Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Athletic Endeavors and Parental Support

So it turns out I have athletic boys. I'm always surprised by this. I've been taking Riley to his track meets the last few weeks, at least partly because I was asked to take photos for the team, both group, buddy and running shots. And my camera, trusty friend that it always proves to be, has worked its usual magic and allowed me to relax a bit in this crowd of fit, active, involved parents, and take pictures and more or less be myself, despite my perpetually chunky state of physical being.
Be strong!
This is a difficult post to write. They say that kids push you out of your comfort zones and I know I've talked about all that before; it's still very true for me, especially with the boys' sports teams and the high degree of parental involvement expected. I've never been athletic, I am so obviously not a runner and never will be. And the stuff I'm talking about in this post usually gets viewed as too silly, too petty, too... trivial, at least between adults, to really get talked about. But.

I've been thinking about it all and decided to face it and be open about it: I have felt judged by my appearance and been found... fat...(gasp!)  by a few people. Nothing too overt, just slight avoidance, sidelong looks at my girth, things like that. The 'how did she let herself get that way' sort of looks. Which cause those thoughts that maybe it's all in my head, maybe I'm just paranoid, the 'did I just imagine that look there?' sort of things. You know, where either you end up wondering if that really was what you think it might have been or maybe you're just being oversensitive and insecure (which of course I am) or maybe you're just going crazy. That sort of subtle stuff that in the end really isn't that subtle. It ends up making a person feel unwelcome, excluded and judged, regardless of whether it was conscious and intended or not. I don't believe anybody in the group intended anything like this consciously, after all. We're all trained not to be cruel, not to make faces or gestures or say questionable things. Kids do them, because they're kids and haven't yet learned better, but even then they usually get corrected by parents quickly. I hang onto the belief that most adults don't mean to be judgmental and probably aren't even aware that they may be coming across that way.

Possibly I'm over-sensitized, or maybe I just haven't been hanging around in situations where everyone around me is fit and athletic and has been all of their lives; it makes me feel even fatter by comparison. I keep telling myself they can't know what sort of history I have, they don't know all of my various physical ailments over the years. It all helps remind me to watch how I'm thinking of others and to watch for judgmental crap in my own head. You never know what someone else's story is until you give them a chance to actually tell you.
Running the 400 meter
Anyway, I'd been feeling some of that icky sort of stuff with some of the track team people from the beginning, and I just wasn't breaking through that barrier to get to know people better, for a couple of years now. And I admit that was due to my own avoidance, my own resistance and discomfort with the whole thing. I tried to be supportive for Riley's sake, and ignore the way I was feeling every time we went to a meet or get-together or whatnot for the track team. I kept thinking that as long as everyone treated Riley fairly, I could just suck it up and handle the other stuff.

This year though, this season with the track team, has been better. Part of making it better was really facing myself and admitting what was going on with my own attitudes as well as finally seriously considering that maybe it wasn't all in my own head, and actually talking about it with some trusted friends. That helped a lot; it took away some of the sting and helped me see which parts were my own personal insecurities. Maybe more importantly, though, it let me realize that despite my wishing to give other people the benefit of the doubt, my wanting to think I was just imagining some odd behaviors, there was some real prejudice going on there. And it wasn't my fault. It helped me a lot, because it also meant that it wasn't all in my head, and it wasn't all my junk to deal with; I could actually lay it aside as their issues to deal with. And being able to lay it aside made it more okay to just relax and be me, actually.
Leaping out.
 It's been an ongoing process, of course. Some of it was helped by getting to know some of the parents and coaches a bit better through just being around over time, and having them come to realize I was a real person, not just a caricature cut-out. And some of it was due to getting more involved through photography. If you ask enough people to pose for you they really start recognizing you. It can be pretty startling when it first happens. It also helped quite a lot when the shots I'd been taking were made available to the other adults and people were favorably impressed. It's been similar to the positive reaction from people when they find out I can actually draw, oddly enough. I believe it helps people see past their early preconceptions of you, to realize that you have interesting skills and are worthy of more respect than they might have accorded you otherwise.

Maybe that sounds unnecessarily harsh, but discrimination and bigotry based solely on appearance can be pretty insidious and overweight people get treated to a lot of it, usually unintentionally by people who've never had serious problems with weight themselves and thus are less tolerant or understanding. Overweight people get that attitude even from folks who wouldn't dream of being bigots, who pride themselves on their enlightened attitudes towards others who are different. But being weighty tends to bring with it a whole set of judgments about being lazy, slovenly, greedy, with the accompanying song and dance about how overweight people just need to exercise, diet, get control of themselves and show a little self-restraint, a little self respect... People who are intolerant of fatness can really surprise you, but they may have no common reference points and probably haven't had really serious struggles with it themselves and thus they really don't 'get' how anyone can allow themselves to be that way.

