Volunteering in February to help US Olympian athletes try on their opening and closing ceremonial outfits was a blast. I liked the people I worked with and I really came to like the athletes who were all very centered and focused young men and women. The coaches were also wonderful people. However, there were a couple of challenges along the way. One of them was confronting the classic body image issue.
I am a woman of Rubenesque proportions in mid-life. This is a life stage and a body shape that is not celebrated in our culture these days. Hanging out with a number of young men and women in the prime of their lives and bodies highlighted the difference of my own body. Of course I dropped right into shame, being a well programmed American woman. We’ve been well taught to hate our bodies since we first discovered 7th grade and hormones.
As volunteers, we were given t-shirts for that team-look. I hate team look t-shirts. A design that looks just fine on a flat, male chest, takes on extra meaning when stretched across the Grand Tetons and of course no one ever orders the women t-shirts in a large enough size anyway. I’m always torn between wanting to show team spirit and feeling shame that I don’t fit into the team look. To cover my shame, I make jokes. We all make jokes and then I start working on clothing cover strategies so its not completely obvious just how much I am overweight. Not that weight can be covered up, but shame drives me to think I should try.
Then I showed up for the Para-Olympics which completely exposed the cultural lie that tries to tell us: Only some bodies are beautiful.
We saw all kinds of bodies getting ready for the Para-Olympics and every single one of those bodies was strong and powerful. Some bodies belonged to war veterans or automobile passengers who had survived unthinkable violence and some bodies were simply born that way. All of the athletes were using their bodies to the limits which turned out to be much farther out then any of use might think if we’d not met a Para-Olympian before.
Still – there was this one moment that happened several times and which repeatedly broke my heart and made me angry. If it came, it came when the athlete was trying on the t-shirts and jackets for wearing around the Olympic Village. All of it was pre-made clothes cut to normal, mass produced size standards. Industrial clothing is a great invention. It makes clothes cheap and easy to buy – if you fit the standard sizes. But when your arms and shoulders have developed sizes beyond the norm because you push the wheels on your chair hard, then off-the-rack doesn’t work.
One of the Para-Olympic women was practically in tears from shame when she realized she was going to have to ask for Men 3x t-shirt sizes. She apologized profusely but I told her, “Are you kidding me? Look at the girls here, I totally get the situation.” I then starting dragging out the biggest shirts I knew that were stashed in the back of the warehouse. She told me later that she though she was so lucky as to get women assistants who “understood,” and I got angry. She isn’t lucky, she simply received the help and the sizes she deserved. I think, “What is up with this shame?” knowing that I’ve felt the same way myself more then once.
Later that day, I worked with an athlete who’s back story would break your heart and cause you to stand in awe at his persistent courage. He looked at the box of t-shirts and sighed deeply. “I’m too fat,” he said quietly. “Again,” I thought, “Are you kidding me? You are an Olympian Athlete. You deserve to be here and you are going to be as much welcomed and gifted as any other body in this building!” And I went and found more t-shirts of the exact right size.
That’s the moment I stopped wearing my “cover” strategies.
It was hot in that hotel ballroom anyway.
These are people who are balancing themselves on little mono-skies and are throwing themselves down the side of a mountain at high speeds. These are people playing some fierce hockey on sleds. These are people competing on metal legs and people competing with colonoscopy bags attached to their skin. I saw some scars on people’s bodies that testified to trauma I don’t even want to imagine. Every single one of these people have earned their way to this competition in deep, gut wrenching ways and every single one of these bodies are beautiful. Shame has no purpose here. Shame is a distractor.
This was not a group that was into the selfie photo in Olympic gear for the most part. In the previous Olympic week, almost all the Olympians took a photo of themselves in the opening and closing ceremony outfits. They were excited, they were taking photos for mom, for their Facebook page, for each other for themselves. They were comfortable with how they looked and didn’t think twice about posing for a photo in their gear. The Para-Olympians rarely took any photos. Team members might tease each other across the room as they dressed and undressed but this was a more practical, more of a clothes on, clothes off, thank you very much process. These athletes just didn’t do the selfie photo celebration very much.
Perhaps these athletes already knew who they were and didn’t need to worry about how they looked. They already know their strength and do not need the selfie to re-enforce their self-image. Or maybe they are highly skilled in averting their eyes whenever a mirror is near by. Body shame in our culture has so much power. Sometimes shame is very subtle.
Halfway through my second day I met a Para-Olympian athlete that I’m going to remember for a long time. She is why this volunteer gig was so addicting that many of my colleagues will pay good money out of their own pockets and take their own vacation days to fly around the world for this work.
After going through multiple different sizes in order to get the opening ceremony outfit right, she was in her chair and in “the look.” I asked her if she wanted her picture taken and she sort of smiled and said, “no,” like she doesn’t take very many photos of herself. I realized that she had her back to the wall of mirrors and that she hadn’t yet seen herself in full dress. I asked her to turn around and see. She didn’t say much, but I watched her start to smile in awe and wonder.
“This is how an Olympian looks,” I said out loud.
And then we started on the closing ceremony outfit.