If I could tell my seven-year-old self one thing it would be to refuse to shrink. Seven-year-old Shannon would probably look at me with a furrowed brow and confused expression, because shrinking was the last thing on her mind at that moment in time. When I was seven, I wanted to be bigger and taller and faster and stronger. I had two brothers and ten boys in my neighborhood and shrinking wasn’t going to win me the backyard baseball game or final round of horse before dinner. I went roller blading at the skate park every weekend and wore a purple helmet with a mushroom on it and knee pads so that if I fell down I could get right back up. I love seven-year-old Shannon, I wish I could bottle her up and carry her with me everywhere for inspiration.
“I would learn to hate sweating in gym class and eating in public, and every inch I grew meant that I was that much taller than every boy in my class.”
Yet, what I failed to realize in my innocence was that pretty soon I’d be in middle school, and all of the sudden growing larger and drawing attention to myself was social suicide. Things that seven-year-old me would have loved, like growing taller, and getting stronger, would soon be mortifying. I would learn to hate sweating in gym class and eating in public, and every inch I grew meant that I was that much taller than every boy in my class. This new middle-school-Shannon became a shadow of her former self. Seven-year old me would have absolutely hated this girl. She wasn’t hard core; she was timid and fragile, and she didn’t use her voice or put up a fight for herself. I’m not naïve, I know that the woes of pre-pubescent teenagers are nothing new, and middle school has been the bane of everyone’s existence long before I was born. But I’m not just talking about middle school here, I’m talking about the societal pressure that is put on girls from the moment they’re born, to care more about makeup and what boys think of them than what they truly wanted to care about: basketball. The pressure that tells them to shrink everything in their life; from their pant size to their intellectual capacity and opinions.
This pressure can be pervasive, as it often attacks from all angles. Pictures defining ‘ideal beauty’ and what it means to be ‘sexy’ are plastered throughout social media platforms, TV commercials, and magazine covers. The boys who you used to play with at recess now expect a certain level of submissiveness and attention from you. Girls who you once thought of as friends now whisper about your outfit and weight, and whether or not you’ve kissed a boy yet. Parental figures and teachers treat you like ‘young adults’ yet forget that you’re fighting a battle of self doubt and loathing both internally and externally. The worst part is, no one talks about it. Instead everyone suffers in individual bubbles assuming they’re the only one in the midst of an identity crisis. When I look back and think about what allowed me to break out of this bubble and feel big and invincible and seven years old again, I think about basketball.
“Sports have taught me to take up space. They have shown me what it means to be my largest, loudest, and most authentic self.”
It wasn’t really until college that I realized in order to be great at basketball I was going to have to grow, in every sense of the word. I started to lift weights, and eat meals that nourished my body, not worrying about calories and the fact that muscles meant a higher number on the scale. I ran sprints in 90-degree heat and I always wanted to play pick-up against the boys. I began to speak up in team huddles and in the class room. I started to use my voice and I liked the way it sounded. I was excited and loud and unapologetic about it, and it was liberating.
As a woman, you spend an excessive amount of time and energy trying to refine yourself to fit a certain societal mold, that by the time you realize the entire mold is a myth you’re exhausted. It’s exhausting to be a girl and it’s equally as exhausting to be a female athlete. It is both a blessing and a burden. The burden comes from putting in twice as much effort in the gym as a guy but still getting half the respect or credit. The burden is having a male ask if you need help lifting something at the gym even though he would never ask the guy next to you. It’s having to mentally prepare yourself for the looks you get when you ask to join a game of pick up or infiltrate the weight section. It’s the stares and the degrading comments you endure walking around in leggings. It’s everything that makes you want to sit in your room and not walk out into the fire. You have to develop tough skin to thrive in this space because it can be debilitating but it can also be transformative.
At 23, I finally feel like I am closer to my seven-year-old self than my thirteen-year-old self. Basketball has given me a platform to grow and thrive and truly appreciate my worth. The truth is, I feel horrible for the girls who don’t have access to this type of platform, the girls who don’t have an entire team behind them in the weight room and at the dining hall and on the court. Those girls don’t get to lift each other up and learn how to grow as a unit. I give them credit because I owe everything to the sport, and teammates, and coaches who helped me through the doubts and low points where I wanted to shrink back into nothing.
“I started to use my voice and I liked the way it sounded. I was excited and loud and unapologetic about it, and it was liberating.”
We live in a world where females have been forced to resort to writing “me too” as a cry for help, to let others know that they have been violated, undermined, and disrespected, and that they’re hurting. It is a culture that we are all complicit in and one we must work on in order to create a better future for little girls and little boys alike. Boys were not born to talk over girls as a means of asserting their dominance, just as girls weren’t destined to speak only if spoken to. One of my favorite quotes is by the poet Rupi Kaur titled “The Idea of Shrinking is Hereditary”. In the poem she writes, “trying to convince myself I am allowed to take up space is like writing with my left hand when I was born to use my right.” In reality, this ‘hereditary’ idea has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the culture of masculinity and femininity that surrounds us. While this culture may be toxic and comprehensive, we have the agency and means to change it.
Sports have taught me to take up space. They have shown me what it means to be my largest, loudest, and most authentic self. I hope that every girl finds that thing that urges her to be bigger, to aim higher, and to use her unique voice. Claim your space, even if it means pushing others out of the way at times. Do not become comfortable with dormancy when you were born to grow. Be gentle with yourself through moments of adversity, as we are all human. Boys; listen to what the females in your life have to say, allow them room to grow, elevate their words, encourage their hunger, and applaud their drive not their appearance. Girls; empower other females, tell the next generation that there is nothing they are not capable of, never allow someone to make you feel inferior without your consent, and refuse, with unwavering conviction, to shrink. Find your purpose, your people, and your platform, whether it be through basketball, sports, or neither, and use them to challenge both yourself and the world we live in. We are all capable and worthy of demanding more.
The Awesome Sports Project is an online journal committed to inspiring girls’ and women’s voices in sports. We publish every Tuesday between November and June. Submit your own story or enter ourAwesome Sports Writing Contest.