By the time I hit my teens, exercise was about what was wrong with my body, not about how I felt doing it. Gone was the joy of gliding through water, or the satisfying thunk of catching a ball.
But shame, it turns out, isn’t a great motivator. I couldn’t keep climbing the stair machine in the gym, watching the calorie counter slowly absolve me for breakfast, and then lunch, every day for very long. My pattern of pursuing fitness came in short spurts: I’d be dissatisfied with the curve of my stomach, arms, and thighs, and try to run or stretch my body away. Eventually, I’d realize I didn’t hate the way I looked enough to endure the drudgery of daily activity I didn’t really like; and I’d stop. Until the process started again, a few weeks or months down the line.
And then came roller derby. At first, I was drawn to it for the same reason I was drawn to any physical activity – it’s quite a calorie-burner. But after a few weeks of practice – once I no longer looked like an awkward baby giraffe on my skates – I realized something new: it was actually fun.
Roller derby is played entirely on roller skates around an oval track between two teams. Each team has a ‘jammer’ and four ‘blockers’, the jammer wins points by passing their opposition’s blockers – the blockers try not to let that happen and help their own jammer pass the opposition. It’s complicated, but it’s one of the most fun sports to watch – and to play.
In derby, we get so close to others that we can feel their body heat and sweat; we can sense their breaths and heartbeats. We are relentless.
But, playing roller derby, I have a feeling of strength I’ve never had before. I don’t know where my tireless motivation to keep going – even when it’s very hard – comes from. And I now see my body as effective and competitive. It can exert influence in the world. It’s not something I care to whittle away anymore.
Watching women skate is a thrill. Sometimes they make their way around the whole track in only a few strides, the sound of their wheels echoing around the venue. Players leap on their toe stops, jump while rolling, stop on a dime. I’ve never known my body to be great at balance, but I’ve started to do these things too.
Off-track, the derby community is fundamentally nice. We about the stench of sweaty protective gear and how to fit in more squats in our day-to-day lives (squats while doing the dishes, squats while waiting for the kettle to boil or the bus to come). But it’s also deeply accepting.
This is a place for a diverse set of body types. Thin skaters can be particularly speedy. Tall skaters are good at strategy because they can see the track in-play from a vast distance. They can also take big, powerful steps and glide past everyone else. Short skaters have a lower centre of gravity, which means they’re advantaged when it comes to balance. They can also get into tricky spots and can be difficult to defend against. And bigger skaters are hard to knock down, or pass.
Turns out, good endurance and agility are within reach of all body types.
When I started roller derby, I began to accept myself. The challenge for me physically isn’t changing my body anymore; it’s learning how to work with it. Exercise, something that once felt psychologically toxic and begrudging has become a well of enthusiasm and stimulation. For the first time in my adult life, physical activity has been about becoming stronger and learning fun and challenging skills. My weight is completely beside the point now; the point is how fitness makes me feel.