Body as Microcosm of Life by Gabrielle Kassel
I remember my middle school years: my body standing with a steady sixty-two pounds from fifth grade through eighth when my smallness stopped its market cuteness and morphed into concern; the caloric regiment began: two glasses of whole milk a day, a breakfast of peanut-buttered whole grain toast, and a hearty bowl of ice cream for dessert. My weight finally peaked to ninety pounds by my first year of high school and I had finally broken the five foot boundary I had been desperate to pass since my best friend had sprung to five foot six inches and grown breast-buds in fifth grade. Needless to say, the added, healthy, girth on my young body had been a long time coming.
Yet, my forever-smallness never hindered my athleticism. My ability to sneak and slither my way by past the defensive line in soccer had always been a plus, I had less weight to carry through the water during swim meat- often finishing first during the 50 yard free-style dash, and my genetic fast-twitch fiber muscle had never been a thing of coaches complaints. Being innately fast, I had always loved running and swimming; the mindlessness of the two activities led to a childish devotion for practicing the skill I was still growing into. I wasn’t the stuff of childhood prodigy and I certainly wasn’t the fastest kid in the grade, or the one able to do the most push-ups; but the things my smallness could accomplish with a little hard work and perseverance always impressed me. Resultantly, I worked with diligence to maintain and improve my skills.
From fifth grade on, I would accompany my father to the gym on the weekend for an hour.
When I first started going, I would use six machines in an hour, using each machine for a dedicated ten minute before wiping the girlish sweat of the equipment and moving to another cardiovascular machine. I used the stair master, the stationary cross-country runner, the treadmill, the elliptical, the urg, and the bike. I can still remember the eye-rolls of the elliptical moms as me, a child, moved from machine to machine, the way they would look over their shoulders concerned by the amount of energy I was expending on those machines.
Then, as being a swimmer became integral to my tweenish identity, I would write 120 lap workouts for myself to do. First I did these workouts in conjunction with my other cardio-work, begging my father to pick me up two hours after our arrival. But then I would conclude my school days with a swim: entering the local gym at six, after having been picked up from another long eighth-grade day, and not leaving again until seven thirty or eight at night. The more I worked out, the more I ate, but my body shape never changed substantially enough to stop my doctors questioning glances at the scale, the skinny-shaming glares of my friends mothers, or my forever-drooping clothes (I shopped at Gymboree until I was in seventh grade).
But that all changed with puberty: puberty was good to me. My body began to reveal the results of long hours in the gym, on the field, and on the trails (finally!). I became a three-season athlete: playing soccer, joining a varsity swim team, and running track. I used the weekends to practice the skills I had learned from my coach, and refused any semblance of an ‘off day’. Reflectively, I still would never call my love of my moving body an obsession, only a thing I did because it felt good. In high-school I continued my love of being physically active, making ‘athlete’ an integral part of my identity in a way that holds true today. My muscles shone tight beneath my skin, small but sturdy in their abilities. It was at this time that I began to see my size as a positive: the tautness of my stomach an initiator of compliments, the ripples of my arms obvious in photos posted on social media. However, I was always shocked that my increasing body mass and tone did not stop the negative and snarky comments coming from friends, peers, and elders about my body and what I chose to feed and do with it. Eat a burger. I bet you can eat whatever you want. you’re so damn small. Here, have another piece of cake. You look so young!
I continued to grow through my fist year of college: happily reaching 5 foot 4 inches by nineteen, and tipping the scale to 105 pounds. My first year of college I attended a division one university, and was unable to join a sporting team, so I renewed my love for the gym, going early each morning before class for two hours: combining a three mile run on the treadmill with an hour on the elliptical, followed by a light weight-lifting session. I began training for a series of 5k races to do the following summer when I was home in Connecticut. By the end of that Summer I could comfortable run five miles at a time and signed up for a 15k (a nine mile race) for that August.
By the time I started my sophomore year at a new school, I was in the best long-distance running shape I had ever been in. So when a friend dragged me to a rugby practice the first week, I didn’t object. The practice I happened to attend was a no-contact day (for those of you who don’t know rugby: it is a high contact sport, similar to football except without pads). The day was filled with three sprint workouts, drills that I love and succeeded at, finishing as one of the top three for every event. So I came back the next day, and the next. And now I use my athleticism to play rugby. I phrase it in that way because there is great gut and glory in claiming oneself as a rugby player, a phrase I haven’t yet fully claimed.
Joining rugby has shown me that my (small) body is capable of more than I thought was possible. Since that first practice I have run in the Maine Marathon, run a series of half-marathons, and have become a serious weight-lifter. Rugby is the most body-positive sport and community that I have ever been a part of. On the field there is room for strong players, players who carry more mass, players who are squat or thick, players who are short or tall, players who are fast or overweight, players just coming into their athleticism, players who proudly wear the identity of an athlete. The brilliance of rugby is that there isn’t one recognized or expected ‘body-type’; for a team to be successful, it needs a variety of different shapes and strengths on the field for each of the fifteen different positions.
This summer marks the season before my last competitive rugby season this upcoming fall. Having found an amazing gym-buddy, fitness facility, and amazing trails/paths/sidewalks in Portland, my summer has shaped up to be one of great physical activity. I run to work with my roommate, sell fitness clothes all day at the retail store (Title 9) I work for, and then spend the evening exploring the outdoors or enjoying a gym session. I began learning the in’s and out’s of weight lifting with seriousness and love this past November, and have continued to practice this love this Summer. I have become increasingly comfortable with taking up space in the weight-room, despite being typically, the only girl there. I now weigh over 130 pounds: pure muscle with only 13% of body fat on me. I never thought this body and muscularity would be possible on my frame; I thought I was always condemned to, what felt like to me, fragility.
The journey of my body has become a microcosm for how I live the rest of my live: I don’t let people tell me I can’t do something because of where I am now, because of how far off the destination seems, because of how impossible my goals may seem at the time. I refuse to be discouraged by supposed obstacles or setbacks. I refuse to be hurt or discouraged by the snarky comments from other girls: you’re legs are so thick. You’re look too strong. Muscles on girls aren’t sexy. Like my goal in the weight room: five pounds at a time, or my goal on a run: one foot in front of the other. I have learned that I can do anything I put my whole self into: mind, body, and soul, as long as I am patient with how long those results take to come.
My journey is that of an able-bodied, able-minded person, my journey unmarked by the physical or mental limitation or navigation. I share my journey of coming into my body, because as a skinny-child who has become a strong-adult, there were never stories about my kind of transformation. The media favored the story of the celebrity gaining weight, painting the weight increase only as a negative. And reality television favorite the transformation of the obese adult into that of a healthy, fit one. There is a lack of representation of women on the running trail, at the marathon cross line, in the weight room, in the squat cage, or in the pool. There is lack of representation of women flexing their biceps or showing off their calf-muscles. It is my hope that as I continue coming into and growing into my body, I will see more muscular women’s stories and bodies being told, heard, and celebrated. I hope only to contribute my story as one example of what a body and life can be with hard work, dedication, and attentiveness.