When you picture a basketball player, what do you see? Perhaps a lanky, lean muscled man, whose height puts him at the perfect level to dunk. What about a distance runner? Maybe it’s a toned, lightweight woman with quick, defined legs. Try a gymnast – stalky, powerful, strong. It’s common to assign a body type to an athlete, and an athlete to a body type, especially when you hear comments like, “You have the legs of a cyclist,” or, “those broad shoulders would make for a great swimmer.” But when sports are, by nature, so reliant on the body, it’s easy to define yourself by how you size up in comparison to what “the best” should theoretically look like.
Growing up, I was always moving. With a rock climber for a mother and a New England Wrestling Champion for a father, my parents passed on their love for all things outdoors and athletic. By the time I was 8, I had done gymnastics, tried ballet, loved to rock climb, learned to ski, played soccer, ran 5ks, and hiked nearly all the 4,000 footers. I was athletic, adventurous, and healthy.
It was at this time too, that I also noticed the size of my thighs. Years of sports and coming from two naturally mesomorphic ( ability to easily build muscle) parents, my thighs were muscular. Genetically, I put on muscle very easily, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when constantly climbing mountains and running around the soccer field grew me strong, defined legs – but to 8 year old me, they just looked big and I didn’t like them.
I grew up, and my insecurities grew with me. Going into freshman year of high school, I quit soccer and joined cross country. I loved the team and the sport. My work ethic and competitive drive propelled me into varsity races. I yearned for that Top 7 title, and the pride of being one of the fastest on the team. I was fixated on my goals and nothing would slow down my ambition – until I had a coach tell me that I, “didn’t look like the rest of the varsity girls.”
My coach wasn’t trying to be unkind, and neither was he wrong. The muscle in my thighs made them about twice the size of most of the varsity girls, and I was taller than most of them too, but the statement crushed me nonetheless. This state of mind, of feeling like you are literally not built to succeed, affects many athletes. “It can be hard when everyone else around you looks a certain way. If you lose your passion for the sport because of feeling insecure, it can hurt all aspects of the sport,” says Skylar Jones*, an ex gymnast of 13 years. This mindset can leave any kind of athlete, including myself, feeling defeated out of the starting gate.
Kyle Landrigan (‘19) is a varsity basketball player at ORHS and experienced the feeling himself as a freshman. “I was pretty intimidated by everyone around me. One, because I was younger than everyone else and two, because I wasn’t as developed as everyone else.” Landrigan describes his freshman self as a, “tall, skinny kid that didn’t really fit into his body yet.” He confesses that if he could put on 25 more pounds of muscle, he believes he could be playing at a higher level today, but his natural build has made this difficult. “I’ve tried different weight lifting programs, and eating right, eating a lot of protein and that just hasn’t worked for me. It’s just the way I’m built.”
When the idea that being successful equates to looking one way becomes overbearing, it can take the joy out of athletics. Jones reflects on her own experiences with this, “I hurt my back when I was 14 and was out of training for a while. I also hit puberty, grew, filled out, and gained weight. My teammates remained stick thin and super short which made many skills easier for them, and while even if that wasn’t the preconceived idea of a successful gymnast body, it was what was around me at the time, so it was really challenging not to compare myself to them.” For me, running with varsity had once been a triumphant nod at my athleticism and hard work. After I became brutally aware of my own body, it felt more like an opportunity for me to stick out like a sore thumb.
The result of this pressure ends up creating a mindset that is often more restraining than the body ever was. “I was discouraged and unmotivated because I felt like it was out of my control. I let it upset me when I could have worked with the body I had instead of wishing I hadn’t gone through puberty yet. It was definitely hard to watch them do strength skills that I could once do so effortlessly,” Jones finishes.
Katelyn Ohashi, 21, was an Olympic hopeful gymnast, winning the American Cup in 2013 after years of intensive childhood and adolescent training. As she rounded the corner of her teenage years and into her adult body, pressure about body image from fans and coaches came too. “I was told that it was embarrassing how big I’d become. I was compared to a bird that couldn’t fly,” Ohashi shared with The Players Tribune. With severe body image issues, as well as back and shoulder injuries, Ohashi dropped from the elite level to pursue gymnastics in a collegiate setting with hopes of finding happiness. She recently shared diary entries with the internet from her elite days, detailing the pressure behind athletes to look a certain way. “Ever since I made the team last year, I have felt pressure to live up to a certain standard, and fit the stereotypical body type of a gymnast… My coach believes that me messing up or falling is a result of me being too heavy.”
Even with bodies of all different shapes and sizes, it truly just comes down to how you define success. There may be such thing as the perfect gymnast but Ohashi recently went viral for her “perfect 10” floor routine and she’s not that cookie cutter gymnast. Success is success, no matter what body you reached it in and happiness and enjoyment in sports is not a “one size fits all.” I don’t look like the perfect runner, but that shouldn’t stop me from loving the process of putting in the miles, and rather only opens up more opportunities for newfound sports and passions to showcase what my body does really well. Jones adds, “I’m proud of my strong legs and they way I look. It’s definitely taken me time to feel confident in the body I have, but I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade the 13 years of gymnastics for skinny legs or a smaller jean size.”
“One of the reasons I stopped dancing was because it got so tiring thinking so hard about what I looked like. There’s just no time that you’re not thinking about what you look like, especially when there’s a big, room length mirror in front of you.” -Kelsey Wiles, former dancer of 6 years
“You don’t want to let down your team. It’s definitely mentally exhausting trying to stay away from food.” -Noah Strout, wrestler of 9 years
“I had always felt like I had bigger, stronger legs, and for me that was an insecurity because other girls didn’t have those kind of legs and I did.” -Julie Smith*, former gymnast of 13 years
In the past, allowing stereotyped body images to distort the way I saw myself prevented me from applauding my strengths. My “build” may limit me in some fields, while it helps excel me in others. Just because I am not one type of athlete, does not mean I am not another. I am able to work with the strengths my body has given me, whether that means in different sports, training styles, or game plans.“I discovered that I can play the game my way and still succeed,” affirms Landrigan.
It wasn’t until I was able to let go of my rooted ideas about what kind of body madea certain athlete successful that I was finally able to enjoy sports again. Try as I might, I will never be the lanky, slight runner that I see finishing in the Top 10 and on the cover of Runner’s World Magazine. The way I look or don’t look does not measure my athleticism, and it should never hinder my ability to celebrate my strengths. Landrigan concluded by saying: “You can’t always look one way so you have to make the best of it. I play to my strengths as being this long, lanky, tall kid that can defend the ball and there are some guys that are short and quick and they use that to their advantage. You have to take what you have a use it.”
Written by Grace Castonguay
Artwork by Madison Hoppler
*Names have been changed for anonymity purposes*