Yesterday, I came across Simone Biles’, Gabby Douglas’, Jordyn Wieber’s, and Aly Raisman’s testaments about being sexually abused by sports doctor Larry Nassar. Today, I watched some of the trial on TV, and I felt a mix of emotions– physical illness, repulsiveness, rage, and the urge to scream. I felt my fists start to clench and my eyes begin to close, as my brow curled and my memories took me to a place deep inside of my head.
Simone, Aly, and Gabby (source)
I was a gymnast for almost fourteen years. From the ages of about five until eighteen, I spent the majority of my free time at the gym. I lived, breathed, and bathed in chalk. I spent my Saturdays at open gym and my summers training. My weekends consisted in competing for state championships and regional titles. Being a gymnast was an intricate part of my identity.
Me, 2008- I used to be able to do cool things
When I scratch the surface, my memories of gymnastics are mostly positive, and full of pride, laughter, goal-setting, and accomplishments. I’m proud of the person I’ve become thanks to my years at the gym. But– but– when I dig a little deeper, the more painful, problematic memories and experience float to the surface. These painful memories go beyond the surface of Dana Day, a meet ‘dedicated’ to me, but what felt like (and was) a subtle excuse for other teammates to make fun of me. The memories that resurface are worse. These memories include flashbacks of subtle butt slaps or slightly inappropriate comments by adult male coaches and spotters,– the earliest being age 12 or 13. Nothing life-changing or even comparable in slightest ways to what Nassar’s victims have experienced, but enough to make you look back, and feel the convulsive, uncomfortable cringe of your body’s reaction, and think, “Hmmm….” These memories include complete and utter humiliation, in the form of words, by mostly female coaches (whom I now realize were just deeply unhappy with themselves), peaking between ages 11-13. One of the worst memories was at the age of 15, when my coach immediately and blatantly asked if I had my period, because “there is a white string poking out of the bottom of my leotard,” as soon as I dismounted during competition after my beam routine. (I realize that my coach was trying to avoid further embarrassment on my part, but when you are 15, there are more appropriate ways to handle such a situation, especially when in earshot of older teammates.) And yes, for the record, I cringed as I wrote that sentence and memory down. On the internet.
Gymnastics empowered me, but reading, watching, and hearing so many of these testaments from fellow female gymnastics has really made me to take a deeper look at just how much the negative and abusive aspects of the gymnastics culture as well as my experience within it have effected me throughout my life, as an adult woman in her late-twenties.
I literally cried tears of joy on this day.
Children are taught to trust and respect adults. I was taught (and expected) to trust the adults who taught me and coached me and helped lead me to victory. It is not until the damage is done that you realize there is a large part of something missing in our culture in regards to empowering girls and giving them control and assertion over their bodies and their bodily autonomy. We are missing the part of the story where women and girls feel safe saying NO, loudly and clearly and confidently, each and every time they feel uncomfortable. Women and girls have still not been allotted that freedom– the one to say the words “No” or “Stop” and to not have those mixed feelings of guilt or shame or worthlessness or fear of consequence attached to them. I was not always given that freedom when it came to my body– the kisses on the lips I was forced to give to family members, the ways in which my body was touched or poked at during those crucial years of development. Many things about my body and the things I did with it were not mine to control or decide. And taking ownership oftentimes resulted in reprimand.
I found this quote from CNN to be especially resonating:
“The gymnastics industry as a whole needs an overhaul. Gymnasts are often treated as bodies on display instead of as young athletes, even by their own coaches and advocates. Young girls are mocked for their weight; eating disorders are rife. Girls generally are taught to be nice, polite and subservient, and in gymnastics, this social norm is too often exploited by coaches who are cruel and abusive — even if the abuse isn’t sexual in nature.“
“I was just so sure that being skinny would make me happy. My whole life I’ve had a voice in my head shouting at me, ‘You’re fat; you’re pathetic.’ And so I did it. I lost the weight. But listening to that voice, I didn’t know who I was without it, and then I felt empty.” -Kate Pearson.
Gymnastics is associated with a certain body type. You need to be in shape to be a successful gymnast. Gym culture, mixed with female teenage puberty and diet culture in the US (and a bit of bullying by boys at school), resulted in terrible body confidence on my end. I used to weigh myself three times per day. I used to bet my father money that I could lose x amount of weight when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. I used to stand in front of the mirror, and clench my stomach fat; my back fat; my thighs. My number one fear in quitting gymnastics was that I would gain weight or “get fat” — I believed my weight and my size was a determination of my success and my worth as a human. As a gymnast, I used secretly to compare my stomach rolls, and associate that, along with the number on the scale, with my worth and dignity as a gymnast and as a person. In college, I used to count every. single. calorie. and absolutely eat up everything thrown into my ears about diet culture, about skinniness and self-worth. “Take up as little space as you can, in both your size and your thoughts,” the world feeds to women, “That’s how you know you’ve made it.” I used to diet, and tell myself that I wasn’t allowed to be happy until I reached x size or x weight– that my happiness would magically appear when the numbers went down. I was convinced that I couldn’t get a date, because most men would convulse at my body– my imperfect, flawed body. Mixed with the lifestyle change of university life and an undiagnosed thyroid problem, I was at my heaviest, in 2009, until about 2012.
