My Size Does Not Determine My Athletic Capabilities

I get two types of responses when I tell people that I do roller derby:

“Wow, that’s so awesome! You’re such a badass for doing derby!” Or, “Wait, you do roller derby? But you’re so tiny!”

I find it amusing that people assume that my size automatically disqualifies me from participating in a contact sport. I am 5’3″ and weigh around 120lbs–I assume that people think I’m “too delicate” for roller derby. I’m not.

Athletes come in different sizes

In 2002, photographer Howard Schatz created a book of photographs called Athlete which captures the body types of Olympic athletes from a variety of sports. If you go to his website, you can see images from the book which show the beauty and diversity of physiology among these athletes. Among these images, the ones called Athletes Standing are the most striking to me. Here, lineups of men and women from a multitude of Olympic sports from gymnastics and track to basketball and volleyball are shown standing next to each other (some holding the equipment they compete with). Below is part of the Athletes Standing series.

Photo by Howard Schatz

If you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re not all the same size. Some are short,  some are tall. Some have bulky muscles, and others have lean forms. And yet these athletes have something in common – they were some of the best international athletes in their sport at the time.

So why do we believe that all athletes or participants in different types of fitness all have to look the same?

Mainstream perceptions of fitness do not always fit reality

For the longest time, I thought that all bellydancers were skinny. I attribute this belief to my first exposure of bellydancing through watching the music video for Shakira’s single Hips Don’t Lie. Shakira and all of her backup dancers were small and being quite impressive with their hips and bellydancing skills. That was my mental picture of bellydancing for years.

It wasn’t until I attended a talent show during my undergraduate years where my beliefs about bellydancers were shaken and dismantled. There was a woman who was going to do bellydancing as her talent that night. When I first saw the woman get on stage, I thought that things were going to go poorly, to say the least. She was in her 40s and she had a belly that extended over her waistline. Around me, I could hear people snicker and start to make jokes about the woman. Inwardly, I cringed and hoped that things weren’t going to be as terrible as the images my mind had already conjured.

Then the music started. And within the first minute I had a smile on my face because that woman could move. Her isolations were pronounced, her movements across the stage were smooth and graceful, and she was quite engaging and entertaining. Roaring applause immediately followed her performance – we were able to see past our collective ignorance to see the talent this woman had. I imagine now what would be missing from her life and the lives of others if people told her that she was too fat or too old to be bellydancing and she had listened.

This is just one story, but think about all of the other ways that our biases and perceptions discount the people who exist and do the things we say that they can’t. People will say that someone is too old, or too fat, or not the right race, or disabled/differently abled, the wrong gender, or some other arbitrary characteristic to participate in some kind of physical activity or sport. Check the links – they’re lies.

The takeaway?

We go through all of this drama thinking that we can’t participate in something because we don’t fit some image that “the typical athlete” looks like. There is no typical athlete! There is just you and what you want to achieve.

I do roller derby. That’s a fact. I’m aware that I will fall, that people much larger than myself will hit me, and that there is a chance that I will injure myself. But that does not take away from my desire to do so. If anything, it inspires me to do better, get stronger, and be able to compete against people of any size.

My size does not determine my athletic capabilities. You’d be wise to remember that.