Villainelle

Mar 112011
 

I know I owe you guys another installment of Sex and Roller Derby.  And I promise it’s still on the horizon.  But remember how I warned you I might come up with something more important to say?  Last night, when Moxie posted about the oft-contentious topic of derby dress, I realized I DID in fact have something to say.  Because what I wear to derby matters to me.  It matters A LOT.  Because I’ve been worrying about my clothes for way too long already.

I had my first conflict over clothing when I was about 10 years old.

I'm the one in pink. I am 6 here. I am already developing hips and thighs.

I’m one of those kids who developed really early – earlier than is strictly reasonable.  I was full height by age 9 or 10, already sporting breasts and hips and an ass that, for an elementary schooler, could only be referred to as “epic.”  Whenever I mention this aspect of my childhood in mixed company, my male friends say, “That must’ve been awesome!”  Girls know better, though.  When I mention being the first kid on the playground with a C-cup, girls cringe silently or offer commiserating stories of their own.  Because girls know that being sexualized early is rife with complications.

All of a sudden, my uniform shorts looked a lot different than everyone else’s.  The baggy fabric was hugging me so tightly that preventing panty-line became a daily challenge.  My new bra (like actual bra; no training for these tits) was absurdly visible through the sheer fabric of our Peter-Pan-collar innocent-schoolgirl shirts.  Boys popped my straps on the playground.  They asked me if I’d be willing to show them my tits.  Up until that point, I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word “tits,” much less some of the other super-creatively-gross euphemisms they’d come up with.  I had no idea what they were so interested in.  As far as I could tell, I wasn’t any different than I’d been the year before.  I was the same mousy, quiet girl I’d always been.  Now, all of a sudden, the other kids were paying attention to me.  But the attention didn’t feel good.  It felt strange and awkward, unfounded somehow in anything I could comprehend.

I’m not saying I didn’t know what sex was; my dad is a scientist, and as such he always made sure I had a scientific explanation of the world around me.  But understanding the mechanics of sex does nothing to help you analyze the skeezy feeling you get when the class bully unhooks your bra during math, or tries to bounce a penny off your ass whenever you bend over.  Those feelings have nothing to do with making babies, nor with the “mutual respect and affection” that you’ve been taught are supposed to accompany human sexuality.  (Yeah, I know.  ”Mutual respect and affection” is kind of high-faluting language to use on a kid.  But you’ve never met my dad.)

My mother and I began to have near-constant conflicts about my clothes.  While school days were taken up with required uniforms, my weekends had always been a long string of shorts and tank tops.  Now, suddenly, I found my mother trying to convince me to “layer.”  She took me to Dillards in search of jeans to replace my well-loved outdoor shorts.  Whenever I tried to ask her why I couldn’t just wear my old clothes, she would hem and haw, telling me only that “those clothes just don’t look right on you anymore.”  When I got a little older and babydoll dresses with spaghetti straps got popular, I had to continually insist that wearing a t-shirt underneath the dress kind of hurt the look.  The same held true for wearing biking shorts underneath a skirt.  My mother didn’t breathe again until I got into grunge and started wearing figure-masking flannel shirts and overalls.

It took me years to understand why clothes that looked so cute and fun on my friends somehow looked slutty on me.  Things started to even out a little as I got older and my peers began catching up to me.  My body didn’t stand out quite as much outside an elementary school classroom.  But the weird feeling that there was something wrong or immoral about my shape never quite left me.  My breasts and hips were intruders that made my life confusing and complicated, that asked people to read my body separately from my personality.  They had their own grammar, sent their own private message to the world.  And I hated them.

By the time I hit my senior year of high school, I was a full-blown anorexic.  I had dropped from around 130 lbs (about what I weigh now, for those who know me) to 100.  My freshman year of college the numbers climbed lower, first to the lower 90s and then, after a bout with stomach flu, the lower 80s.  I bottomed out at around 82 lbs before I finally got some help and started the slow crawl back to normal.  And although I can’t guarantee a causal relationship, I can’t help but think that my early experience with T&A helped push me over the edge.  If I could just lose a little more weight, just a few more pounds, maybe my hips would disappear.  Maybe my breasts would dissolve and never return.  Maybe I could live a life where the clothes I draped myself in didn’t matter so much.  Maybe I wouldn’t look like a slut.

