I want to start out by saying that I reject the notion that sports are inherently masculine. I’ve known just as many women and girls over the years who were interested in playing sports as I’ve known men and boys, although most of the time, those girls were described as “tomboys.” It’s always been okay, if not encouraged, for girls to display traits and interests seen as more “masculine.” Flip it the other way around, however, and you find boys who show feminine traits are scolded, derided, or otherwise put down as “pussies,” “weak,” or “girly” (as if that’s somehow a bad thing). As recently as this week, we have Republican stereotype Candace Owens complaining that Harry Styles wearing a dress is the beginning of the end of our civilization, as if men wearing wigs and playing dress-up wasn’t the very foundation of The United States.
I was raised in a family that strongly believed these absurd, gendered ideals. Because I have a penis, I was seen as male, and it was expected of me to play sports. Failure to live up to the masculine expectations of my parents would result in mockery, insults, or grounding, if not physical abuse. So I tried my very best to do what was expected of me.
I was never very interested in playing sports. Every year, the time would come to sign up for some form of extra-curricular activity, and I would say I wanted to do something artistic, and would then be told that I had to pick a sport. I don’t remember ever actually choosing a sport, but would find out after I was already signed up what my fate was to be.
The first, I believe, was t-ball, which I found dreadfully boring. I’m told that the coach was forced to keep me in the outfield, if I was played at all, on the side where balls were least likely to end up (I’m still not sure which is “right” and which is “left” field). He tried me out in the infield, but I simply sat down at first base and set about building sand castles while the opposing players made their way to second base. In the outfield, I picked dandelions and chased butterflies, but at least there I couldn’t have a negative impact on the game.
I wanted to stop playing after the first game, but my father loved to remind me that he didn’t raise a “quitter.” I tried to say that I couldn’t quit something I never agreed to start in the first place, but he called me a smartass and said I had to finish the season.
The other players on the team didn’t like me very much, and it’s not hard to understand why. I had no talent, and no interest in developing any. I didn’t care if we won or lost, I just wanted the whole thing to be over. They’d bully me sometimes, calling me names or just rolling their eyes when it was my turn to play. Luckily, I was physically larger than most of them, so no one ever tried to beat me up. I spent my time on that team daydreaming about being at home with a book, or creating imaginary lands in my head filled with fantastical characters. All I wanted was to create.
Even as a child, I was a prolific writer. If I didn’t like the ending of a book, I would write my own ending so that I could read that instead. When my parents took away my Goosebumps books for fear that they were giving me nightmares, I simply created my own stories based on the titles, imagining what the contents might have been. I’m fairly certain my own versions of the stories were more terrifying than the books’ actual contents.
After t-ball came soccer. As you can imagine, I was terrible at that, too, but did my best to make my parents happy long enough to get to do what I actually wanted to. I rarely spoke my mind anymore, knowing it was futile to say I wanted off the team, so I just shut up and dealt with it. It was especially frustrating because I was the only one of my siblings who felt this way. My brother and sisters both seemed to enjoy playing sports a lot (but I suppose it’s possible they were also just trying to make my parents happy). Eventually, I found that I didn’t hate playing the goalie, mostly because my team was decent and the ball didn’t get to me very often. When it did, we were playing with those small “kid-sized” goals, so my size made up for what I lacked in agility.
After soccer, I was put into baseball. I tried to say that I knew I hated baseball because I’d already played t-ball, but I was told baseball is “different,” and I hadn’t actually tried it yet, so I had to play. When I was up to bat, my ideal scenario was that the pitcher made a mistake and I was able to walk to first base. Swinging the bat meant making a fool of myself, which usually ended with my teammates calling me names and ostracizing me. They didn’t want me to swing the bat, either.
I played touch football, which I hated. Golf felt tedious. I joined a volleyball team because some of my friends had joined a league, but I was the worst player and didn’t last long. During a kickball game, I broke one of my fingers tying to catch the ball.
Say what you want, I tried. I did my best to live up to the ideals of “being a man,” and never failed to come up short. Everything I did was to make someone else happy, which meant there wasn’t much time to spend developing myself into the person I wanted to be. Most of the time, I was discouraged from even thinking about who I wanted to be.
Now, I’d also like to point out that I don’t think my lack of interest in sports is what makes me a woman. Again, my sisters were active in sports. One of my podcasting co-hosts does Crossfit. My girlfriend trained with MMA fighters in Hawaii for years. Athleticism isn’t a “male” trait any more than cooking is a “female” trait, and anyone who’s watched a cooking show on Netflix knows men can love cooking, too. Competition, team building, improving your skills—these are human traits more than they are gendered ones. The continued fight for gender equality means acknowledging that every possible interest is available to people at any point on the gender spectrum.
Hating sports doesn’t make me a woman, but it was definitely an early sign that I didn’t align with society’s definition of “male.” Would I still identify as female if my interests in the arts weren’t put down and unavailable to me? If I hadn’t grown up in a home with strict guidelines for how people with certain genitalia are “expected” to act, would I identify so strongly with the female gender?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I will never live that theoretical life. I only know what I’ve experienced, and what I feel, which is that “woman” is the best currently-existing term to describe my gender. It is how I feel about myself when I am alone, and it’s how I want people to see and experience me. It’s what makes me smile when I imagine people thinking of me, and for the first time in my life, I feel free to pursue my actual, genuine interests.
I still have a lot of unlearning to do. I was told so frequently and for so long that things I liked weren’t “for” me that sometimes I still auto-respond to things I like with thoughts of, “no, you aren’t allowed.” I saw a dress I liked at Target the other day, and felt an internal pressure not to picture myself in it. There are walls up inside my mind, and so many of them can be traced back to my experience with sports.
That’s all for me today. Thanks for reading about my continued self exploration as I come to terms with who I am. I hope it’s been as enlightening for you as it has been for me.
Chloe Skye, November 20, 2020
P.S. This week’s episode of Modern Eyes (now available!) is about the 1985 classic Clue. Jupiter and I talk a what holds up, what feels out of date, and how we’d modernize the film if it were remade today 🙂
ALSO! The third episode of my Star Trek: The Next Generation watch-through should be out this weekend. Check the blog Monday or so and you’ll definitely see it. I have a LOT to say about “Code of Honor,” because my god, the racism and misogyny are STRONG with this one.