I remember my friends starting to worry about their weight when we were thirteen.
I went to an all-girls school, and so all the glorious aspects of female puberty were openly discussed at lunch-breaks: height, weight, hairy bits, crushes, and that mysterious coming-of-age marked by “getting your P”.
We grew at different rates. I was one of the slowest, and was scrawny and stick-thin for most of my childhood and early teenage years. People would comment on my poking ribs and knobbly knees with a mixture of praise, envy and criticism, wondering out loud if I ate enough. As a child, I never worried about what I ate.
At thirteen, my friends began to discuss weight and BMI. Diets became a thing. Some classmates exercised excessively and shed pounds of baby fat. Others swore that if they hit a certain weight, they would stop eating. (Just like that, somehow, as though food was not a necessity.)
By the time I finished high school and transitioned to the very different environment of university (freedom! parties! balls! boys! freedom!), I was no longer stick-thin. I didn’t agonise about my weight, but it was always a nagging thought at the back of my mind, a voice that would grow louder after I downed a packet of chips or too many slices of bread. I examined other girls’ bodies, wondered how their frames were so small, their legs so disproportionately long. What had once been a mundane household appliance, the scale, now became an object of apprehension.
Growing up, I never completely committed to a sport. I was a jack of some trades, master of none. In high school, every lunch break, we scampered down to the sports centre to try our hand at basketball and tennis. I joined the running club, but was never fit enough to compete in cross-country. I dabbled in inter-school volleyball and badminton. I had most success in athletics, where I found some skill as a sprinter, but was never the best, and after sixteen, age and weight seemed to slow me down.
In early university, I retreated to the sport of the busy and solitary: jogging and walking. I sustained a one-year gym membership, initially thrilled to find new muscles popping out in my arms and legs, but eventually growing bored of the treadmilling and cross-training and the music videos on repeat. A couple of times a week, if I was lucky, I’d drag myself for a jog around the neighbourhood. But apart from improving my distance, there was no thrill in the exercise.
And then, two and a half years ago, one of my best friends started a futsal team, and asked me to play. From there, it snowballed. Suddenly, everyone was playing soccer, and I had a wonderful growing community of friends who would kick around for fun on weekends. I played mixed futsal and girls’ futsal, and I felt myself getting better every week. I learnt from better players; I tried outdoor soccer with great excitement.
I suddenly understood why people fall in love with a sport—and I felt like I’d missed out for the first twenty-something years of my life! There’s something very challenging and fulfilling about practising a skill enough that you acquire it, and seeing yourself improve. I felt myself growing stronger—not only physically, but mentally. My sense of body image had shifted and changed, without me realising it.
My body was no longer merely a passive vessel for my mind, nor was it a prop to be displayed and to impress others. My body’s primary purpose was to function, to do, to the best of its ability. Every time I run, I run to make my body fitter, stronger and more enduring. Having a serious injury (which turned me into a restless, sedentary ball of frustration for a few months) encouraged me to take care of my body, and to value function over aesthetics. After all, when I’m a decrepit little old lady, I won’t care about what my legs look like—I’ll only care if they can get me out of bed and to the loo.
My relationship with food has also improved. I find myself listening to my appetite much more. I learnt to eat when I am hungry, and to stop when I am not. I found that I no longer stressed about “good foods” versus “bad foods”. Most of the time, my appetite tells me the right things anyway—it sends me little prompts to hunt for fruit and veggies. But if I crave a Cherry Ripe bar or a big bowl of salt and vinegar chips, I won’t fight it. I will think, yes, I’ve exercised a lot today, and I feel hungry, so I will eat what my body is craving. I’ve realised that denying yourself doesn’t work—after forcing yourself to eat something “healthy” that you don’t really want, you often end up going back to the junk food anyway, and overeating.
Five months post-injury, and twelve years since I first realised weight was something people fretted about—I now feel like I’m at my healthiest. Cheesy, but true. As a soccer player, I feel tougher and more capable. I even noticed that I carry myself with more confidence, and worry less about what I look like. It’s liberating.
Whether it be team sports, yoga, pilates, running, cycling, dance or whatever, I think teaching yourself a physical skill can transform not only your body, but your perception of your body and your attitude towards good health.
Game on :)