Me, parodying "sexy", at the 2010 Running of the Rollerbulls in New Orleans

I had to begin dealing with my body dysmorphia in order to get healthy again.  I had to learn that food is good and starvation is bad, that my body is my friend, yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda.  But it wasn’t until I joined derby that I really became friends with my body again.  I learned that giant asses are tools of power, that tits can be used in strategic positional blocking, and that thunder thighs help me get low and gain stability.  So when I dress for practice, I wear outfits that highlight my most valuable assets.  As Moxie mentioned in her post yesterday, derbies have long been proud of their hot pants and fishnets and low-cut tops.  But they’ve also been criticized for them, taken to task for not dressing like “serious athletes.”  So when I don my hot pants, I’m sending an important message to the world.  I’m saying “fuck you” to all the people who made me feel ashamed, who tried to teach me that asses and tits and hips were nothing but sex tools.  I’m reminding myself and my audience that women’s bodies – no matter their shape – are powerful.  I am proud, not ashamed.

So if the world wants to keep staring at our hot pants and telling us we’re nothing but sex kittens, that’s their own damn fault.  I know better.  I know that my body – while sexy – can do a lot of other things besides fuck.  And until the world learns that women have a right to display their bodies however they choose, without judgment, I’m going to keep skating – hot pants and all.

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Mar 032011
 

Tuesday night, as I was squinting across the rink at my teammate (and fellow LDG author!) Moxie Balboa, all I could see were the words “SEX” and “ROLLER DERBY” written across her shirt.

Makes sense, I thought to myself.  They’re obviously the same thing.

Later, I would realize that Moxie’s shirt ACTUALLY read “The only things I think about are SEX and ROLLER DERBY.”  But the amount of space the two items occupy in my brain is not the only thing they have in common.  And so, inspired by Moxie’s practice gear, I bring to you:

“Oops!  I Didn’t Mean To Do THAT:” Lessons Learned In Bed and On the Track

1. Your first time will get you sweaty and messy – and you’ll probably kind of suck.

I wish someone had told me this before I learned it for myself.  Like Mannie Freshmeat, I watched my first bout imagining myself whooshing around the track, scoring a million points and knocking down the other players like bowling pins.  I would be the 6 Million Dollar Woman on Wheels, a faster, stronger, better model than anything anyone had ever seen.  But fantasies and reality just aren’t the same thing, whether you’re on the track or in the sack. (Someone should hire me to write a cliched sex-self-help book.  I’m really good at this rhyming catch-phrase thing.)  I just might be willing to admit that, as an inexperienced preteen, I imagined myself as the Lady with the Magic Vagina.  When my “first time” came, I would please my partner and myself simultaneously, a pure concentration of vulvic power.  (Note: WordPress thinks that “vulvic” is not a word.  Should it be “vulvar?”  Who wants “vulvar” powers?  That doesn’t sound nearly as awesome.)  When I finally actually managed to get in the same room with a real-life naked dude, things weren’t quite that explosive.  While points were scored, I was definitely not lead jammer.  And there might have been a handful of major penalties involved.

2.  Size doesn’t really matter.

Sure, there are people who try to tell you that big girls can’t skate fast enough, or that skinny minnies won’t be able to take (or give) a hit.  But for every single skeptic, there are at least 5 derby girls out on a flat track right now, proving her wrong.  We derbies are proud of the diversity of physical bodies that inhabit our ranks, and we know that the human form is beautiful in all its incarnations.  People who use their beds as size-ist war zones should take a lesson from the derby rule book.  Bodies can do amazing and unexpected things, no matter their shape or size.  Haters are missing out.

3.  Fancy shit is fine, but if you don’t know the basics, you can’t get far

The night my friend Q lost his virginity, he accidentally learned that he was fantastically adept at performing in a backbend-intensive position called “London Bridge.”  His girlfriend, also a virgin, loved the position and claimed it made her cum every time.  Consequently, Q started to believe that London Bridge was some kind of lady-pleasing secret that his sexually active bro-friends just hadn’t uncovered.  After all, he could make a girl climax every time!!! Like my pre-cherry-popping self, he assumed he was some sort of sexual superhero.  About six months later, he and his girlfriend broke up, and -eager to try out his super-secret power – he found a new partner.  During their first encounter, he almost immediately folded himself into a backbend, trying to initiate London Bridge.  His new orgasm-candidate glared questioningly at him and said, “Are you doing a BACKBEND?”

“Yeah!” he answered, “It’s awesome!  Go ahead; climb on top.”