Of course it's never a comfortable subject to bring up, and certainly not one openly talked about or easily confronted, despite the fact that weight is one of the most common, pernicious and pervasive prejudices; discrimination based on size is openly practiced and tolerated in most every sphere of our society. Nobody wants to think that they're being cruel or insensitive, whether it's towards fat people or people of different ethnicity or disabilities or educational levels or what-have-you. I believe that everyone has biases and prejudices, while at the same time I also believe that most people mean well; they don't realize or really intend to be discriminatory, but they don't see their own faces when caught looking or really hear the way their words sound to the person they say them to. I realize that's contradictory, but I stubbornly hang onto the notion that people want to be basically good, even when from my own perspective they may be so far off kilter it's amazing they don't just fall right off the planet.

And of course there are ways to help everyone become more aware, but let's face it, everybody has busy lives and most people are pretty comfortable with where they are attitude-wise. Demanding that people face up to and admit their prejudices isn't generally popular except perhaps among people who work very diligently on being tolerant and unprejudiced, and I'm going to be blunt: they can also get self-congratulatory and be irritatingly holier-than-thou towards the rest of us uncultured slobs. Some of them are actually the worst offenders about overweight intolerance, when combined with their very conscientious efforts to eat only healthy, organic foods and get proper exercise and their intolerance for people who obviously don't manage to do all that.Yes, it's harsh of me to say that. Obviously the whole issue needs a better approach.
 It's always hard to be the odd person out. My way around it has always been to sidestep it by being relentlessly artistic, I guess. It may not be the best way to deal with it, but it's worked for me in a lot of situations where I was the outsider, the new kid, the big kid, the weird kid. Most people think being able to draw is cool, and I discovered early that if you show a new crowd early on that you can draw, then you're quickly accepted as 'the artist' and people lay off of you. Some people do it with their music, or their sense of style, or being good at a sport people can admire, or various other skills. Survival 101 for kids who move a lot: find your own unique thing you're good at in order to survive in a group. And god help you if you can't easily display an admirable skill or ability, because if you're weird or fat or ugly or just don't fit in you'll get teased and bullied. We've all been hearing lots of horror stories about bullying, and most all of us have been bullied in one way or another in our lives, usually as kids, because kids are cruel and pack-like and haven't learned to conceal what they really think as well as most adults.

But to get (very) belatedly back to my original train of thought, I think part of this shift in overall friendliness for me with the track team is due directly to Riley; he's settled in more and follows his coaches' directions better, he's been around a few years now and he's transitioning well from being one of the little, more rowdy kids to becoming one of the steadier, more reliable older kids. He likes striking up real conversations with his coaches, and he likes getting their advice on how to get better. If he sticks with it, he'll eventually become one of their team leaders, guiding the littler kids in how to do things. Which could only be a good thing for him, honestly. He's really coming into his own in the skills involved too, though; this season he's set a good number of new team records, especially in long jump and running, like the 200 and 400 meter races. That lanky, lean build of his is really good for a runner and jumper, and he is a motivated kid; he wants to run faster and jump further. He's a lucky kid in a lot of ways; he has cool abilities not only as a smart kid, a social kid, but also athletically. I know he and Casey get teased at school occasionally, but I also know they have the confidence that comes from being accepted in several ways by several different groups; it seems to give them not only self confidence but the ability to recognize group social dynamics and the skills to handle cruelty in order to defuse it or stand up for themselves and their friends. My hope of course, is that they'll extend their definition of friend to include others who are different, who may not have anyone to stand up for them, who need a strong person on their side.


  1. Sadly, it doesn't help things that our government seems to think it has the right to tell people what to eat or not eat, as if those "afflicted" with weight are not far too damned will aware that others judge by every mouthful we take. Sizism is not only the last *acceptable* prejudice, it is actively encouraged, under the guise of "health."

    I'm not saying that people mean to be nasty -- like you, I honestly feel that most people mean well, and don't even get how they sound. But when the government basically tells them it's okay to judge people by their size, I have serious fears.

  2. "My hope of course, is that they'll extend their definition of friend to include others who are different, who may not have anyone to stand up for them, who need a strong person on their side."

    Casey's got that one down solidly, I think.

  3. Heartfelt and on the mark. As always. Bravo. Weight, fat, appearance, sizeism - these are matters close to my heart (and stomach - and thighs...)

  4. Wow. Brilliantly articulated. You are always so insightful. I'm smarter just when I'm near you. Thanks for being you.