I was one of the thousands of young girls riveted to my parents’ television set as Mary Lou Retton vaulted into the record books. Not much later, I was precariously tip toeing across a balance beam myself, determined to be the next gymnast on a Wheaties box. Spoiler alert: that did not happen. I did, however, remain in the sport for the majority of the next 20 years, including competing for my high school team and then coaching girls and boys from 18 months to 18 years (including a competitive team).
I love the sport for so many reasons: its beauty, its strength, its focus on the individual and the team, and its high flying joy. But, the sport has many detractors. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and one of our local newpaper columnists wrote a book calledLittle Girls in Pretty Boxesabout the hardships and pitfalls found in gymnastics and figure skating: injuries, eating disorders, emotional abuse among them. I read it cover to cover and found multiple factual errors, conflicting statments and then, encouraged by my father, wrote her a seven page letter listing all the problems I found along with my heartfelt feelings on the sport. I received a very nice letter back.
I know that our female culture has long been affected by body image issues, and athletes, especially those in sports that require a certain body type to excel, may be more susceptible than others. I worked with young girls who faced those body struggles, who didn’t like what they saw in the mirror, who fought with demons and it broke my heart. It took them time and hard emotional work to see the beauty and strength in their body, no matter what form it took. As a coach and as a woman, it was my duty to help them feel confident, to feel safe, to feel worth. And I am proud of that.
So, as the Olympics are upon us, little girls everywhere will tune in to see the likes of Jordyn Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas flip across a beam and tumble explosively through the air. They will watch swimmers, divers and track stars with little to no body fat compete on the biggest stage. Will girls see the tenacity, the dedication, and the passion on the world’s largest athletic stage? Or will they see bodies they might never have? I imagine there wil be plenty of both.
If I had a child old enough to understand, I would let her watch in the hopes that she would be inspired to be great in whatever talent he/she possesses. I would be prepared to talk about the sacrifice it takes to be at the top, and the love of what you do. My son isn’t old enough for me to teach him that during this Olympiad, but I hope one day to be able to do so. In the meantime, I ask of you, will you be watching? Are you worried that the athletes might inspire unhealthy views? Or do you think the inspiration transcends body image?
Elizabeth is an attorney by day, entertainment blogger by night, and a new mom to an impossibly cute son. When she’s not fending off the paparazzi who think she’s Tina Fey, she enjoys sleep, wine, exercises in elaborate procrastination, invoking her acerbic wit, and using words like acerbic. She’s written for the entertainment sites SqueeTV, Xfinity, and Snakkle, and her posts have been featured on the Huffington Post, Wet Paint, Good Morning America, and (it is rumored) her parents’ fridge. Elizabeth can be found working on her night cheese in Chicago where she lives with her husband, baby, and two beautiful DVRs. You can follow Elizabeth on twitter.
Image Courtesy of WSENetwork