In sports, I’ve always felt like I did the wrong things. Or loved the wrong things. I’m not sure.
My first sport was ballet. I lasted on and off from since I can remember until the fourth grade. I don’t remember exactly what I loved, but I’ve retained a love of moving my body to a beat, so I think that was it.
My second sport was swimming. I began in the fourth grade, right after quitting ballet. Although I swam through high school, I chose not to swim in college. Mentally, I gave up a while before that though. But I loved the sensation of floating and holding my breath underwater.
My third sport was rowing. I began in high school, and I loved the feeling of sliding across the water.
My fourth sport was and is aerial acrobatics. To me, it’s pure unadulterated freedom. Really, in every sport I’ve loved the precise feeling and moment of my body moving. It makes me feel graceful and powerful and at peace. But I’ve never loved the competition, or been motivated enough to win. I’d just prefer to feel and look powerful, and that has nothing to do with beating others.
But regardless of what I love or don’t love, I’ve never felt comfortable with sports socially.
I remember once in ballet - I must’ve been seven or eight - I left a note in some girl’s bag without signing it. The note said something about wanting to be friends or whatever else my mind came up with. I think she was popular, or at least a part of the group of dancers. I was a chubby kid growing up and not very good at ballet, and I wasn’t friends with the other girls. Somehow, I thought the note would inspire a secret friendship with the girl, or she would somehow intrinsically understand me. But from what I remember, she figured out it was me pretty quickly and confronted me. It didn’t last long - she asked me if I left the note in front of the other girls. Fearing humiliation, I vehemently denied her accusations. Maybe my attempts to connect were odd, but I didn’t know how else to reach out. All the girls hung out without me, and I didn’t understand why they they excluded me.
Flash forward seven years or so, and I’m fifteen and in a bus heading to a swim meet. My coach, a young woman in her early twenties, is asking all the girls about their love lives. Some girls exchanged stories about going on dates or making out at parties. As they continued, the coach egged them on, and the girls tried to outdo each other. Meanwhile I sat there, an odd mixture of confused, rejected, anxious and proud. I didn’t, and still don’t understand why my coach found it appropriate to ask the girls about their love lives, and how she never got in trouble for it. Maybe some part of her felt the need to gossip in order be accepted as a young coach.
Even as I thought those things to myself, though, I felt rejected. It was clear the coach favored girls who told her stories, and I was both never asked and wasn’t comfortable sharing. But that same part that wasn’t comfortable sharing also felt smug. I knew that my high school love life was dramatic - even outshining the stories the girls told - and I felt proud both of that fact, and the fact that they would never know. I was able to have sexual encounters while appearing somewhat innocent, and that somehow made me a better woman.
Move forward another two years or so. I’m in a bus going home from rowing practice, and a group of four girls sit behind me. They’re discussing how attractive the lead singer of Maroon Five, Adam Levine, is. That’s it, that’s the entire conversation. I tried to cut in at one point, and said that I didn’t find him attractive. I hoped that the conversation would shift and we could talk about other topics, maybe something I could connect with. Granted I wasn’t 100% in the conversation beforehand, but I really wanted to be friendly with those girls. The girls mostly just looked at me blankly though, and continued on.
At the time, I felt a similar rejection that I’d felt from my coach two years prior. In some way, my inability to talk about what ‘normal’ girls talked about sequestered me socially. It hurt that there didn’t seem to be any avenue to talk things besides men, and I just couldn’t do that.
But I’m also not faultless. I think it’s pretty clear from my stories that while I never fit in with the group, my unwillingness to bend my interests meant I didn’t really try. In fact, I felt some pride at standing outside of conversations I found insipid or inappropriate. That doesn’t mean, however, that these observations don’t deserve critique. Sans the first story, which is more illustrative of group dynamics in my ballet class, I think the other two bring up important faults in female sports. There’s a weird set of expectations that while competing physically, everyone has to stay equal socially, except for personal interactions with men. Every woman has to find the same men attractive, but a woman can gain or lose social status (and make up for her lack of physical abilities) by flaunting her sexual prowess. And if you can’t or don’t want to do that, but aren’t good enough at a sport to be a star in your own way (which I wasn’t), you’re shit out of luck.
After years of feeling like an outsider, starting circus was a revelation for me. After receiving a life-altering injury before starting college (I originally wanted to row, but it’s no longer possible), I ran into some people doing circus on my college campus and fell in love. For the first time, I could do a physical activity that celebrated both strength and artistic performance. At the same time, it celebrated individual goal setting and progress. I’ve experienced deep, meaningful conversations about the activity of circus itself with other women who do it. Sometimes these are women whom I’m competitive with, but we’re able compete while encouraging one another, which I never dreamed of before.
Another large difference between my interactions in circus versus outside of it is in how we talk about romantic partners. Perhaps it’s partially because none of us have been in high school for a while, but talking about romantic partners never feels competitive in quite the same way. When one woman talks positively about a recent date, there’s no outpouring of similar stories unless they’re closely related to the one she described. Her experience stands on its own, and comments are about the event itself and not a game of one-upsmanship. The choice to talk about partners is also a choice, not a necessity. Because of this I’ve become much more open, and share stories about my love life more easily. Not to say that every interaction is perfect, but by and large the kinds of interactions are much healthier.
So, why is this? Is it just that we’re all out of our teenage years and therefore better equipped to interact on without selfconsciouness? I don’t think that’s the whole story.
Circus is unique in the ways that women compete with each other. In my previous activities - even ballet - all of the girls competed for a single thing in the same way. There was little to no room to differentiate yourself or set different goals from the girl next to you. So the environment by nature became toxic, as it will with any highly competitive and conforming environment.
At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, girls aren’t taught to be competitive over anything other than romantic partners. Women in general are taught to not be special, and to not stand out. So when they’re put in an environment which is by nature competitive, two main reactions occur.
First, these young girls react to the anxiety of competition by binding closely together in some seeming attempt to negate competitiveness. But that competitiveness doesn’t just go away. At least a little competitiveness is natural, and girls who aren’t good at sports want to be better, in some way, than the girls who are. So, each girl tries to gain dominance in the only way they’ve been taught - by competing about and over male romantic partners. And the results are both toxic inside and outside of that group. These unhealthy group dynamics are perpetuated throughout women’s sports - particularly in middle and high school. They teach girls they’re only valuable for either physical achievements or romantic ones, and that both are only significant in relation to other women.
That’s where the main differences between my previous sports and circus lie. Circus is a highly individual activity, and there are many many different ways to achieve success. Because each woman sets her own goals - whether that be in strength, flexibility, choreography, or many more - she can find ways to compete with women on one front while celebrating each woman for her individual achievements on another.
Every woman has different things that she’s competing in and achieving every single day that are both different from the women around her and outside of the romantic sphere. It’s important for us to recognize and celebrate those achievements regardless of whether we could never achieve them, or we achieved them many years ago. And that’s not just in sports. Every competitive environment has the potential to create similar toxicity, especially because outwardly ambition women are often degraded for their ambition. And the fact that this toxicity starts so young, and in such an innocuous place (because really, school sports shouldn’t be such a terrible place) is a problem we need to fix.
Support the women around you. Let them be powerful and successful as individuals, and celebrate their accomplishments.
Leah Ochroch is a 23 year old computer programmer originally from Philadelphia. In her free time she can generally be found hanging upside down or intensely focusing on a cooking project. She lives alone, and finds that quiet agreeable to her habit of leaving jackets basically everywhere.