I remember it like it was yesterday—I was 16, wearing a sparkly crushed-velvet leotard and barreling down a small carpeted runway. I was participating in an all-around competition for my gymnastics team (which means I had to perform on all four events: floor, beam, bars, and vault). At that particular moment, I was heading toward the vault and looked up at my teenage boyfriend in the crowd. For the first time since I began competing, I was self-conscious. I hadn’t ever thought about my body in the context of competitive sports, but there it was—on display for all to see.
I started gymnastics when I was 7, which, believe it or not, is late for the sport. As I progressed, it became an incredible outlet for me. I could go to the gym, work out with my teammates (who became like family), and tumble around instead of dwelling on whatever prepubescent problem was plaguing me. I grew really strong and flexible, and using my body in that way was a skill I loved to show off. Flipping on the grass at the park, performing no-handed cartwheels on a whim, and not-so-casually competing every weekend became a way of life.
The strength training was intense. We would do hundreds of reps before practice, and at one point, I could even do handstand push-ups—which sounds absolutely impossible to me now. But through it all, never once did body image come into play. I was a skinny kid, and the constant exercise allowed me to grow into a fit teenager. I wore a leotard more hours in the day than I wore regular clothes.
That is, until my yearning for a social life overpowered my commitment to the sport, and I quit. Almost overnight, I grew curves. I got my period for the first time. I had to buy a real bra. It was all really overwhelming, and the new attention I received felt foreign. That, on top of the fact that I had to learn to eat and exercise like a normal person. No longer was I working out four hours a day and whipping my toned body around the uneven bars every weekend. So the box of cookies and extra order of french fries I often noshed on just for fun started showing up in places I hadn’t ever seen before.
Food became an issue for me—as I’m sure was true for a lot of girls in my high school class. Before, eating and not gaining weight was just something I accepted as fact. Body image was only something I learned about in health class. But after giving up gymnastics, I had to relearn what it was like to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and perhaps unconsciously, I put my mind and body in a dangerous position.
Since then, I’ve had a lot of time to figure out what works for me. Food is still important to me, but there are things I do to keep my indulgences and disordered thoughts under control. (I talk about them in more depth here). Truth be told, I finally feel like I’ve been set free of them.
Muscle memory from my days as a gymnast has allowed me to excel in strength and flexibility-based workouts as an adult. So many poses are shared between yoga and gymnastics that taking up yoga felt easy and fun. I write a lot about loathing workouts and loving food. But it’s important to me that it’s clear that neither one comes easily for me. It’s not uncool to work hard for your body or to take care of your health. Ultimately, it’s imperative to do what makes you feel good. It’s been a long journey, but I think my time spent as a competitive athlete set me up to come to that realisation. I may even break out that crushed-velvet leotard sometime soon and give some of my favourite moves another go.
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