This past Sunday, I did as I often do, which is get up at an obscenely early hour and drive to the site of a race. Except this time I wasn’t competing; I was volunteering. But even if I had wanted to compete, I wouldn’t have been able to, as we were volunteering at a youth triathlon.
The opportunity for volunteerism came about because Brian and I have recently gotten involved with a local running and triathlon team, and part of our responsibilities as members of the team is to volunteer for at least two events sponsored by the team. The youth triathlon was being held about five minutes away from home, and really, who can resist the lure of watching hundreds of little kids run around a soccer field and pedal furiously on bikes equipped with training wheels? Volunteering at a youth triathlon seemed like a total no-brainer.
The team members were assigned to serve as marshals in the transition area, which meant being on hand to help with everything from racking bikes before the race began to making sure they didn’t leave transition without their bike helmets on. The triathletes ranged in age from 5 (seriously, how cute!) to 15, and for a lot of them, you could tell it wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. Some kids had their gear in big Speedo tri bags, nicer than the ratty pink gym bag I tote my gear around in. Some of them wore tiny Zoot tops, and in a few cases, wore the tri kits of their elite youth teams. One kid had a gorgeous charcoal black bike that probably cost about a year’s worth of tuition and fees at a major state university. We adults kept picking it up and marveling at how light it was.
Not all of them were future ITU pro triathletes, though. There were the kids who rolled up in borrowed mountain bikes or Huffy bikes with training wheels on, dressed in swimsuits and clutching helmets shaped like pink dolphins or decorated with mohawks of rubber spikes, all their gear in grocery bags. You could tell these kids had never done something like this before. I think everyone who is involved in triathlon can relate to this to some degree, especially those of us who completed our first ones on hybrid mountain bikes while wearing a swimsuit under a pair of running shorts.
I helped where I could, but for the older kids there wasn’t much to do. (Most of the work came later, when we all found ourselves swarmed with 5-, 6- and 7-year-old kids who needed help taking off their shoes and buckling their helmets.) As a result I spent a lot of time just observing what was going on around us. I talked a bit with the other volunteers, trying to get to know my new teammates a little better. I tried not to roll my eyes too hard at the overly competitive parents screaming at their kids from outside the transition area…okay, I lied. I totally rolled my eyes at them and even muttered “Give it a rest already” under my breath a few times.
Mostly, though, I watched the kids. I liked watching all of them – the tweens, the kids just out of toddlerhood, and all of the different skill levels and abilities – but I found myself particularly taken with the girls in the 9- and 10-year-old age group. They blazed through transition, their faces set with an intensity that blew me away. They were adorable, yes, but they were also awesome.
I turned to another one of the volunteers, a lady named Constance, and said, “Did you see them? That was awesome!” What she said in response stuck with me. She said, “That’s because none of them care about what they look like. It’s not like adults, where we’re always worried about what we look like even when we’re racing.”
Later that day, I kept coming back to those little girls, how for those few minutes they seemed utterly without self-consciousness and how completely beautiful it was to behold, how I aspire to have as many moments as possible like that in my own life. I thought about the paradox of self-consciousness, particularly in the context of athletic and artistic performance, how the moment you step outside yourself to think about how you might look to others is the moment you are most likely to miss a step, to drop the ball, to stumble, to lose the beat. How this even affects me as a writer, how the second I think about all of the potential people who might read my work is the second the words stop coming to me.
I thought about the concept of self-objectification as articulated by the Drs. Kite at Beauty Redefined, and how it can limit us:
Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-consciousness about our looks, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy.
I thought about the Always #LikeAGirl ad directed by Lauren Greenfield, which started going viral last week. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. (And if you have seen it already, well, why not watch it again?)
The ad’s main purpose is to interrogate the use of “like a girl” as an insult, and it does a wonderful job of that by showing how older teenagers, men and boys define “like a girl:” as silly, ineffectual, unfocused, simpering. The girls themselves had not yet quite received those messages, though, and they threw, ran, punched and jumped with everything their bodies and hearts were capable of mustering.
The faces of those young girls in this ad? Those are also same faces of the young girls I watched at Sunday’s triathlon.
If you have ever read Reviving Ophelia, then you know the central thesis, which is that many young girls are confident and self-assured until they hit adolescence, which is when they start to pull back in on themselves in an attempt to prepare themselves to occupy the smaller, less expansive role of “woman.”
The girls in this ad, the girls I watched at the triathlon – they are not in need of reviving, not even close. I hope they never are.
All this led me to spend some time thinking about myself as a girl, how I would have liked to have been one of those confident and self-assured young girls. Sadly, though, I don’t have much of a memory of a time before the veil of self-consciousness descended upon me, as my childhood between the ages of four and eight was a rather difficult one, peppered with traumas whose severity I only came to fully appreciate as an adult. (And by the way, this is why I refuse to subscribe to the cultural idiom that “like a girl” automatically means weak and silly. I was a resilient survivor as a little girl, which in turn made me the tough, compassionate woman I am today.) I thought about how I am one of millions of people who never even get that supposedly idyllic time before adolescence arrives and throws everything into disarray.
I thought about myself as a teenager and a young woman, how self-consciousness hampered me as an athlete and as a student and as a human being. How I dressed in a way that I hoped deflected the attention I didn’t want, the dangerous attentions of grown men, even as part of me craved attention in hopes that it would validate me. How I finally came to understand that I was putting far too much stock in what I perceived as the opinions of people who, in all likelihood, didn’t care about me nearly as much as I worried they did. And I thought about how grateful I am to have finally reclaimed the tiniest bit of what I see in those girls.
I made a comment a few weeks back on someone else’s blog, about how being extraordinarily tall has forced me to get used to the feeling of being seen and to eventually understand that being seen doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything at all. It doesn’t necessarily mean I am being judged and found wanting in the eyes of others, and if it does, well, who cares? Just because someone thinks something doesn’t necessarily make it valid or true.
I don’t think this necessarily has to be a case of paradise lost, never to be found again. I don’t think we have to exist in a perpetual state of self-objectification, nor do I think we must allow the gaze of others to, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, shrink us and make us smaller. I think it is possible to recapture that spark I saw in those girls, and to cultivate it and nourish it and to sustain it through the rest of our lives.
I believe we can and should at least try to pursue a life in which we live with exuberance and joy, in which we take delight in ourselves and our bodies and our minds. If anything, we owe it to the girls we once were and the girls who are growing up today and the girls who have yet to be born. If we can’t do it for ourselves, let’s at least do it for them.