Run hard, you little girls: thoughts on being an athletic mother

Photo credit: The Beautiful Struggler

The title is a nod to the zine by Celia Perez entitled “Skate Tough You Little Girls.”

One of the best things about racing is how it draws runners from all different age groups.  It’s not unusual to see people in their 70s running alongside grade-schoolers.  Our society is one that tends to be pretty age-segregated, and it can be nice to have that opportunity to mingle with people of all ages who are not related to you.

I’ll admit, though – I get particularly excited when I see little girls at road races.  Take this girl we saw last weekend.  After the race, we saw her sitting with her mother and her grandmother on a bench, fiddling with the little timing card they handed out in the finisher’s chute. I’ve seen too many people toss those things out, so I walked up and explained that they should fill that out with her name, time and age so she’d be eligible for an age group award.

“Her time?  How do I get that?” the mother asked.

“They have it up on that digital sign at the finish line,” Brian said.

“Oh, she saw that!  Honey, what was your finish time?”

The girl, who was all of maybe eight or nine years old, looked at us and said, “I ran it in about 23 minutes.”

Brian and I looked at each other.  “Okay, she needs to fill that out right now, because there’s no way she didn’t win an age group award,” I said.

The mom took her daughter’s hand, and they hurried off to the table.  But before they left, we told the girl congratulations and that we hoped to see her at future races.

As we watched her walk away, her ponytail swishing against her pink running top, I told Brian, “I totally want to steal that girl and make her our daughter.”

I was joking, of course, but the truth is, I would be elated to have a daughter who not only wants to play sports when she’s old enough to do so, but is willing to push herself hard enough to be good at it.  I see a girl like that and I think, she’s a fighter, she’ll make it just fine through this world.

Granted, I understand that not everyone wants to be an athlete.  I know I didn’t when I was younger.  I just wanted to be left alone with my books, and I signed up for youth sports leagues only because that was what people in my family did.  So if my future children would rather draw or write poetry or play music or take dance lessons, I would also be totally happy with that.  The only thing I ask is that, whatever they choose to do, they be willing to try hard at it.  (I know that sounds very Tiger Mother of me, but something I wish I’d learned when I was younger was that a lot of things don’t become fun until you are good at them, and you don’t become good at something without hard work.)

But I suspect that any child raised in our household will pick up on the unabashed love we have for sports, athletics and competition.  They’ll grow up watching me cheer on Brian at triathlons, and they’ll sit on his shoulders while they watch me cross finish lines of half-marathons.  They’ll be used to see the world pass from the comfort of a jogging stroller. Our finisher’s medals will probably be appropriated for playtime, and they’ll be as used to seeing us in running clothes as in our pajamas.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, ever since I decided that I wanted to have children.  It’s a huge responsibility, one I think I’m ready to shoulder, even if it scares me half to death.  Those children are going to bear more than half my genetic code.  They are going to be the products of my attitudes towards myself, towards other people, towards life.  They will pick up on everything I do, both the things I do on purpose and the things I do without thinking.  Whatever I struggle with could be a struggle for them as well.

This post entitled “Vicious cycles: mothers, daughters, eating disorders” talks a bit about this:

So for those of us who want to have children one day, positive body image isn’t just about our own well-being, it’s about the next generation as well. It’s about making sure that our daughters, should we ever have daughters, don’t repeat our painful mistakes. It’s about remembering that our relationships with our bodies are inextricably tangled up with our most intimate emotional relationships. Eating disorders and poor body image are cyclical, and they are vicious. The solution, then, is to do everything we can to break the cycle ourselves, so that our daughters don’t have to relive it.

I read things like this, and I read first-hand accounts of women and girls who were deeply influenced by their mothers’ dysfunctional relationships with their bodies, and I think that maybe I’m doing more than just helping myself when I indulge my passion for running.  I hope that maybe I’m setting an example for my future daughters. I hope they will look at their mom and see a woman who enjoys her body and who treats it well, who doesn’t see it as a burden or a source of despair or a reason to hate herself.

I know that my future daughters will be inundated from all sides with conflicting messages about their bodies and their minds and their sexuality and what it means to be a woman in a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with women.  Quite frankly, I have only the vaguest idea of how to deal with all of that.  It’s all rather overwhelming and complicated, and it can all go terribly, horribly wrong.

But one thing I do believe is that, if my daughters understand that they can do things – difficult, challenging things – they will be better equipped to resist to the onslaught of nonsense telling them that they should look and act like church-going porn stars because they know their worth will be something that is inherent to them, and not something that is bestowed upon by the outside world.

I know this isn’t failsafe. (But then is anything ever really?)  I know that playing sports and being an athlete is not an inoculation against eating disorders (as Lize Brittin writes about in her blog Training on Empty). Nor does it mean a girl is guaranteed self-esteem issues, anxiety, self-doubt, abusive relationships or substance abuse (all things that have dogged me in my short life).  If solving these problems were as simple as handing a soccer ball and a pair of cleats to every girl and woman in the world, I’m sure we would have done that by now.