She didn’t.  Instead, she pushed him back onto the floor and – in a moment far more forceful than anything I experienced as a teen – said to him, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.  Don’t you know how to just FUCK?”

Don’t be like Q.  Don’t limit your repertoire to the most complicated trick and believe it makes you the Super-Secret Power-Skater.  One day down the road, you’ll get your ass kicked by a girl who can do a mean t-stop.  Learn the basics.

This is not the end of the SEX and ROLLER DERBY comparison. I’ll be back next week with more, if I haven’t thought of something more urgent to say.  In the meantime, submit your own comparisons!  I’ll write up the best ones in next week’s entry.

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Feb 242011
 

Me, making my way around the track as the RSRD jammer least likely to actually score any points

So.  This past weekend (Sunday, Februrary 19th, 2011 for those who are keeping track) I played in my first match against an opposing team.

It wasn’t a bout, exactly.  It was a scrimmage.  We were in front of families and a few close friends, skating in our normal practice space rather than on the intimidating floors of the Baton Rouge River Center.  But we were skating together, as a team, against girls from another city.  And as anyone who’s bouted before can tell you, being up against a real opponent makes a difference.  For the first time, I was skating against girls who wouldn’t tell me how to improve, wouldn’t pat me on the back after I survived an especially hard hit.  I was up against people who wanted to get their jammer past me at all costs – people who wouldn’t know the difference between me and any other girl in a purple uniform.  They wouldn’t know that I was new, wouldn’t know how hard I’d been working in practice or how much I’d overcome to be on the floor that day.  They would know only that I was their opponent, an obstacle to be eliminated.

I’m not used to being an obstacle.  I’m one of those “how can I help you” people – the girl who always wants to know what else she can do, how she can facilitate and instigate and accomplish.  If I ever stood in someone’s way, in the everyday world, I’d probably have a heart attack.  Or cry.

Originally, I was going to spend this entire post telling you about the process of becoming an obstacle – explaining how I found my footing in the midst of a game and learned to stand in the way of my opponents and their goals – WITHOUT feeling guilty about it.  I was going to tell you about our 117-76 win, about my unsuccessful jams, and about the way I made peace with those jams and realized that, in the process of failing to become a better jammer, I’d accidentally succeeded in becoming a better blocker.  A solid blocker.  I was going to say “aw shucks, isn’t derby grand?”

But that post-bout feeling subsides.  Obstacles cease being positives, and the desire to score more points returns.  I know that we here at LDG are fond of enlisting derby as a metaphor for all the great challenges we face in life.  But there are times when the answers I find on the track just aren’t applicable to the situations that bombard my everyday world.  Sometimes they aren’t even applicable to the situations I face within my own team.

Racing up to form a wall with teammates Schexorcist and Summer Squasher

Our league, like every league, has its disagreements.  We always bump through them together, but that doesn’t make them any less painful when they’re happening.  Right now we’re in the midst of a debate about shifting our long-standing practice time by an hour or two.  I won’t bore you with the details.  The point is, we’re putting some changes to a vote, and we’re discovering that even seemingly small alterations have far-reaching consequences.  While setting an earlier time might help some skaters with babysitters, early next-day work hours, and late-night study sessions, it would also potentially prevent other skaters from making the required number of practices each month – forcing them out of bouts and eventually off of the team.

When the question was originally put to a vote, I voted for the earlier time.  Because it suited me best, and I was voting for my own interests alone.  When it came to light that other skaters would be severely affected by the change, I wondered whether I’d made the wrong choice, whether I was a selfish bitch for going with my own interests.  I wavered and began to wonder if I should change my vote.  And then I wavered again, wondering whether there were others who would be equally affected by the later time, whose feelings I might not be taking into consideration.  I sat in front of my computer, staring at the debate on our skater forum, and froze.

My entire life I’ve been caught between the desire to perform for others and the need to perform for myself.  When I was on the track on Sunday, I thought I’d found the answer.  Something inside of me had snapped, and I had suddenly forgotten about trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do and had instead done what I knew I could do.  I had gone from being the waffling girl, the one who asks everyone’s opinion before she makes decisions, to being the blocker who thrusts herself firmly in other people’s paths.  I hadn’t worried, even for a second, wether my moves were the right ones.  I simply made them, automatically and definitively.  But now, post-bout, I was right back in my pre-derby headspace – fearing that following my own instincts and acting in my own interest was only going to hurt other people.    I was an obstacle, and I was certain that I ought to move out of the way.

