Belonging & the body and how kickball fits in

I was biking the other day, and I started wondering why I like biking but not a lot of other forms of exercise. As I thought about it more, I realized that it’s because when I’m biking on trails, I don’t feel judged. Well, I sometimes feel judged, but I can shake it off because I am on the move, and the people that could be judging me will move on and forget about me soon enough. Contrast that with a gym, where people spend half an hour on a single machine, allowing their judgments of other people to steep and grow. And yes, most people probably aren’t as judgmental as I’m imagining. But there’s definitely a feeling that if you don’t know what you’re doing or aren’t performing well enough, you don’t belong there. And if this is my experience as an able-bodied, fairly thin person, you know it’s a whole lot worse for disabled or fat people.

But this post isn’t about society’s narrow body standards. Let me tell you a story. The summer before I moved to the US permanently at the age of 9, I went to a camp. And we had the option of choosing extra fun activities to do along with the regularly scheduled events. Guess which ones I chose? Not crafts, or something else like that. I chose an adventure-y type thing (I think we went hiking?) and “super sports.” Did you hear that? I voluntarily chose to do sports when there was an option to do crafts. I sometimes wonder if that girl is really the same person as me. And I think the shift happened when we moved to the States.

I distinctly remember the first time I ever played kickball. We were at a church picnic, and people were getting ready to play this game that I didn’t know the rules to. “It’s okay,” they said, “you’ll get the hang of it.” When I went up to kick the ball, it flew in the air and was caught by someone. I tried running to the base (remember, I didn’t know the rules), and everyone was saying that I was out. I was upset because I didn’t know what I had done wrong, just that I looked like a fool. To this day, I still hate kickball. But I think the real disconnect happened in the gym classes at my first experience of public school. I don’t know if I was bad at sports or just not as competitive as some people, but school sports became a new source of insecurity for me. And how could they not? You get two team captains who choose people to be on their teams. Your sense of belonging with the group is linked to how early you’re chosen, and that is (almost always) directly tied to how well you play. This puts a lot of pressure on a girl who had just come from living in another country and desperately wanted to belong with her new peers. And because I wasn’t great at sports, I started to strongly dislike them and really lean into the things I was good at: academics. And while I’m really glad that I love school and learning, the sad part is that I left my body behind.

What I’m working on now is belonging with myself.

I’ve been thinking about embodiment a lot lately. *Cue this beautiful cover by my amazingly talented friend that will serve as my recommended listening for the rest of this post* This is mostly due to the media I’ve been consuming (thanks millenneagram podcast and Jamie Lee Finch). I think for a long time, I ascribed to the dualistic idea that the mind and spirit are better than the body. But that’s false! We are bodies with a mind and spirit, and all are connected to each other and valuable. When I take care of my body, I am taking care of my mind and spirit. I love how Jamie Lee Finch talks about her body as if it’s its own person. I’ve started doing this thing when I’m struggling to bike up one of my “Three Big Hills”, I encourage myself by saying, “Look at how great my body is doing. I am so proud of her.” I’m also trying to incorporate more practices of mindfulness into my day, to really feel what it means to inhabit this body instead of just thinking about what my body is doing. This is still a recent change for me, and I want to do more (start taking barre or dance classes regularly). I actually was planning to write and publish this after I had taken more concrete steps toward this. But I think there’s something beautiful about being seen in the process. Plus, now you all can hold me accountable. Maybe what I need is not to do exercise that makes me feel more comfortable (i.e. female-dominated spaces like barre and dance), but to actually face the insecurity of gyms. What if I started weightlifting? It could be interesting.

Before, I felt insecure in my body, because I was painfully aware of how I couldn’t make it perform well enough to belong in certain contexts. But what I am working on now is belonging with myself. I don’t need to be afraid of other people judging me, because what matters is that I am taking care of the body that I have. Everyone’s on a different journey, and judging each other without knowing our contexts is just pointless. I have more compassion for myself, and I feel like loving my body actively is a beautiful expression of self-love that I’ve been ignoring too long. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I had this self-realization while taking care of my body. So I’m going to continue loving her. For me, that’s making practices of exercise and mindfulness. For others, it might be eating healthy or even just being aware of what you’re eating. It could mean going to therapy or taking a medication. It might be drinking more water and sleeping more. It could be getting a massage (also something I want to do) or even a mani/pedi. It might mean spending more time in nature and less time watching TV (yikes, I’m really dragging myself now). We are embodied people, and that’s not something to resent. It’s something to treasure.

