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by Aimee Ouellette
I started playing softball at seven years old. I played catcher, and my best friend Charmaine was a pitcher. Other people have written about how wonderful and romantic the sport of baseball can be, and I will leave it to them to describe the sport itself. Besides, what I loved most wasn’t technically sport at all; it was the camaraderie. I loved how we would always cheer each other on, clap for the other team, and sing pep songs for our teammates while waiting for our turns at bat.
I played on a team with mostly the same girls I knew in my elementary school, and how we related on the field was essentially the same way we related off the field—we were silly and hyper and positive, and the world ended approximately at our fingertips. We were completely unconcerned with how we looked, and only interested in fun (and occasionally in winning).
When we got a little older, and the inconvenience of puberty began to declare itself, softball became not just a fun sport to play but a valuable oasis. As our bodies changed and as the boys we knew gradually became more and more interested in looking at us rather than playing with us, and as the commercials on the shows we liked started to show fewer ads for toys and more ads for makeup, softball stayed essentially the same. The ball diamond was a place to do things, not a place to be seen.
Around the age of thirteen, even the ball field lost its shine. All the girls who were serious about the sport of softball ended up moving to a more competitive “rep league,” and I was left on a team with lots of girls who I didn’t know and who were more interested in being seen than in doing. It became expected and commonplace to wear makeup onto the field. I started feeling self-conscious of my downy legs and no-name cleats. I could play ball, yes, but I could I look good doing it? I wasn’t sure about that second question. I just gave up on the whole idea, and sports stopped being part of my life.
As a way of counteracting the negative messages we hear about our own bodies, adults in our lives have myriad ways of telling us we are beautiful. If unsure of our beauty, we are told that we are beautiful on the inside; or that everyone is beautiful in their own way; or that, like the caterpillar or ugly duckling, we contain a promise of beauty in the future.
These messages have their place: it feels good to be beautiful, and only some of us have the privilege of seeing ourselves reflected in the beauty standards of our wider culture. However, the ability to not think about our looks while in public is also a privilege, and it’s a state of mind that I hadn’t even realized that I had lost until, in adulthood, sport helped me find it again.
Three years ago I decided on a whim to join a co-worker’s coed softball beer league. That summer, I found that playing sports gave me a mental permission to dress myself for comfort and utility only; one I didn’t even realize I had lost until on the way to a game I looked down at my bare legs and thought, “wow, this is new.” I have bared skin in public before—sometimes lots of it—but always with great care and attention to my appearance. It was a revelation to me when I began to get dressed for games without considering how I looked.
That feeling was only strengthened when just after the ball season ended, I became pregnant with my first child. Childbirth is the most athletic thing I have ever done in my life, and the most intimate thing I’ve ever done in a public setting. During labour, my son’s shoulder got stuck behind my pubic bone. This is called shoulder dystocia, and it is an obstetric emergency. The room filled with nurses and doctors who watched intently as I crouched naked on a bed and pushed. Together we brought my baby safely into the world, and I never gave my appearance a single thought. My body is irrevocably changed after giving birth, and a year of sleepless nights has left me weaker than before I was pregnant. But I also feel even more ready to take on sports in public again. I know that my body is capable of doing amazing things, and I look forward to not caring what I look like as I do them.
Aimee Ouellette has a BA (Hons) in English from UBC. She has worked as a book editor, a freelance writer, and a manicurist. She lives in New Westminster, BC with her husband and son.