Like a lot of shy and ‘inactive’ kids at school, I would be picked last when teams were made during PT classes. There are innumerable types of humiliation, and the humiliation of being picked last, because there was no one else to be picked – a pity pick I call it – is unmatched. At least for an adolescent.
That’s the past version of me. There is another version that is currently developing and by its very nature is somewhat of a work in progress. When the pandemic hit three years ago, and we were restricted to our houses, I felt the need to incorporate some physical activity in my routine. That, and a chronic digestion issue pushed me to begin different formats of workouts. Cardio, yoga, once in a blue moon of dance aerobics, walking, and jogging. Starting an activity like this was okay, everyone does it at some point. But, at the risk of sounding like I am gloating, I have been more or less consistent with it. I had made it a point to start small and realistically, as big goals felt threatening, especially something like cardio. The image of me doing a cardio workout is like oil and water. And that is the point of my telling this story.
I have very mindfully cultivated a relationship with my body in the last few years, and it is something that only deepens and strengthens over time. However, the adolescent me, whom I introduced to you in the beginning of this article, cannot fathom an individual who works out, takes the initiative, goes to new gyms for trials, and explores through trial and error what works for her. The adolescent years in school – and I am sure there are more factors to this – impacted my physical and bodily self-concept. Being an obese child, I was subjected to a lot of derogatory and mean remarks in school, even by PT teachers. The beauty standards that reign in the adolescent years are what created a lot of pressure on me. At that age, empathy comes scantily from peers, and the only way I ended up looking at myself mirrored the way they looked at me –through a highly critical and loathing lens.
Being picked last for a team is honestly what has stayed with me from those years. The way PT teachers would look at me before a 100m race, or during Sports Days doesn’t leave me. Even my peers, not all of them, but quite a handful, would laugh at me attempting a race, or would make comments on how I looked after a sports class. Even as I write this, I don’t have solid memories. I mostly have a sense, or experiences that have stayed with me – and their collective messaging was, “You are ugly; you can’t move; sports are for thin athletic people; we are an exclusive club and you just don’t fit the bill”. The teenage me had extremely fearful associations with anything that would involve the body. I now realise that I internalised all this messaging as, “I am bad at anything to do with sports or physical activity, so why try?” For years, I would not go to the gym simply because the thought of attempting to run on the treadmill would undo me. To this day, I struggle with dancing in public and god knows when I will cross that bridge.
How one understands their sexuality, exceeds the notion of just the body. It also includes one’s self-esteem, how they look at themselves, how societal norms and ideas have shaped these notions about themselves. Hence, the way I understand it, sexuality is as relevant as any other aspects of our personality or self-concept. In my head, I connect all of this – the way I looked at my body and felt towards it and the social factors that contributed to that image – to sexuality because if I were to look at my younger self in school, it almost feels like a huge chunk of experience was denied to her because she looked a certain way. Of course, it takes participation from an individual’s side and I did lack initiative. To me today, it feels like maybe it was a peer, family and social responsibility as well to nudge me to do certain things, and the school and teachers themselves could have helped me build a more positive self-image. Due to the negative messaging that had made me internalise so much shame, I think until very recently, I did not look at my body as an active entity. I felt so disconnected from it in the psychological sense, that I wouldn’t be in touch with my emotions, and would treat my body like a concept and not an active reality. I used to feel a lethargy and sluggishness in my body because of the constant remarks about my weight and how I looked.
When I say I feel connected to my body now, compared to before, I mean that after a lot of self-work in therapy, I have learnt to identify how my body reacts to situations, how it communicates. For instance, after a long day, now I can identify the need to sleep. A few years back, I would not have had the ability to recognise exhaustion, and would go on over-tiring my body and ignoring what it communicated through how I felt or my physical and mental health.
Now, sports and any kind of physical activity and my new fitness lifestyle make me feel healthier, more in sync with my body and, most importantly, they make me cognizant of what movement does to me. More than anything, with physical activity a lot of endorphins are released and I feel rejuvenated. The previous sluggishness is replaced by a sense of activity and agency; it instils confidence in me. However, the teenage me had no access to this sense of fitness and power.
As kids, sport wasn’t packaged for us as a regular activity. Rather, sport was a coveted activity that only kids who looked a certain way could attempt. This is not to make a blanket generalisation, but more specifically my experience of this particular co-curricular area in school. Sport is one of the most important avenues through which one can connect with one’s body. But as a kid I did not know that not participating in sports, would result in internalised shame, and my looking at my body as a third party and not something that is a part of me. I sometimes imagine myself living a parallel, alternate life in which I took part in sports activities at school. Maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid of looking at my tummy rolls, or wearing crop tops Maybe I would feel freer and more flexible in my body, which I now realise instils more confidence and self-esteem, because being well-connected to one’s body is a very safe home ground from where one can operate.
For me, a big part of understanding one’s sexuality is how one looks at their body. From today’s vantage point I see that I missed an opportunity to use PT and sports in school as a way to get to know and move my body. This in turn held me back from viewing myself as a sexual being. For instance, it was unfathomable to me till my early 20s that anyone would be attracted to me. Attraction and any possible romantic association would be a one-way street, with me being attracted to someone, and there being no scope or expectation of mutuality or reciprocity.
These kinds of realisations bring the grave sense of loss that missed opportunities do. At the same time, the fact that I can now look at it in a way that gives me the space to respect my past, and define for myself how I would like to build a relationship with my body, reaffirms my faith in what introspection and self-work can help one achieve.
If I had to envision living my childhood again, I would view myself as a kid who played without inhibition. Exploring one’s sexuality, I believe, is something that ties a lot of areas of one’s life together. It exists in so much of what we inhabit – the clothes we wear, the clothes we don’t wear, the comments we make about ourselves and our bodies, the critical voices that become loud when we see others more ‘attractive’, or more grounded and assured in their bodies. Body positivity is something that has given me the space to explore and redefine various aspects of how I experience my sexuality, and functions as a corrective experience where I can unlearn the old messaging I internalised as a child.