[This piece was performed for an audience attending Nikki Nigl’s event on Body Image: Taking Away Judgment on August 5, 2015. If you are in the Chicagoland area, I highly suggest checking out these events and signing up to speak at one. You don’t have to be a professional performer, storyteller, writer, or speaker in order to so and it is an incredible experience.]
My first large scale experience with seeing all kinds of different naked female bodies happened at Big Bend National Park, before I hit puberty. My mom and I desperately wanted a shower after a long day of hiking in the Texas sun. We found out that the showers were powered by quarters and you received about 30 seconds of very cold water in order to do your business. Apparently, every other woman and girl child at the campsite had the same idea as us and the place was packed wall to wall. At that age, I was already accustomed to changing in front of my female relatives as we often used one room to prepare for weddings, before and after swimming and such. My tias and my mom’s favorite saying so that the younger girls weren’t shy about changing was, “Nothing we haven’t seen before!”
But this was different. The abundance of so many different body types from toddlers to crones with all different shades of color, from flat chests to post-birth breasts, from thigh gaps to large muscular quads, from bald to full bushes of pubic hair was overwhelming at first. Added to that was the cacophony of women talking to each other, squealing as the cold water hitting them, and all of the sounds reverberating off of the metal showers. My mother and I were in it to win it and there was no need for shyness or modesty in this setting. We joined all of the other ladies in nakedness and waited in line for our 30 seconds of shower time. It was a fantastic bonding moment and one of my favorite memories from camping and being with my mother. Being exposed to such casual nakedness in this very comfortable setting set me up to be very confident with my own naked body to this day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate to times when I’m wearing clothes.
Puberty hit me hard. I had abundant pimples, curly hair that I had no idea how to tame, and breasts that grew from nothing to B cups over the course of what felt like one month. I was the second girl in my fifth grade class to get her period and was very quickly ushered into early womanhood at the speed of light. It was disconcerting to say the least.
And I began to become very well acquainted with shame about my body and desires.
I was VERY excited about getting a period and becoming a woman. When I finally got it, I was in so much pain that I rolled over in bed and puked up my entire breakfast of Lucky Charms all over my piano music books that were on the floor next to my bed. I writhed and groaned in pain all day while one of my crueler aunts thought it would be funny to laugh at me and say, “See. See what you get for wanting that so badly? Now you really know what it’s like to be a woman.”
A boy in my fifth grade class thought it would be funny to tell everyone very loudly that I stuffed my bra as if I could help the situation that was happening to the front of my body. He didn’t think it was funny when I slapped him across the face for saying that about me, but it also didn’t keep him from repeating it from time to time, just to amuse himself.
I lost all of my female friends because of a rumor that I was gay, started by a girl who would know because she was the one who wanted to experiment with me. Apparently, the gay label didn’t apply to her even though she was the other party privy to that “dirty” knowledge about me.
NO ONE wanted to admit they masturbated, even though I’m pretty sure we were all doing it furiously in our bedrooms or bathrooms or where ever we could. You were teased mercilessly for ANY sign of sexual desire, even though I’m sure everyone was wrestling with their own demons.
Shame was definitely the name of the game.
By the time I went high school, I was fully defensive about everything about myself, as teenagers do. It didn’t help that I also started to gain weight pretty rapidly without the rigor of daily PE and recess. My extremely painful periods made sure that I never got perfect attendance again and I became familiar with monthly projectile vomiting. My Catholic school girl uniform was scratchy and uncomfortable. I learned quickly that button-down shirts have a hard time properly covering up my increasingly-growing bosom. It felt like my body was constantly railing against any modicum of modesty. My skirts often felt tight around my waist. The only thing that seemed to work for me were knee-high socks, because luckily I was genetically blessed with pretty fantastic legs. This was probably my only saving grace.
My other saving grace was that the school was an all-girls institution. We didn’t have the pressure of boys nearby everyday to dictate how we looked or how we thought we should treat each other. That shit was lax.
The look of most days was no makeup, messy ponytails, and food-stained uniforms. We really didn’t care. Even better, there was less policing about people’s sexuality. My close group of friends all confessed to each other that we masturbated and there was a giant collective sigh of relief. Sexaulity was more of a curiousity and we were all learning things about ourselves without adding to the shame we had previously collected. As one dear friend and classmate once joked to me, “When you leave this school, you are either gay or very confused.”
It was a relief to not care about what boys thought of my body. My fellow classmates and I were able to focus our attention on more important things like becoming vegetarians and campaigning for human rights. My school emphasized that our brains and hearts mattered more than what we looked like. Not to mention that the curriculum was extremely rigorous, which didn’t leave a ton of time outside of studying. We were, after all, preparing ourselves for college and our careers beyond that.
