from that moment on, my life would be different. It was one of those profound moments that set in motion a chain of events that led me to be who I am today. There's a great book called the Tao of Equus that explores the relationship between horses and women. At times it can feel like a magical connection, and for me, it provided a boost in my confidence. It wasn't just the relationship to the horses that gave me this new experience of  feeling more grounded, it was exercising and moving in the world that did. Horseback riding can be like any other sport in which there are moments of zen or getting into the zone. With show jumping, a plan must be formed mentally before being executed, so visualization applies in the same way it would to any other sport, only there must be communication with the horse through subtle body cues to achieve the desired outcome. In short, it's a great way to be in the moment while connecting to the universe. 

Despite all the benefits I experienced with riding, it wasn't until I started running that I really felt a surge of power. For many young girls, engaging in sports at a young age is what allows freedom of expression and a way to get in touch with oneself. The challenge of athletics can provide a sense of accomplishment and teach dedication through hard work. Those of us who have struggled at a younger age either emotionally, physically or both understand how important it is to feel strong in one's body. In her book, On the Wings of Mercury, Lorraine Moller describes her struggles as a child dealing with chronic illness who eventually found running. Her story is one of inspiration as she recounts her rise in a sport in which she is often now seen as a legend. For me, running answered the question, "Why am I here?" It gave me purpose and direction, until I took it too far, of course. Still, those moments of running when I felt it was what I was supposed to do permitted me to experiment with how far I could push myself mentally, and that gave me the boldness and potential to open doors in a sport that had long been dominated by men. 

I had many idols ahead of me, but back then, women were not always met with open arms at the start line. In fact, there were times I was cut off or blocked in races, simply because of my gender. Often when we participate in a sport, it becomes about more than the sport itself. When I ran, it wasn't always about winning a race or setting a course or personal record, it was about something larger than myself. In my mind, it was about women having the right to run. All things considered, women's distance running is a relatively new sport, but women have been going the distance unofficially for a long, long time. In the end, when asked why sports are important to women or young girls, I have to answer in a way that points out the movement forward in women's rights. That has always been a part of the reason why I run and partly why my dedication to the sport is so strong. Long before I became a successful athlete, running gave me a voice against the people in my life who had taken advantage, put me down or abused me in some way. Running was my way out of feeling helpless. It gave me the backbone to stand up for myself, and I believe that any sport has the potential to do this.

Setting a record in the mile in junior high

I want to share this video, because I feel it's related. There's a powerful message emerging lately that is a wonderful counter to the very unhealthy "you can never be too thin" mentality still floating in the air. Rather than focus on a size or number on the scale, it's time to focus on health. For years when I was trying to make a comeback in running after a long and severe battle with anorexia, my mom kept telling me that I had two goals that could not both be achieved at once- one was to be thin, and the other was to run well. My desire to be thin cost me the opportunity to run well. Of course, it was more than a desire to be thin, it was an intense fear of getting fat, which goes much deeper than that even, but the basic concept is there. Diane Israel had this same realization, and other people noticed it as her career came to an early end. She was too depleted to keep running well. Had we been able to shift the focus and do whatever it took to run and train in a healthy way, who knows where our careers would have taken us. I'm glad to see a shift in thinking these days with less emphasis on being thin and more on being healthy and fit. 

I know size is relative and somewhat arbitrary. In general, I wear between a size zero to size six, depending on the designer, and I can tell you I am not what most would consider plus-sized. It's true that when I was anorexic (but before I really went off the deep end with the illness) a fashion photographer told me that if I wanted to be a model, I needed to gain weight. You can imagine how thin I was. I thought I looked normal, just a bit on the lean side. That's scary. Initially, it was running that helped me gain a sense of being OK in the world. I've had to find that outside of running these days, but running did propel me to a different way of thinking. I hope the trend of ignoring what the media tries so hard to shove down our throats continues and that young athletes can continue to focus more on their ability and less on their looks. Would you want your daughter to be concerned with making the hot list or making the Olympic team? Really, it's time to celebrate women in sports for their achievements, not how pretty and thin they are.


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