It took me a long time to get that voice to go away– to shut it down, and tell it that it’s unwanted when it (still!) comes crawling back. Being female means being bombarded by beauty standards and expectations; getting to a point in your life where you no longer feed into diet culture is a well-accomplished milestone. (I don’t even own a scale anymore!)
Chicago with my cousin, Abby, in 2009
“Her name’s Honor Bright and she runs away from England– from Dorset, specifically. And she runs to Ohio. She doesn’t realize she’s running, but that’s what she’s doing.” Hearing author Tracy Chevalier state those words about protagonist Honor Bright in her novel, The Last Runaway, which I am currently teaching to my juniors and seniors, resonated with me at an even more profound level.
I was unhappy. So I ran away. To France.
Once there, I found a new group of people in France– people who thought about and saw the world as I did. I didn’t think that was possible. I had been born and raised in the same place– the scope and vision I had of the world (and the things I was told about the world and its people and its politics and how everything *should work* or *should be* was from one specific perspective– one in which I didn’t believe I fit, and for which I blamed on myself.) I truly do believe that that semester in France, and those people, are what saved me; it was thanks to them that I realized I wasn’t so odd, or different.
January 2010- Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris
Fast forward a few years. It was 2012. I was home from France, finishing up my degree had been sexually assaulted thrice. I had sought support from fellow women, from older women, from people whom normally should have been there to protect me. But that dialogue didn’t really exist yet. Victim shaming, at least in my world, was still abundant.
I remember this day so vividly: sitting in my Women’s Studies class and reading the definition of sexual assault in my textbook. It was almost like my body went rigid. It was the justice I needed, lighting up on the page. It was the first step in my process of understanding and healing and overcoming. That’s when I started reading about feminism and about other women’s experiences. I engulfed myself in the works of Jessica Valenti, Jaclyn Friedman, and Caitlin Moran, among others. I realized there was an entire community of women and men who believed the things that I did and had experienced similar stories to mine and were working to make the world a better place.
One of the most liberating things I did was I write an anonymous guest post on a Feminist Christian blog about what had happened to me, for the first time telling the world my story in detail. It felt good to get it on paper, and I decided to try and let some of my closer inner circle in. I’m not sure what the response I was looking for was– support– I suppose, but it certainly wasn’t the initial reaction I received, “That’s what boys do.” (Because really, is it!?)
I needed to run away again.
So I went back to the unfamiliar familiar. I came back to France in 2013, wearing my rose-colored spectacles. Many of you already know this story, and how it turned out. I had believed that France was the answer to all of my problems– both seen and unseen– and even better, the world’s problems. Of course, five years down the line, I (and I’m sure you) know that neither of those things ring true, because wherever you go, there you are (and France has some serious work to do.) Nonetheless, It’s hard to say if I would be the same person I am today had I not left and explored new corners of the world, traveled, and pursued a life in my twenties abroad.
When I look at my own personal journey in regards to gymnastics, sex, sexual assault, and coming of age, and align it with how the image of Feminism and feminists have changed over the course of the past ten years, I couldn’t be more proud to be apart of the movement. #MeToo is taking the world by storm, and we as victims and survivors are not alone. We will not be silenced– as more women come forward, and tell their stories, and believe in each other; as more men lend a listening ear, a helping hand, and a voice of support– as we all take a hard look at the toxic culture we have all been raised in. Five years ago, I didn’t think there was much hope for justice for survivors. One year ago, the Women’s March felt like a sort of one-time thing. Oh, how I wish I could go back and tell myself to be patient. I remember being told that my “Future Is Female” and “Feminist AF” sweatshirts were obnoxious. That calling myself a Feminist equated me to a Man-Hater. But it seems as if the majority of the world as begun to catch up. Our time is coming. Hell, our time is here. As Kyle Stephens said in her court testament today, “Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
I’m doing alright, but I’ve still got a ways to go. I don’t have all the answers. I have to unlearn things I’ve engrained into myself and build up certain aspects of how I want to see myself and be seen and live my life. I’m still learning how to forgive, after all these years of holding it all in. But life’s a journey after all, and I’m along for the ride.
As for women as a whole, well, we are taking the world by storm. Someday, I hope, we will no longer have to stand up and say, #MeToo.