But just because something isn’t perfectly effective does not mean we shouldn’t bother.  The world is a hard, indifferent place, and if you want to thrive, you’ve got to have a bit of steel in your heart.  Is there any better place to forge that bit of steel than on the playing field or the race track?  At least that way, you can have some fun while you’re doing it too.

6 responses to “Run hard, you little girls: thoughts on being an athletic mother

  1. I love your blog, but I think this take on girls and running is a little rosy-eyed, even with your caveats at the end. Running can teach people tons of valuable life lessons, but most of those life lessons tend to remain elusive until adulthood. When it comes to teenage girls, the main takeaway lesson that running imparts is that–just as with gymnastics, ballet, figure skating, swimming, and plenty of other sports–is that weighing less tends to correlate with better performance. (Not to mention how much even healthy runners have to focus on what they eat–how to best fuel their running and how to avoid upset stomachs.) And that’s a dangerous lesson to give to teenage girls even under the best of circumstances, even when she has healthy parents and coaches and a relatively non-competitive environment. It’s an even scarier lesson to give a teenage girl if she doesn’t have those safeguards in place.

    I ran cross-country in high school, and I’d have to estimate that at least half my teammates openly displayed signs of significantly disordered eating (and given that cross-country is a sport that tends to attract loners, I have to imagine that even more of them were engaging in the same habits in private). And this was on a team that wasn’t remotely competitive, with an extremely supportive and down-to-earth coach who never commented on bodies (you weren’t allowed to practice if she found out you hadn’t been eating enough to fuel you through it), in a place where there was a greater tolerance for a female body that wasn’t stick-thin (Wisconsin). I can only imagine what things would have been like on a more competitive team, with a more intense coach, or in a more thinness-focused environment. And the statistics bear this out: yes, competing in sports in high school and college teaches you how to be strong, how to see your body as something that can do things rather than just look pretty–but it also vastly increases your chances of developing an eating disorder, especially in the thinness-obsessed sports like running or diving or gymnastics. Because many intelligent young women don’t buy into (or don’t want to buy into) the idea that you should be thin because it looks better–but once you give them a “legitimate” reason to focus on thinness, in this case that it will make them a better runner, a higher achiever, that those achievements will make them more likely to get into college, etc–they head down that rabbit hole too.

    I’m not trying to be too negative about running here; it’s done many great things for my body image and self-esteem as well. (My general take on running is similar to Homer Simpson’s views on alcohol and life’s problems–running has been both the cause of, and solution to, most of my food issues.) I just think it’s dangerous to view running as something that will decrease your daughters’ chances of developing eating disorders when statistically speaking it generally does the exact opposite. I’ve always thought it was interesting that lot of parents who would never want their kids involved in activities like gymnastics, figure-skating or cheer-leading because of the dangerous body ideals they push are totally complacent or even enthusiastic about getting their kids involved in running, despite the fact that the body ideal is roughly the same (or even thinner!).

    • Thanks for the comment! You know, I didn’t ever run competitively in high school, so I don’t know much about the tendencies towards women who run and disordered eating. However, I was reading the latest issue of Women’s Running last night and they addressed this very issue (and the blog I linked to at the end, Training on Empty, is written by a former competitive runner who also battled an eating disorder). Your comment coupled with that gives me a perspective i obviously don’t have, although I can see how that can happen. I wrote a few months ago about pursuing weight loss with the goal of becoming a faster runner, and I see how it can very easily become a slippery slope, where you are like “it’s okay that I’m losing weight because I’m doing it to be an ATHLETE” as opposed to losing weight for “shallow” reasons, like wanting to be thin.

      Do you mind if I post your comment as a post so that people who read this on an RSS reader can see it? I think it’s interesting and definitely provides a counterpoint to my admittedly rosy view of running. Running has changed my life in so many positive ways, but it’s important to remember that not everyone has this experience.

  2. I was never an athletic kid, mostly because I was deathly afraid of competition. When my daughter was really young, she was shy and I assumed she would follow in my sport-snubbing footsteps.
    Instead, she decided to take up hockey last year. I figured she became interested since her dad is a hockey lover and she wants to be a goalie like him.
    So somehow I was still blown away when she told me she wanted to join the cross country team at school this year! She’s only 7, and apparently this is one of the few clubs open to grade 2’s. She and I have started “training” together, and she totally blew me away by running over a kilometre with me.
    She’s not the fastest, or strongest by any means, but I can already see the confidence in herself soar when she acheives something with the power of her own body and mind.
    If cross country goes well, maybe I’ll have to sign her up for a run like the girl you mention! I can only imagine how proud she (and I) would feel finishing something like that.

    BTW, really enjoying your blog since i followed from your Jezebel mention.

    • Oh my goodness, your little girl sounds awesome. I love that she’s already learning to embrace the awesome things her body can do at such a young age! I was also pretty afraid of competition when I was younger (and more specifically, of pain and getting hurt), and it would have never occurred to me to play hockey or try cross-country or anything when I was that age. She’s lucky to have parents who are supportive of her. 🙂

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