When I was little (read: younger...yes I know I'm still little) all of my girl friends played with dolls and strollers; I played goalie in my older brother's street hockey games. My friends played with Easy Bake Ovens, Barbies, and dressed up to play house; I played with Creepy Crawlers, went tobogganing on my GT Snowracer, and jumped off of high structures (after climbing them of course). Many of my 'friends' called me a Tom Boy.... My mum bought me a sewing machine for Christmas when I was 8 and put me in cake decorating instead of letting me play hockey, and I really didn't care because I was having fun. I didn't read magazines, there was no such thing as Instagram, and I was way too busy being awesome to understand that people were actually criticizing me for my 'boyish' interests. I was lucky I guess... even though there weren't that many female athletic figures to idolize at that time, there also wasn't as much pressure as there is today to be 'girly' in one's interests and feminine in one's appearance.
Everything was reframed one summer day at sports camp when one of the older boys on my floor hockey team started calling me 'Mighty Mouse'. The next summer my baseball coaches started calling me 'Speedy Gonzales' because I was the only player on my co-ed fastball team that could steal bases (yes, I'm sensing a mouse theme here...), and when I was in grade 4 I became one of the best sparers in my Karate class, and broke my first board with a side kick. I felt powerful, strong and confident, not only in sports but also at home, in school, and basically anywhere else I went (Grade 4 Jenny was a boss!). It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I began to understand just how important sports and training were in my physical, mental, and emotional development. Through participation in sports I not only made new friends, I also learned self-discipline and resilience through martial arts, time management and good sportsmanship through school sports, and developed the positive skill-based attitude towards training that I hold today. This attitude carried me through and allowed me to ignore it when people started calling me a beast/jacked/bulky as I became involved in CrossFit, Olympic Lifting, and Powerlifting as an adult. Without those positive sport experiences as a child, a skill-based attitude towards training, and the amazing community at Academy of Lions, I'm sure I would have collapsed under the societal pressures and started 'ellipticalling' or 'body pumping' to look like the feminine images I see pasted all over Instagram and Facebook.
I was reflecting on all of this a few months ago after an NTC event where I felt particularly proud of the community of strong, active women that Nike has helped to build in Toronto. You see, after the event, when I chatted with a bunch of the participants they were all so proud of their participation in NTC and the running community, and the progress they had made in their abilities over the last few months/years. For the most part, in the NTC and CrossFit communities in which I am immersed, there are no "I hate my (insert body part here)" type comments; rather, athletes are focused on getting their first pull up, doing perfect handstands, or running their fastest mile. Once again, I'm lucky. I'm lucky to be immersed in a community of strong, encouraging, like-minded people who praise their peers for their efforts and abilities, rather than the size of their jeans. And for this reason, my heart hurts when I see the images young girls and women are exposed to in the mainstream media revolving around the participation of women in athletics and training. Not only are many of these images unrealistic or unattainable, the methods that are promoted to achieve them are most often ridiculous, ineffective and worst of all, unpleasant. The ugliest part however, is this: many women are guilted or shamed into engaging these ridiculous exercises based on their appearance, the clothes they want to wear, or their eating habits. Nobody wants to spend 6 hours on an elliptical because they ate a brownie…it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t feel good.
As a society, we need realize something… Movement is Powerful. Lets take this one step further: Purposeful movement is Empowering. Rather than shaming girls and women into exercising achieve a certain look, we should be empowering them to play, train, and move for themselves - to build skills, relieve stress, and gain mental, physical and emotional strength and confidence. Training should not be presented as a torturous means to an unattainable end, but rather as a privilege, a period of time each individual can take for themselves to strive for goals as diverse as having fun, doing a strict push up, running a full marathon, or lifting their own bodyweight over their head. In addition to all of this, movement has the side benefits of helping girls and women build and maintain their bone and lean muscle mass, to improve or maintain their cardiorespiratory fitness, and to succeed in other areas of their life such as school or work! So why are we skipping all this good stuff, to guilt girls and women into training for aesthetic goals?
Enter the (F)Empower Project. This is where it all begins to change. Over the next several months, I’m going to be running a series on Fridays featuring the training stories some of the strongest, most motivated, awesome and successful ladies I know. What do they have in common? They all train, hard. Their methods and goals are diverse, they started at all different ages and stages, but they share a common trait: they’ve managed to break through the barrier of exercising to reach an ideal image to achieve true greatness in their training, work and personal lives. They are honest, they are inspiring, and most of all they are encouraging and supportive of other women in their training efforts.
I’m so excited about this little project, I think that I could squeal, do a jig, or do all of the above. My excitement is not only based on sharing the stores of these amazing women with you, but also on the end goal of this series… well, actually, the three end goals if I’m being honest. Firstly, as always, my foremost priority is to get more girls and women moving, in a way that is safe, efficient, and empowering! But beyond this, I hope that the (F)Empower Project will help to shift the imagery and discussion surrounding women in athletics and training away from a guilt-based image perspective towards a positive skill and health based perspective. Lastly, (and this is the big one) the long-term goal of this project is create a charitable organization based around empowering young girls, particularly those in vulnerable populations through safe, efficient, varied physical activity and the pure joy of movement. What can I say, other than ‘Ambitious goals make for outstanding achievements(1)’…and this one is very ambitious. So I hope you’ll browse by every Friday, and help build the momentum of the (F)Empower Project and the empowerment of women through training!
(1) Nike Women.