My body used to be built for greatness.
Not greatness like the world beating agility and power of Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, or the grace and strength of prima ballerina Misty Copeland, but my own real-world version of ‘better than average,’ human woman athletic greatness.
Not a famous body, or one that made me a living, but one I could rely on and make demands of. After being a kid that wasn’t great at anything physical, I grew into into a teenager whose prowess was definitely untapped in team sports and unremarkable in everything else.
When I finally found interest and excitement in endurance sports, I was still not great at anything other than persisting in them. But my body certainly became more reliable, more capable.
By the end of my 5th year of medical school, I decided to take a year off to race Olympic Distance triathlon against Australian women who arguably spearheaded a ‘golden era’ of women in triathlon in the late 1990s: Michellie Jones, Emma Carney, Loretta Harrop, Jackie Gallager. I didn’t suck, but I was stuck in that damned purgatory of a severe mismatch between ambition and ability.
Over the next 20 years, my body got leaner, my muscles grew more mitochondria, and I finally found some souplesse.
Aside from the six month stints living in the hothouse environment of professional women’s cycling teams, I felt pretty good about my body.
I was rarely injured. This was mostly thanks to a careful balance of training load that didn’t push me to overuse injuries, but was abetted by my chicken-shit terror of crashing, which impeded my chances of ever really becoming a great bike racer.
Avoiding broken bones and lost skin is smart, but if it means you’ve been dropped from the action of the bike race as a consequence, you’re not racing anymore, you’re just finishing. Professional bike racing isn’t a participation sport, and staying upright doesn’t get you a better contract next season.
I made the progression from un-talented non-athlete to a woman racing in the professional peloton, only to be surrounded by women 10-15 years younger than me who were deeply preoccupied with the appearance of their bodies. The minuscule amount of visible body fat made them angry and self-loathing, and more determined.
We saw the bodies of every other woman racing her bike at races all season. We watched how they changed and we made judgements about each woman’s form and the likelihood she’d still be at the critical point of the race three hours later based on her tan, the visible veins in her legs, and the hollow of her cheeks.
We sat together for every meal, and watched each other’s intake and output in forensic detail, and marvelled at how our most famous rider could avoid all bread and pasta in the lead up to our biggest race in order to get to the magic sub-50kg mark.
In men’s professional cycling, it stands to reason that there’s more pressure to be as lean as possible: maximising ones’ power to weight ratio while remaining healthy (or at least, not immunocompromised) will ultimately lead to greater financial and social reward than professional women’s cycling.
While the formal diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder is usually made in only 1% of the population it’s easy to see that the generalised perception of one’s body, it’s purpose, and how it might need to be ‘improved’ is very tricky territory to navigate for elite athletes.
I spoke with a retired professional ballet dancer over the Christmas period, one who’d moved from interstate to attend the Australian Ballet School at the tender age of 15. She lived, trained and went to school with dozens of other teenage girls seeking perfection, many of whom were starting puberty and showing natural changes to their bodies whilst under the eagle eye of teachers and other dancers.
It made my experience in Italian team houses seem like a walk in the park. I may have been labeled ‘too old, too fat and too slow’ by various team directors, but at least I was a 36 year Doctor whose team role was to be the strong domestique. I wasn’t a deeply impressionable teenager, singled out as the Next Big Thing, carrying the hopes and dreams of her family and with no other ambition than to be the best.
I envied those women, too. I wanted to be as disciplined, as desperate. I wanted to carry the weight of expectation and the accompanying acceptance of choosing an elite athlete’s life. To my friends and family, perhaps I was this driven, but my inability to go all the way was clear evidence to the contrary.
At the end of my first Pro Team season, in October of that same year, Instagram was launched. In the same year, improvements in design of cameras, especially the front-facing camera of the iPhone 4, along with other mobile photo apps such as Snapchat led to the resurgence of ‘selfies.’
