I remember the incredulous satisfaction of getting a basketball through a hoop in the school playground when I was (possibly) nine years old. That complete, pure happiness of doing something visibly well without a single pinch of negativity radiating from myself; I didn’t feel the uncomfortable itch of other people’s eyes that sometimes physically makes my skin crawl these days, or the painful awareness of all my body parts awkwardly squirming in an unfamiliar environment. I was just one body amongst others, merging into the lines on the court.
Looking back at how I felt playing any kind of sport as a young kid, it was as if my limbs were an extension of the pitch, or the racket was an extension of my own body. Things flowed easily. Except thoughts, any thinking that was not related to the game ceased. I guess this is what it means to feel fully absorbed in what you’re doing, and I certainly can coax that feeling back sitting at a laptop, fingers flying over the keyboard as I type out a post. But I know for sure I haven’t felt it doing something as physical as a sport in a long time.
By the time I was taking part in the obligatory Physical Education lessons at secondary school, I was recoiling inwards. I started worrying about how my limbs felt doing the movements, having to do new sports, what my body looked like doing the movements, how I didn’t seem to be as natural at running or kicking a ball as other people. As the teen years began to climb upwards, these feelings intensified until I completely lacked confidence in every area of sport.
Despite how dramatic these years sound once compressed down into a small paragraph, it didn’t feel sad at the time. It was gradual, and felt like a preference, my choice, rather than a social anxiety situation that was taking place. With hindsight, I think it is possible to argue perhaps it wasn’t all anxiety’s fault: anxiety has many wrongdoings on its ‘done’ and ‘to do’ lists, but, for once, this wasn’t one it entirely orchestrated on its own. This team effort has to, in part, be attributed to the stubborn societal view of what it means to be female, and the way this manifests in young introverted girls.
This only fully came into focus for me a week or so ago: the day I picked up a basketball again for the first time and headed to a local park with my boyfriend to gently (or so I thought) get back into a sport I had enjoyed all those years ago in primary school. It was not easy to step back onto a court. In fact, I started panicking without even having put one toe onto the concrete.
My breathing sounded like someone frantically stepping on and off a foot pump, my heart was trying to escape my chest and someone decided to burst a pipe behind my eyes. I walked away from the court and hid out of view: scared, sad, angry, anxious and emotional thoughts rattled around the insides of my brain (a future Conversations with Anxiety post maybe?). So yes, this was very much an anxiety hurdle that I had to overcome, but the main trigger of this attack was slightly different to the usual thoughts that seep into and swirl through my mind like toxic gas.
My first thought when we were approaching the three courts in the park was ‘oh no, there are people already there’. This was closely followed by, ‘they’re all male’. It was at this point I started feeling inadequate and self-conscious; it was like my limbs had swollen up and I was unable to control their awkward swinging from side to side. I felt the wrong shape and size for this. In the wrong clothes, mindset and gender.
Masculinity oozed from the court and this self-proclaimed feminist felt pathetically weak and negatively female; I felt like my presence was as weighty as a silly pink feather in comparison to the solid righteous sweat of male energy I was attempting to permeate. Inadequacy has never burned hotter in my cheeks and, in that moment, was the welcoming host to anxiety. All these thoughts about feeling worthless, self-conscious, pathetic, ashamed, uncomfortably in the spotlight, out of my comfort zone and incapable flooded my brain until I took myself away from the situation.
It took me some time to calm down, reevaluate the situation and decide to push through the discomfort – if only for a short time. I really struggled to go back there, but I did it anyway. In the end, we stayed for more than an hour because we were having so much fun. Since that day, I have played basketball several times across three different parks and in different situations: with no one around, surrounded by groups of other people, and one time actually sharing my hoop with a stranger who was happy to teach me a few things about basketball.
Even though this journey hasn’t yet lasted more than a week or two, it has already given me so much insight into myself, my own mental health and how I think about society. I’ve always thought that social anxiety can stem from a lot of things, but a factor I feel needs more of a spotlight is the pressure of gender conformity. I think this is a real problem in our society, and more needs to be done to confront it.
Kids need to see strong women with ambitions around them. Kids need to see sensitive men with emotions around them too. What children are exposed to is extremely powerful. If we constantly bombard girls with images of a certain body type or the subtle (and not so subtle) ways we tell them what is and what isn’t for them, and what femininity is ‘supposed’ to look like, they will pick up on it. And this can be a pathway into so many mental illnesses: anxiety, depression and eating disorders to name a few.
I truly believe I wouldn’t be struggling with so much anxiety today if I hadn’t grown up rationalising some of my negative thoughts as okay responses to social situations because I’m female. And I’m sure some men wouldn’t be suffering so badly if our society encouraged them to be as open with their emotions as women. These are not individual or isolated issues, but social ones some of us are made to feel like we have to deal with individually.
We all need to see such rigid barriers between what it means to be male and female broken down, so that we all feel free to express ourselves in ways we want to and can attempt to limit the damage these social expectations can have on our mental health. At least, that is something I would like to see.
I’d love to cover this topic in more depth at some point, I realise it is a huge subject that I have only just skimmed the surface of. There is so much more to be said about this. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts below, and if you feel your mental health experience has been impacted by living in such a gendered society.
If you’d like to read more about my ‘Seeking Discomfort’ series, head on over to the first post to find out why I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible!
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