Right now, I am the strongest I’ve ever been. I admire my biceps. I marvel at my muscular thighs. We had to put the Elvis mirror up higher in the kitchen because I was constantly checking out my derby butt.
It wasn’t always like this – when I was skinny and when I was fat, I still hid my body. I’ve never cared what strangers thought of it, but I’ve always been so worried that people I know will look at my not-perfect body and think less of me. (No doubt this comes from growing up in a family who felt entitled to comment on my body all the time. Particularly during puberty. If you feel entitled to comment on someone’s body, stop fucking doing that.)
I figured this new body confidence was the result of playing sport. Of being physically active in a way I haven’t been for almost 25 years. But it’s not. This body confidence, this body satisfaction, it’s not a sport thing. It’s a roller derby thing. Peer-reviewed research says so.
For a lot of female athletes, there is conflict between their social world and their sporting world: to be successful in the former, they need to be feminine in appearance and demeanour, but to be successful in the latter they need to have strong muscular bodies and show characteristics associated with masculinity, such as assertiveness and competitiveness (Krane et al, 2004). So while they are proud of their muscular bodies in a sports setting, they tend to be self-conscious and have lower body image in a social setting. That’s no surprise. The ideal Western female athlete is slim, toned, white, and heterosexual-presenting – hell, that also describes the ideal Western woman and it is so damn hard to not internalise all that patriarchal bullshit. But this is where it gets interesting. Research by Andrea Eklund and Barbara Masberg (2014) indicates that playing roller derby leads to better body image, greater body satisfaction, and – in a surprise to no one who has been around derby players – a tendency to wear tight clothes in daily life. Wearing tight/revealing clothing at training and in bouts gives derby players the confidence to wear tight/revealing clothing in social settings. This finding contradicts research into other women’s sports that indicates that wearing revealing uniforms leads to lower body confidence (Krane et al, 2004).
Eklund and Masberg (2014) suggest that derby creates greater body acceptance, and acceptance of all body types, because unlike other sports, derby does not have an ideal-typical body type for that sport. Derby values all body types. However, in one of the greatest sentences to appear in an academic journal, “It should be noted that the respondents valued “booty”,” (Eklund and Masberg, 2014, p. 60).
This high level of body satisfaction and acceptance is also found in rugby (Fields and Comstock, 2008) and in belly dancing, which is one of the few styles in which dancers are not pressured to lose weight or to conform to any particular body shape (Downeya et al, 2010). Like derby, belly dancing promotes healthy body image in participants. Downeya et al (2010) suggest that belly dancing provides some sort of “immunity effect” in relation to social norms about ideal body types.
So there you have it. Proof that roller derby is better than other sports. I love the idea of getting immunised against harmful Western feminine ideals. An injection would be easier than learning to play derby, but it wouldn’t be as much fun. Not by a long shot. I fucking love my roller derby team.
Downeya, D., Reelb, J., SooHoob, S., and Zerbib, S. (2010). Body image in belly dance: Integrating alternative norms into collective identity. Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 19, pp. 377–393.
Eklund, A. and Masberg, B. (2014). Participation in Roller Derby, the Influence on Body Image. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 49-64.
Fields, S. K., and Comstock, R. D. (2008). Why American women play rugby. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, vol. 17, pp. 8–16.
Krane, V., Choi, P., Baird, S., Aimar, C., and Kauer, K. (2004). Living the paradox: Female athletes negotiate femininity and muscularity. Sex Roles, vol. 50, pp. 315–329.