Seven years later, there are 500 million daily active instagram users and 68% of it’s users are women. More than ever before, we are exposed to images of the bodies of people from all over the world, some of whom are charging up to $100,000 for a sponsored post.
Taking a selfie is no longer vanity, it’s normality. Showing others what we’re wearing (or not), revealing our post-workout bodies, utilising our faithful Instagram Husbands if we have them, or professional photographers if we can afford them, is about getting likes, promoting your brand and increasing your worth.
In fact, Instagram might be the only ‘workplace’ where women out-earn men. Of the Top 10 celebrity earners on the social media sharing site, only two of them are men: 3. Cristiano Ronaldo and 10. LeBron James. Incredibly, five of the remaining eight are sisters.
Of those eight women, and the remaining hundreds in the most followed profiles across trying social media sites, their beauty and their body are front and centre. We are all getting the message: your body is ‘best’ when it looks a certain way, is a certain shape / size / skin colour / dimension. It’s no wonder so many young women are reporting greater feelings of anxiety and depression.
Fortunately for me, my relationship with my body has not been as difficult as it is for some other women.
I may have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I have at times been preoccupied with restricting my calorie intake to benefit my performance. It was empowering, to feel as though my self control and discipline were superior to others around me, particularly over the Christmas period when others are indulging. It was temporarily rewarding, but ultimately unsustainable and unhealthy.
I have not avoided buying swimwear or looked at myself in a change-room mirror while trying on clothes and thought words like ‘disgusting’ or ‘revolting’ like I know some women have. Yumi Stynes’ podcast ‘Ladies We Need to Talk’ incorporates the perspectives of two Australian authors and their experiences growing up fat, and how even the way we talk about our own bodies could be making other women feel like crap.
In her 2017 memoir ‘Hunger,’ New York Times best selling author Roxane Gay describes the contradictions that have painfully shaped her life: “I have been accused of being full of self-loathing and being fat-phobic. There is truth to the former accusation and I reject the latter. I do, however, live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment.”
My body might be older than it was but it’s not letting me down in any tangible way. I am free of rheumatological diseases that might limit my strength and flexibility, or deliver chronic pain. I have no conditions that compromise my balance, or coordination; my vision and proprioception are still good; and there are none of the unpredictable or relapsing symptoms that accompany neurological disorders.
Generally, my chief complaint appears to be obvious immediately: like everybody else, my body is not extraordinary.
It’s no longer built for greatness, perhaps not even for the ‘purpose’ it was intended if it’s true that women are defined by their reproductive desire and potential, and generally expected to structure their lives around babies.
For most women athletes, pregnancy isn’t compatible with physical superiority, although at the 2017 AusOpen, the G.O.A.T Serena Williams again proved the exception to the rule, and generally women can realistically schedule it in a haitus between important events, or at the end of their careers.
By choosing not to start a family, I won’t endure the loss or disappointment experienced by women unable to become mothers, nor the transforming experience of pregnancy and the modern post-natal stress of recovering my post-baby body quickly enough to compete with social media influencers.
In the case of former Biggest Loser trainer Tiffany Hall, owner of the infamous abs, her ill health during pregnancy and inability to exercise as normal made her reject that ideal, and she bravely posted a real photo of her body. “It’s so much pressure on new mums. My body has changed, and that’s all right. I have put on weight, but it’s beautiful, glorious weight.”
I wondered aloud if being concerned about not looking like an instagram influencer meant that I was narcissist, so my partner and I took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). We were relieved to find that we’re nowhere near dangerous enough, yet…
Like many Australians, we’re guilty of demonstrating narcissistic traits, but as author Pat MacDonald describes in his paper ‘Narcissism in the Modern World’ it’s rare to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
So, in order to keep things real, every time I’m on Instagram, I’m sure to check what @CelesteBarber has posted. This actor and comedian decided to troll the world of celebrity in the best possible way, highlighting just how ludicrous it is to believe that we should aspire to these types of imagery.
So, I’m left with a body not built for greatness. But a body that is reliable, and with value and capability nonetheless.