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Joy in Your Body
Your stories about opting out of toxic excellence in sports
A month or so ago, I wrote about the lure of toxic excellence in physical endeavors. I don’t want to ever sign my girls up for ballet (even if there are some studios that are ok), since it seems like the biggest shove I could give them toward disordered eating.
It’s not just a problem with ballet, of course. As I wrote:
What I see in these other examples is the way that other feats of athletic prowess can be drawn into a kind of toxic excellence. It takes weightlifting (as well as steroids) to be a bodybuilder, but, at competitions, the strength they’ve developed isn’t on display, just the poses that show off the competitors veins and muscles. It would be as if a competition for chefs consisted solely of showing off their burn and knife injuries with no food eaten at all.
I asked Other Feminisms readers for their reflections, particularly for how you find ways to pursue strength and exult in the gift of a body while remaining an amateur in the most basic sense: a lover of your discipline, not a competitor.
I was grateful for some of the comments and commiseration over stories of getting stuck in bad pursuits of excellence. (I saw stories about both ballet and cello injuries!) But for the roundup, I wanted to focus on some of the places people have found real joy and community in sports that serve the body well.
Emily cited her experience with social dance:
I love latin social dancing (salsa, bachata, kizomba, Zouk), because it brought me back to my body. Through dancing I was able to work with my body, not against it, and I always felt that I was doing something beautiful. The following aspect in particular was so freeing. The social aspect (in London UK) where you turn up, everyone does a class for an hour, then dances, was an equaliser because everyone would know how to do something. There are competitions etc, but I consciously avoided entering for them, because the unpredictability of the social dance is what I actually enjoyed, not choreography. Social dance is a balance between order and chaos, choreographed dance is too much order for me!
Analisa and others cited martial arts:
Martial arts was my first thought when I read Leah's questions. Tae Kwon Do was so, so good for three of my kids - the focus on discipline and respect (*especially respect*) was paramount. The respect shown to the instructors was returned to the students. I was extremely impressed with the respect with which even the youngest children were spoken to. I also saw a variety of bodies, and classes tailored to a number of different needs. I've thought often of taking it myself, at almost 50 and living in a larger-than-average body.
I think it’s notable that both of these disciplines require depending on someone else in order to learn. It’s impossible to learn lead/follow in a dance without someone to dance with; impossible to practice a throw without someone willing to be thrown.
And, for the most part, learning requires the cooperation of someone way above your skill level. It’s not necessarily safe to throw your peer, since they may not have the skills to handle a bad throw without injury. And they won’t know what a throw should feel like, so they can’t give you feedback from the fall.
I work part-time at a climbing gym and I’m also specially trained in adaptive belay (read: assisting climbers with disabilities using different belay methods up the wall.) In general I would say that climbing is a very open sport: everybody and every *body* can climb, and it’s a sport that’s focused on individual achievement vs competition, so it avoids a lot of toxicity.
Climbing is also a communal sport in the sense that you have to have someone on the other end of the rope in order to climb. This forges some wonderful interpersonal bonds. With one of my climbing partners, we’ve developed a sense of each other’s moods and moves and can anticipate what the other will do on the wall; we’ve climbed together so often that we know how to best support the other in achieving their goals. I literally trust this person with my life on a regular basis. Climbing culture across the country is, generally, extremely supportive in this way: it doesn’t matter if you’re at the crag, or at Yosemite, or at the gym, it’s a common cultural etiquette to stay positive and to help others as you can.
"Programs for physical strength and joy that avoid toxic excellence"? Hands down, this was prenatal yoga for me. I had never ever tried yoga, didn't know much about it. But what a chance to develop new strength and skill as well as community, within a *uniquely female* context that intentionally modified the stretches and poses to our needs and goals. I've never felt (or been) healthier and stronger in my life than I was during that year or so of my first pregnancy and newborn time, thanks to the prenatal and then postpartum yoga studio I found. It's such a contrast to a competitive toxic excellence, with the lens wholly on noticing what was happening in our own (constantly changing) bodies, and building strength through movement that was oriented toward labor and recovery and handling a new baby. I felt deep gratitude for those months of body work and preparation that guided me to explore and celebrate what my body could do. Childbirth is one of the most strenuous yet exciting physical challenges I've ever attempted.
I would second that prenatal exercise (and post-natal PT) become explicitly a way of exploring what is true about your body right now. It’s responsive to the reality of your body’s limits and strengths in a way many sports are not.
Ironically, you might find a better approach to conditioning in post-injury PT which could have prevented the injury and PT in the first place.
Finally, Audrey noted how hard it is to discern where commitment crosses over to pathology:
I'm with you in being suspicious of ballet—serious ballet, in particular—but I'm not sure I'd feel this way if I'd been a ballerina. Part of this has to do with times that I've spent in other excellence-oriented spaces (like academic institutions, or doing math competitions) which have their own cultural pathologies, but where the goodness of the thing-pursued is so obvious to me (in part because in pursuing it you come to appreciate it) that the pathologies seem potentially worth it. They're a danger to be guarded against, not something inherent to the pursuit. (And maybe disordered eating is like this with ballet.)
This is where I think we benefit from a habit of Sabbath/enforced rest. It’s good to have a period of stopping that everyone has to respect, even if you want to press on. It also helps identify the disciplines that don’t respect a no before it’s your body is screaming the “no.”
But we keep wearing away at those natural stops. I’m particularly frustrated by the push to kill snow days at school (me at Breaking Ground).
I’ll finish with two book recommendations, one I’ve read and one I haven’t. Mike Lanza’s Playborhood is a very delightful guide to getting out of the house and making your yard a gathering point for play.
And I haven’t yet read Katy Bowman’s Movement Matters, but I think a lot of the friend who keeps telling me to. From what I’ve gathered, it’s about how reshaping our lives has often trimmed away the routine use of our bodies it takes to feel strong and healthy in them.
Especially as the weather improves, I want to show my girls ways to expand what their bodies can do and be curious and happy as they do so.