I recently had a conversation with my roommate, and it got me thinking. Family, food, exercise, spirituality, self-care and more have been at the centre of her upbringing. Although we agree on many things, our minds don’t work alike. At all. She’s the most well-rounded individual I’ve ever met and, well, I am not. It led me to wonder if things would be different today had I been brought up in a similar way of life, made of positivity and a can do attitude.
I strongly believe that your education doesn’t have to define you as an adult. Prejudices of any kind shouldn’t be hereditary, and mentalities can change. Each and everyone of us are our own person, therefore we can form our own opinions and make our own choices. Nonetheless, I still carry with me some of the hurtful habits I developed as a teenager and it seems that I can’t get past them as an adult.
As a kid, I was very energetic: I loved to play in the ocean or ride my bike in the summer. I loved playing dodgeball on the playground and even played basketball at a national level in elementary school. I’ve never been a great runner and my coordination isn’t the best — I literally can’t ski or rollerblade — but I was always active and, most importantly, I enjoyed it.
Things started to change and go downhill when I got to middle school. I was a chubby girl and, although it hadn’t been an issue up until then, it became a source of mocking — both from other kids and the PE teacher. Now, teenagers being cruel to one another is awful but predictable. Teachers being cruel to the kids they teach is downright despicable.
Unfortunately, I had this PE teacher for 3 years and it really took a toll on my confidence and my abilities. Over the years, the idea that I was a real duffer became stronger and stronger, to the point of no return. From that moment on, I began to despise sports because I felt like they weren’t inclusive and it didn’t seem that mental wellness mattered as much as physical strength. I appreciate that exercise is crucial in someone’s life — and not just for health reasons — but it should be a safe space for everyone and, from personal experience, it’s never really been the case.
There were only two times in my adult life where I didn’t feel like I was a complete waste of a human being, exercise-wise. Two exceptions, where I felt safe to be who I was. The first time was in New York. I used to walk 6 to 12 miles a day because distance in the US is like no other, and I actually had the luxury of time to go on long promenades and explore. I was also a regular at the NYU gym, where other students minded their own business and never looked at me twice. The second time was a year later at Disneyland. I ran the 5km RunDisney marathon type thing and, honestly, it might be a piece of cake for most people, but for an asthmatic who didn’t have any prior training and who wasn’t in the best of shapes, it was a huge challenge. I felt very proud of myself afterwards, even though my friend had to drag me all the way down to the finish line because I kept repeating I was going to give up.
Unfortunately, these two achievements weren’t enough to make me realise that I could, in fact, maintain a physical activity. My determination went down the drain when severe episodes of depression and anxiety disorders took control. I tried to power through and go to the gym in France but I had a couple of unpleasant encounters with men who tried to play the intimidation card, so I didn’t linger. I still love walking — that’s the one thing I can do and never questioned — but mental illness has a way to make you stay put even when all you need is to be outside and get some fresh air.
As a teenager, I didn’t realise what it would cost me to drop out of sports altogether. I didn’t realise I would have no outlet for my anxiety and my depression and my eating disorder. Writing helps, of course, but it’s quite a sedentary activity, so there’s a lot of tension that doesn’t get released. I know it’s all about discipline and perseverance (I’m obviously speaking for able-people, although I’ve seen people with handicaps achieve stuff that I could probably never do). But that feeling of shame, back when my teacher would pick at me in class, has remained. I remember one time, where I stood paralysed by fear on the asymmetric bars. Someone said ‘Sir, Justine is stuck, what do we do?’. He laughed and said ‘she’s worthless, leave her there’. I don’t think anyone realises how damaging public humiliation is, especially on someone who is already pretty vulnerable. I lost complete faith in myself that day and I haven’t been able to do much since then. That fear of failure and that fear of embarrassing myself in front of others is so deep-rooted that I now give up before I’ve even started.
Looking back, I really wish my parents had encouraged me to pursue a physical activity outside of school, to join a sports team where I could perhaps feel welcomed. They never pushed and, in a way, I am very grateful that they saw how distressing it was for me. But quitting wasn’t really the answer, was it? Quitting didn’t fix the issue, and it probably made it worse because I gave in to the fear. I gave in to the idea that I, indeed, wasn’t capable. I wish my parents had told me my teacher was wrong for treating me the way he did. I wish they had told me that I wasn’t hopeless, just because I struggled more than others in class. I wish they had told me that practice makes better, or that gymnastics may simply not be for me. I wish they had told me that being overweight shouldn’t stop me from being out there, active and confident. I wish they had believed in me, when it was obvious I had stopped believing in myself.
My parents weren’t very active people themselves, so that might explain why they didn’t take exercise as a serious and crucial part of a kid’s education. My dad had been in quite a few sports team when he was young, but it didn’t really influence our upbringing. However, I was never close to him so I’m not even sure he really knew what was going on in my life. My mum undoubtedly cared very much, which is why she did all she could to protect me. She didn’t impose anything that might cause me pain, and I respect that.
I don’t blame either of my parents for my own insecurities. At this point in my life, it’s completely up to me to stop making excuses and face my fears. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if I’d be more at peace with myself today, had physical activities been a part of my routine as a kid, had exercise not been such a mortifying experience as a teenager. Instead, I only have the scorching memory of that PE teacher laughing at me, and it shoots me down every time.
What is your relationship to exercise? Did your parents push you to have a physical activity outside of school? If so, are you grateful for it? Have you found a sport that works for you? Let me know in the comments!