Additionally, my progressive friends and I experimented on our body images. Together we grew out our armpit and leg hair. We tried not wearing bras. We got acquainted with our periods and exchanged tips on anything from masturbation techniques to pubic hair trimming to homeopathic remedies for cramps and mood swings. We hung out with other activists who were exploring ideas like female ejaculation, chakras, and radical sexualities. We opened up the world and stepped over the threshold together.
I moved to Chicago and almost immediately lost 15 pounds just from wandering around and exploring the city. I knew almost no one before moving here from Texas and I couldn’t have been happier. I was finally on my own, allowed to blaze a path for myself without the pressures of nearby family or the expectations of my peers. Once I started making friends, I loved to eat, and drink, and smoke weed with them. I was spending the other part of my time sleeping and studying. I started to gain some of that weight back and then some. A friend of mine tried to talk me into hitting the gym, which we did exactly once a year.
I got up to almost 200 pounds, which is a lot on a 5 foot 6 frame, and the heaviest I have ever been. But all of that shameless expression of sexuality from high school stayed with me. I was too busy having sex with everyone that I wanted to, that I wasn’t worrying about it. I had too many enthusiastic lovers to ever make me feel like I was less than because of my weight or my armpit hair. I’ve kept that notion with me to this day. Even though I was at my heaviest, people were very attracted to me. Although, as I have gotten older, I want to make sure that my confidence in myself and my body isn’t too heavily reliant on what other people think of me.
Once I left college, I moved to a different part of Chicago with a gal that I met through a online roommate site. She was in the middle of training for a triathlon and I quickly began to picked up her eating and exercising habits. Additionally, she introduced me to the joy and perils of riding a bike through the city. I bought my first Schwinn Cruiser at a thrift store for $13, got her a basket, and named her STELLA! I lost about 50 pounds then. I was finally at my “ideal” weight, but I was also hungry all of the fucking time. Given my penchant for downing PBRs and shacking up with alcoholic bike messengers, my diet at that time wasn’t quite sustainable.
While riding around with the aforementioned bike messengers, I find myself drunk at 1am on a Saturday night waiting outside of a liquor store for my friends to buy beer for a party that we are going to crash. This girl came running out of a nearby bar to her friend standing near me on the sidewalk and said breathlessly, “Someone is starting a roller derby league.” Before I knew what I was doing, I grabbed the girl’s arm and said, “What! What are you talking about?!” She showed me this flyer clutched in her hand and it said “Hey ladies! Want to rock and roll? We’re starting a roller derby league in Chicago. If you’re interested, please call Elizabeth at this number.”
Hastily, this stranger and I dialed someone’s cell phone and as soon as “Elizabeth” answered, we screeched into her ear, “WE WANT TO BE ROLLER DERBY GIRLS!!!” Elizabeth calmly answered with, “That’s great. Why don’t you take down my number and call me in the morning?”
At about 1pm the next day , through the haze of a severe hangover, I saw the name “Elizabeth Roller Derby” in my phone. I took a chance and dialed the number with only a vague recollection of the previous evening’s debauchery. Happily, Elizabeth answered and was super cool. She explained that we will be meeting at her house to discuss next steps and at the end of our call she asked me, “Have you thought of what you might call yourself? You know, a derby moniker?” And I said, without thinking twice, “Anita Applebomb. It’s what my friends call me.” Later, she told me in that moment that she knew we were going to be best of friends for rest of our lives. We now call each other, in all sincerity, sisters.
We started small. We watched the Texas Rollergirls’, who were the mothers of the new movement, so to speak, and we tried to make sense of it all. We got to know each other and we started chatting up other women everywhere we went. We picked women who looked tough, women who looked cool, or just women who looked interesting. We shoved flyers in their hands and said, “You should join us.” Most importantly, we start skating all of the time, carpooling to rinks in the ‘burbs and getting to know each other on the way and creating bonds that have lasted for many more years to come.
We created teams like The Fury, The Manic Attackers, The Double Crossers and The Hells Belles. We did boot camps together (very often hungover). This was the most physically demanding thing I have ever put my body through. As some of the ladies say, “Derby is the best and worst thing I’ve done to my body.”
Derby is also the best thing I have ever done for my self-confidence. Some say the sport is 40% physical and 60% mental. It is a full-contact sport in many terms. It is the strength of your mind and body that matters. Being a “big girl” has its advantages as well as being small and quick.
After 5 years of championships, playing other leagues, and making it onto the All-Stars team, my mom turned to me and said, “I know now why people are always complimenting you. You wear your shoulders back and your head held high.”
If there are two things you leave with tonight, may it be this:
Ditch the fucking shame, whether it be your friends or your environment. And lastly, if you are champion doing what you love and having fun, no one can take that away from you.