In 12th grade physics class, the guy who sat behind me told me he’d never date me because I was too nice. He was drawn to artistic and dramatic types. Edgier. This was all fine with me; I wasn’t attracted to him either.
Decades later, we’re good friends. He and I can look back on physics class with more awareness and insight. We see things we couldn’t have articulated in the moment. The other day, he said, “Ellie, what I meant when I said that is you didn’t flirt. You had boundaries.”
I had thought “too nice” meant I was not enough of a challenge for him, that he liked the chase. That wasn’t quite it, it was more that I was a challenge. In high school, I vaguely sensed that I was on the outside of some game that was happening, but I was too busy enjoying my life to worry much about it. I sensed the game had a power dynamic and hurt some of my girlfriends. Now I can see how my boundaries came from a grounded sense of self that helped keep my body safe over the years. Sports was one major influence, where I came into knowing my body is my own.
I started gymnastics when I was four, loved it right away, and was competing by age seven. I won the state meet when I was nine. I loved softball and tennis as soon as I tried them too. I loved running, jumping, throwing, flipping, and serving. I loved sweating and training. I loved setting goals and achieving them. I loved being active, strong, flexible, graceful, and powerful.
By the time my body and thoughts became sexually aware, I knew in my bones that my body was mine. I knew in my gut that I was the subject of my life, not an object in someone else’s. I knew freedom and agency in my body. I could twist and flip. I could swing and vault. I could fly. So, as we developed, when the male gaze began bearing down on us budding girls, I barely noticed. Women are taught in subtle and not so subtle ways that our bodies exist for the pleasure and consumption of men. By the time I became aware of that message, I was busy training for national gymnastics meets and regional softball tournaments. I had belonged on teams that needed me and wanted me, risking, and working toward goals together for years. My body had a purpose of its own. When society tried to teach me that my body’s value is tied up in the affection of men, I just didn’t buy it. I wasn’t interested in what they were selling.
When I replay sports moments in my mind, I still feel them in my body. Landing a new tumbling pass for the first time. Knowing I threw a perfect curveball as soon as it left my hand. Ending a match with an overhead slam. Sticking a beam routine when it counted the most for me and my team. No one can ever take those moments away from me. I created them in my body. The moments continued into adulthood. Finishing a marathon. Summiting a mountain. Holding a yoga arm balance. Society keeps inviting me to play small, and I don’t comply. Society tells me I am fragile and helpless, that my body is depreciating in value as I age. I get moving and my body proves this all wrong. When life gets tough, I trust myself. I live out of my body.
Gender equity in sports matters. It did 50 years ago when Title IX was passed, and it does today, here, and all over the world. When done well, girls’ sports are an antidote to the voice telling girls to live small and exist to please others. When done well, girls’ sports invites girls to claim their bodies and their power, to be the main character of their own story. I am endlessly grateful, and there is still work to be done.