Playing Like A Girl
“What does it mean to do something like a girl?” this commercial asks.
I know the answer to that one. I’ve been told, “You’re not, like, super-girly like other girls,” and I’ve taken it as a compliment. But as a child, when it came to sport, I decided to go with the “too girly to play” excuse.
I scored better at Maths than football, but what really kept me off the playing field was the weight-related taunts at every team tryout: “Don’t try diving, you’d empty the pool,” “You’ll win a race… rolling down a hill.” Or the fact that all the overweight/big-boned/chubby kids were blindly sent directly to the shot put heats. (When it was my turn, I lost my grip, and the put fell behind me. I had to hold back my tears as the kids all pointed and laughed.)
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The fact that I was fast enough to make reserve on our track team and played badminton didn’t help. I took to twiddling my thumbs on the bench, lapsing into reverie about the one secret sports dream I still held: to be one half of a South Asian Torvill and Dean, winning Olympic medals in figure skating. It didn’t matter that I’d never even seen a skating rink; I had Torvill’s short hair and my eye on a handsome half-Pakistani boy in the next class who would look darling in a jacket with fringe. (Yes, you may point and laugh, now. It was ridiculous.)
By the time I was in my teens, the predictable issues with body image began, and I grew more and more awkward. Finding clothes that fit, never mind flattered, was a task even my shopping-mad mother found tedious. Nutritional information was sparse, and our academic schedules made sure we did no exercise except run from one tuition class to the next. My changing body rendered my posture half fearful, half apologetic – all Quasimodo. “You’re absolutely fine!” my mother would growl when I complained about how I felt and looked. It made me crazy.
Yet, years later, when my paediatrician raised the spectre of childhood obesity about my eldest, I did what any good Indian mother would – smiled politely at him and waited till I was outside the clinic to let loose a volley of Very Bad Words. “She’s FINE!” I growled.
But in the years that followed, I tried (and failed) to get my girls in sport, to get the kids playing tennis and football. We also struggled with my second daughter’s asthma – a flare point reached when I attempted to take them running one polluted Mumbai morning, which set off an attack that lasted a week.
We didn’t give up. An athletics class opened near our house, and from Day 1, their combination of play, focus and physical exercise had my kids hooked. Then a couple of people recommended swimming for the asthma. And I did what any good Indian mother would – put my dingdong swimsuit on and got into the pool with my girls three times a week, motivating them with a fine balance of threats and treats, shouting at backstroking uncles who came in our way.
Months passed and seemingly effortlessly, the children started getting sick less often, slept better, were in better moods. I was surprised to notice a change in myself. My clothes fit better; I was less grumpy in the evenings; I felt powerful. Our paediatrician, commenting on the children’s postures, how muscly they were, how self-assured their body language, told me: “They have the physical confidence of athletes.”
The basic fact sheet of reasons to enable girls in sport includes heightened self-esteem, improved academic scores, and increased bone mass. We found a few more. As my girls got more involved in sport, they encouraged their friends to join.
These days, they all bolt out of the athletics classes, sweaty, laughing, high on endorphins, like a herd of feisty, young horses. As their contemporaries diet and compare thigh gap, ours eat cake, get competitive about who can plank for longer or who has more aerobic stamina. Having experienced the direct correlation between effort and reward, practice making perfect, they’re less awkward about their changing bodies and value them for more than their visual appeal.
And it brought another quiet evolution to the fore. It’s been nearly four years since we started, and last month, the girls watched India’s female athletes at the Rio Olympics like hawks. As they cheered for Sakshi Malik, P V Sindhu and Dipa Karmarkar, they were also learning that girls in sport, in the prime of their physical prowess, can be ectomorphic, endomorphic or mesomorphic. It’s something even a well-intentioned, strong, female athlete-inspired ad for a sports brand missed celebrating. (Still, I’m grateful for any progress. And luckily other ads get it right.)
Our family’s sports and exercise roster now features athletics, running, capoeira, yoga, occasional swimming and high-intensity interval training. We do some ensemble, some breaking off into twos and threes. If all the children are at a class, I prefer going for a run to sitting around with my cell phone or listening to someone blather on about their child or nanny issues. (And as a busy mum, you take one calorie-burning activity and get one Solvitur Ambulando for free!)
Sport is good for boys, for girls, for their mums and dads, and it’s never too late to begin. Last week a stranger asked me if I was an athlete, and I felt like Torvill and Dean, both!
And then my bendy, stretchy, cartwheeling, hand-standing 11-year-old told me she dreams of being a gymnast and representing India one day at the Olympics. Filled with pride, I told her she can if she wants to. But she will have to train hard consistently, I said, with focus and the greatest of determination.
Basically, like a girl.