Taking up Space: How a Year of Roller Derby Changed My Experience of being a Woman
By Carolyn Farnsworth
For my sixth birthday, my mom rented out the local roller rink in our hometown of Santa Cruz, California. I was an inline skater at the time, and I loved to skate because it made me feel like I was flying. I spent the day playing tag with my friends and racing my dad, who let me win because it was my birthday. At the time, I didn’t know that there were actual sports that involved roller skating, let alone a sport dominated by powerful women who wore quad skates and hit each other. (I suspect I would have been a huge fan.)
Fast forward about two decades to the summer of 2016, when I went with a group of friends to watch the Gotham Girls Roller Derby annual double header in Coney Island. I had never actually seen a derby bout before, and it was nothing like what I’d expected. In derby, you have two teams with five players each on the track at one time. Two of the players are called “jammers”—their job is to get past all the girls in the pack. When a jammer passes a player from the opposing team, she gets a point. The girls who are not jammers are called “blockers”—they try to “block” the jammers from getting past them and scoring points.
It is an incredibly physical sport; you have to learn to manipulate your body weight to slam an opponent out of the way, how to stand so firmly on your skates that you can stay upright when a jammer throws her entire body weight into you. From that first day in Coney Island, I was hooked. Who wouldn’t want to be repeatedly slammed to the ground on roller skates, right?
Less than a week after the Coney Island bout, I joined Basic Training Level 1 with Gotham Girls Roller Derby in Brooklyn. There I was—a tall, clutzy, newly minted New Yorker—skating (read: falling) with derby legends like Suzy Hotrod, Bonnie Thunders, Bonita Applebomb, Shortstop, and Miss Tea Maven. I cannot express in words the sheer volume of bad assery I have witnessed. Holy shit. Many of these women can spin in the air and land on a toe stop, all while avoiding being knocked off the track by their opponents.
At first I was mega-intimidated. My inner monologue at practice went something like, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I could barely skate around the track, and here were all these women skating sideways, backwards, backwards on one foot, backwards on no feet (OK, not really). But then I started getting better. I spent hours and hours on my own, practicing transitions, stops, crossovers—I would skate until my legs were shaking so much I physically couldn’t skate anymore. I went through three months of physical therapy after a bout of tendonitis in my right ankle, and I started lifting weights and doing conditioning on the side. Gradually, I moved up to the intermediate class, then (finally!) advanced.
As the months went by, my entire thought world began to transform. I used to have all these self-conscious thoughts at the gym: Do I look stupid doing this exercise? Why is my sports bra giving me armpit fat? How many mansplainers does it take to keep a woman out of the weight room? As I kept getting more skilled at derby, getting stronger became a matter of necessity. Gone were the days of working out to “look good.” I strengthened my core because I needed to get better at taking hits. I did plyometrics to amp up my cardio and agility. I didn’t have the time for self-conscious nincompoopery; I was on a mission to one day become a fully-fledged Gotham Girl.
The crazy thing is, it wasn’t just at the gym that I started feeling differently about myself; it was everywhere. I started to walk differently. I stood taller, I didn’t automatically move out of the way for people, I stopped saying “I’m sorry” every two minutes. I stood up for myself at work. I ended a toxic relationship. I started to see my body as an instrument of speed and power, a tool that was given to me to accomplish my goals. My newfound respect for my body translated into a newfound respect for myself as an individual. This relationship between physical fitness and self-confidence was nothing new to me, though, since I had a similar experience (with an opposite effect) years before.
In my second semester at college, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. At 5’11, I weighed only 120 pounds and had a BMI of around 16.7 (a normal BMI is from about 18.5 to 24.9). I was cold all the time. Little lines formed on either side of my mouth, my hair thinned, my eyes were dull in pictures, and I didn’t have my period for almost two years. I struggled with this demon all through college—counting calories down to every last piece of broccoli, exercising five or more hours a day, substituting meals with coffee and red apples.
As I got thinner and thinner, I noticed how differently people treated me. Men opened doors for me all the time, women I didn’t even know would come up to me and ask about my diet—my own mom openly made comments about “hating me” when I was a size four. People were in awe of me in this totally bizarre way—I say it was bizarre because I was essentially committing protracted suicide, and all these people were jealous of me.
I dug deep into myself, and I eventually regained a normal weight, but the whole experience left me disillusioned. I realized that, as women, we are encouraged to diminish ourselves, and we are fed this insidious lie that self-restraint is the key to earning respect. This notion had been hammered into me my whole life—from being told it was better to be called “pretty” than “adventurous,” to having to dress in a particular way so I didn’t overtax a man’s apparently negligible power over his own sexual behavior, to being told by a professor in grad school that someone who looked like me didn’t need an advanced degree.
It’s hard to have a normal relationship with food when you grow up with a mom who drinks Diet Coke and a dad who eats Oreos, and your family worships a god who condemned all women to suffer in childbirth because the first woman alive ate something she wasn’t supposed to. It’s hard to love your body when you commute on a train plastered with advertisements for breast augmentation and slimming underwear. It’s hard to feel powerful when you can’t even go on a simple lunchtime run in New York City without being catcalled.
So it was a sickening moment for me when, a few months into my roller derby training, I realized how many of these messages I had internalized. I realized I was living my life in the same self-conscious way I had been going to the gym. It was like I was standing two feet outside myself, watching, imagining how I appeared to others, and adjusting my actions accordingly.
On the derby track, every play requires absolute focus. The game moves so fast that the only way to be successful is to be completely present. You are your body, and your body is an instrument of power. You are encouraged to move, to get in the way—to take up space. On the track, you hear messages like: “Don’t apologize!” “Get in front of her!” “Hips together, be strong!” Every second of the game, you are a thing of action. When you get off the track, you’re covered in sweat, your teammates are patting you on the back, you all show off your bruises and say stuff like: “Man! That was a fall! Is your ass OK?” or “Way to fight!”
When you hear something enough times, it becomes real. When you feel something over and over, that feeling gets ingrained inside you. When you hang out with people who are supportive and empowering, you take on those same qualities. Before I started playing roller derby last year, I had never been around so many mentally and physically strong women in my whole life. And I had never been praised for aggressively taking up space.
It seems like such a subtle thing but, as a woman, demanding space often feels like a foreign concept. I used to feel like, if I put myself out there, then I deserved any pushback or criticism I got—if I chose to make myself vulnerable, then it was my fault if I was disliked or belittled. And I think this is really pronounced in eating disorders.
As women and girls, we often feel like we don’t have control, and so we internalize all the messages designed to control our bodies—the photoshopped magazines, the sexualization of female athletes and superheroes, all the skin-tight pants without any fucking pockets, the appalling state of birth control, the unending barrage of catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment. It seems obvious to me that a woman who wanted to feel a shred of control over her life might wind up with an eating disorder, because she is constantly told that being thin will solve all her problems.
But if that woman can move past it, if she can turn all the diminutive rhetoric around, then she will see those messages for what they really are: fear. People hurt people who threaten them. The reason that there are a seemingly endless number of messages that put women down is because women do not go down easy. We are smart, we are strong, and we make bad ass skaters.
About the author
Carolyn Farnsworth is a copy editor, writer, and amateur roller derby player based in New York City. Her previous work has appeared on the Tin House Open Bar and Nature Microbiology Community blog. Her current plans involve dipping her toe stops into the world of skate dancing, and continuing to engage in feminist dialogue through her writing.