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  • Writer's pictureDana Webster

You (Don't) Throw Like A Girl

One of the greatest regrets of my life is not becoming a professional athlete. True story. When I was a kid, I did it all. Softball, track and field, squash, swimming, volleyball, handball, Ping-Pong, and the purely recreational canoe tripping, tetherball, and murder ball (a no-holds-barred psychopathic cousin of dodge ball). I excelled at sports. Yet, I sucked at things like double-dutch and that ridiculous ribbon gymnastics. How is that even a sport?

In a very real way, my athleticism was a response to the sexual abuse and bullying I'd experienced from a young age and throughout my elementary school years. When I discovered sports, I discovered a way to be in control of my own body. I'd found a way to love and connect with it so that it felt like mine, me, and not in service to others.

I was a fierce competitor. I was in it for the win, every time. Softball was the first love of my life. I played back catcher, pitcher, outfield, first base. I could hit the ball out of the park, and I wasn't afraid to leap high into the air for a fly ball or throw myself to the hard earth for a ground ball. I pitched windmill style, straight down the line. My baseball glove was my best friend; I carried it with me everywhere.

The greatest compliment I could receive as an athletic girl in the 70s was that I didn't throw like a girl. In those days, girls were habitually compared to boys and, more often than not, were found inferior. And yet, I was faster, stronger, and more agile than most of my male counterparts.

This turned out to be a balancing act. I had to be careful not to show up the more ego-driven boys or they wouldn't let me play with them. Worse, they'd call me a "dyke" which came in second to being called a slut in the shaming put-down department. The good times were when we were playing an opposing all-male team who didn't know me. I was like a secret weapon. They'd see a girl come to bat, and they'd automatically call their outfield in closer to the infield. Invariably, I knocked the ball way over their heads and scored myself a home run.

After a particularly heady game, we had won by a mile and I was high on life, I remember my coach saying to me, "Too bad you aren't a boy, Dana. You could go places with that arm of yours." And my heart fell. In my world of male sexual exploitation and being considered lesser than simply for my gender, this hit me hard. Despite the years of abuse, I'd found a way to rise above it, to feel free in my body and soul. I could forget about being a victim for a while. When I played sports, I was a winner. When I wasn't playing sports, I was a loser.

At the age of ten, I'd hit the glass ceiling for female athletes. I continued to play sports, mostly track and field, until grade eight when I switched to an all-girls private school. I played on the softball and touch football teams, but the quality of play was so poor that I gave up out of sheer boredom. There, sports were for fun and recreation. One wasn't meant to take it too seriously.

In grade nine, depression set in. The years of abuse finally caught up with me. Without a physical outlet for my rage, and fear, and shame, my body began to take a course of action that was out of my control. I started to eat my feelings and gained 25 pounds over the course of one school year. I lost muscle mass and flexibility but, worst of all, I lost the will to love myself. I gave up on me.

Hating myself became my new sport and I got really, really good at it.

Over the years, I would dabble in physical activity - downhill and cross-country skiing, namely. I even took up boxing in my 40s. And when Meacham was old enough, I taught him how to kick ass in tetherball. But mostly I was just reminded of how profoundly I had abandoned and betrayed my young self. I remember reading somewhere that many survivors of sexual abuse cannot tolerate physical exertion because the intensity of it activates and mimics the fear response of the repeated violations. Survivors develop the protective state of dissociation as a way to numb the pain. Reawakening to one's body is just too emotionally dangerous.

To this day, I balk at watching women's sports. I just can't bring myself to share in the pure joy of their athleticism. The intimate relationship they have with their very capable and fierce bodies just makes me want to cry. It reminds me of what I once had and then lost. It reminds me of how my life took a turn down a different path, one that included disordered eating, bad relationships, drugs, and alcohol. I once wanted to be those women and, so, my envy overtakes me and I have to turn away.

The best I can do now, at 58 years of age, is to trail walk with Paul. And it's good. It's just enough intensity to not set off the old triggers and I get to spend time with Mother Nature, the greatest healer of the soul.

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