My body got me to the top of Table Mountain, and I’m so proud of her.

I love my sister. Actually I adore her. And I could go on and on about how much I love her, but that’s not really relevant to my blog. What is relevant to my blog is this picture (along with all of her other numerous pictures that I’ve used as inspiration): 


What I love about this picture is that it shows how artistic it is. Not only is it a great photo with awesome composition and a cool angle and all that jazz, but it also shows her love of color. We had an ugly bookshelf, and she decided to get this teal paint and sand and paint the bookshelf. It was a lot of hard, smelly work; I know because I helped her with it. I have already said I’m not an artist, but my sister is. And that’s awesome, even if the job prospects aren’t that high. 

But I hate how little we, as a society, recognize certain achievements. On Friday, I was having a conversation with some friends of mine. We’re theatre/choir kids, and we were really excited about the fall play that was going up that night. And we were a little upset that we were having a ten minute pep rally to get hyped up for the last football game of the season (which most people were sure we were going to lose anyway) but that there was barely anything about the play. People had only three opportunities to see this fabulous play, and the school decided to talk about the last home game of the season. Yes, I know that the “true spirited student” would be able to go to the football game on Friday and see the show the next day. But the reason this annoyed us is because it’s not an isolated incident.

After pretty much every varsity sports game, all of the information is relayed to us through the morning announcements. And I get that the sports teams have people, and that it’s great to recognize them. I have some good friends on those teams, and it’s nice to celebrate in their accomplishments with them. But tell me, why did next to no one hear about the girl who did really well at the International Space Olympics in Russia? No biggie, right? Because we totally have students go to Russia all the time (note the facetious tone here). But no. Because we live in a society that prizes brawn and beauty over brains and creativity.

In our discussion, another big thing was creativity and sexuality, especially for guys. Guys are expected to be big and muscular, filling the protecting roles that society has handed them for so long. Guys aren’t supposed to be artistic. That’s for women. Women are the ones who are supposed to make things (including themselves) look pretty; men are just supposed to run fast or put things together (another friend of mine wrote a post on her experience as an engineer and the gender roles associated with that). Maybe that was acceptable in the stone ages, but we have moved past that. Or at least, we’ve tried. And it’s a shame that just because a guy loves to sing and act, or draw, or play the flute, that he might be deemed as not masculine enough. Don’t even get me started on male ballet dancers (they need just as much strength as any athlete, not to mention ten times more flexibility and expression on top of that). It really is a shame.

Guys are supposed to be strong. Girls are supposed to be pretty. We probably want at least one smart person so that we don’t go back to the stone ages or kill each other. And life wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if we didn’t have music or art or drama. You know. It might be just a little nice (there’s that facetiousness again).

And I come back to my sister. I really appreciate her. And I understand that she may not go into a career that’s specifically artistic (which, as I said before, is totally understandable), but I appreciate that she does what she loves. Just last night, she said, “Maybe since the play is over, I can do more artsy stuff. Or I can sleep.” And there may not be a lot of obvious opposition, but the majority of the world certainly doesn’t give her as much appreciation and encouragement as she deserves. That’s really what it comes down to. There will always be that small pocket of people that completely support your intellectual or artsy side. And aside from the gender roles that society tries to force on us, there aren’t many who go out intentionally trying to bring us down. But we still live in that society that glorifies the transient physical side of ourselves instead of the deeper parts of our being that are just longing to escape into the world and make a real impact.

But my sister still has her teal bookshelf, daily evidence of a part of her life that she loves and isn’t afraid to indulge, even if it means getting less sleep and motivation from society that leaves much to be desired.

We All Need Our Teal Bookshelves