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GOTR Coaches Speak Out: Hard Knocks in the Girl Box

April 12, 2010

Today’s Coaches Speak Out series features guest contributor Cathleen Balantic, coach at Parkside Elementary in Atlanta. Did you miss Cathleen’s first two posts?

Last week, we covered the Bullying lesson. During the introductory circle, one of our usually cheerful and upbeat contributors had an uncharacteristically stormy look on her face. Shiny cheeks, red eyes, mouth set in a hard line, chin quivering. I pulled her aside to find out the source of her distress. She confided that shortly before practice, a boy at school had asked her why she was dressed as she was – that is, in comfortable running clothes. She replied that she was on her way to practice for Girls on the Run. His response to this information was, “You should be on the run. You’re fat.”
My immediate reaction was a strange fusion of my heart breaking for this girl coupled with a tremendous desire to find her rude tormentor and show him my best impression of Rocky Balboa. (I do really good impressions. Luckily for Bully Boy, I had more pressing matters to attend to at that moment).
Third grade. That’s how old I was when I first questioned my body. When I first wondered why I couldn’t be teeny and tiny and effortlessly skinny. I started tormenting myself with fat talk in third grade. I wasn’t fat, just like my upset GOTR girl isn’t. I was simply a young girl caught right in the middle of growing up. I can look back and see that now, but then, all I could see was a goofy, awkward-looking kid, and if any of my peers ever said something that validated these reservations I had about myself, I took the comments straight to heart. I didn’t have the tools to let those remarks bounce off.
That’s why, as this third grade Girl on the Run stood sobbing and steeping in shame at my side after confessing her own feelings on the subject of her body size (“He’s right. I am.”), I was fighting hard not to cry too. It felt as though all my hard-won self-esteem and body confidence was gone, and I was eight years old again, tugging my shirt over my tummy and pinching my legs and wondering why I didn’t look like little girls in the movies. The depth of my empathy was overwhelming.
And so, as she cried silently into my shoulder, I hesitated, debating about what to say and how much to share. I understood very acutely that this little boy’s words could lodge right there in her brain and stand ready to echo cruelly whenever she put on that same outfit or walked out of the school at that same time of day. Should I try not to make an issue of it, and tell her to shake the episode off and rejoin the stretch circle? What’s the right way to go about this? What if I say something that makes this worse? What if I don’t say enough?
Carefully and slowly, I admitted my own body image struggles to her. That I was just like her and I knew exactly how she felt. I told her that body confidence issues are something many, many girls deal with. I told her how impressed the coaches are with her attitude and effervescence. I reminded her how much her teachers admire the way she carries and conducts herself. I hoped to simultaneously build her back up and help her to realize she wasn’t alone.
Naturally, I can never know if there will be any lasting effects from the boy’s comment (OR our subsequent heart-to-heart) on her self-esteem and body image. But the entire incident was quite sobering, and reminded me of what a powerful position I am in as a coach. Girls on the Run is not smiles and sweat and sunshine every day. It is an exceptional angle of impact to fortify the self-esteem and strength of our next generation of young women, and I hope fiercely that this is exactly what I did that day.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 9:17 pm

    These girls are so fortunate to have such a safe and supportive place to share their feelings and experiences! Thank you for providing that!! Girls on the Run coaches are fantastic Role Models!


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