Ultimately, I assume that we’ll reach some sort of compromise – one that will hopefully put everyone on an equal footing.  But in the meantime, I’ve had to realize that derby doesn’t give me all the answers.  Or maybe what it gives me are answers in the form of questions, like Zen Proverbs or something.  When I started skating, I was counting on derby to make me more assertive and less cerebral.  I wanted it to take me out of my head and teach me to assert myself as a person with needs and wants and boundaries.  But maybe wanting to euthanize my old identity isn’t the answer.  Maybe sometimes the girl who weighs people’s feelings, who waffles and is slow to make decisions – maybe sometimes she’s in the right.  Or at least not totally in the wrong.  And maybe neither one of us is the strong one.  Maybe the strength is in balancing two identities, knowing which to inhabit at the appropriate times, being able to shift between the two at will.

Maybe all the people who’ve been trying to convince me just to stand up for myself were reading me all wrong.  Maybe sometimes other people’s interests are my own, and the line between selfless and selfish is thinner than it seems.

Either way, I think I’m going to make a damn good blocker.

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Feb 162011
 

You can learn a lot about Derby Girls by looking at the pageviews for LDG.

Know what derby is NOT? It is NOT the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants...

Sometime Monday morning, TrAC/DC’s post about the Dark Side of Derby received so many hits that our servers went down and we had to call our Trusty Web Advisor (aka my Derby Widow) to get things up and running again.  In the entire history of the blog, no other post has received that level of attention.  The only one that even begins to come close (but not THAT close) is my first post on the blog – a post detailing the ways that derby really and truly may have been the thing that saved my life.

What this tells us, sociologically, is that derbies view their sport simultaneously as a force of creation and destruction.  It builds us up even as it tears us down.  It supports us, even as it sucks us dry.  It’s the good, the bad, and the in between.

And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.  Derby isn’t perfect?  So what?  Neither am I.  That’s why derby feels like home to me – because I’m fucking sick of perfection.

As TrAC says in her post, we derbies are fiercely protective of our sport.  I’m no exception to that rule, and when I first started playing nothing brought out the defensive side of me more than the mean-spirited jokes about how derby was just a giant cat-fight, a place for women to take out their exclusively feminine aggression on each other.  ”It’s not LIKE THAT!” I kept wanting to scream.  ”We’re friends!  We’re good to each other!  We help each other out!”  As an ardent feminist, I couldn’t stand watching people use my sport as fodder for their misogynist mythology.  The argument that female sports are breeding grounds for “lady drama” is one of the primary weapons in the arsenal of those who suggest that girls are Strictly Emotional Creatures who couldn’t use logic to save their lives.  I didn’t want any part of that argument.  Derby wasn’t about fitting the script – it was about busting negative stereotypes.  It was about being a DIFFERENT kind of woman.

I believed that in order to prove we were worthwhile, we also had to prove that we were perfect.  I was asking derby to participate in the same fucked-up script I’d been acting out my entire life – the script that tells you you have to put on a nice outfit for company, that tells you that your kids and your lover and your parents and your dog and your fish are all more important than you are, and that it’s your job to keep them happy.  I wanted my team to be all things to me at all times: family and lover, friend and mentor.  I wanted them to redeem me, to prove that a woman really could be everything – and that she could look hot in her jersey while doing it.

But the thing is, we aren’t perfect.  And the people who expect us to be are just assholes.  We fight sometimes.  We backstab and nitpick.  We form cliques and break confidences.  We mess up. But I hope — with every ounce of my scarred and fragile derby heart, I hope  that we don’t turn away from each other in those moments.  I hope that we don’t give up.  Because the moment we give up on each other is the moment we give in to the worst of the myths about women.  If we overthrow our derbies because they don’t fulfill our ideals, we’re setting them up for failure.  Expecting women to be perfect – to be everything and never fall short – is not a feminist act.  (For those of you unconcerned with the feminism, I’ll put it a different way: it is not a productive act.)  In fact, it’s actively harmful.  Because no one can fulfill your dreams for you.  And if you ask them to, your disappointment is inevitable.

When I say I love my team no matter the mistakes they make, I am committing a feminist act.  I am throwing dirt in the faces of anyone who ever implied that women are only worthwhile if they’re perfect, polite, and quiet – if they always get along.  I am saying that I love and care for the women in my life as they are, not as I hope for them to be.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be better.  At its core, derby is about ALWAYS striving to be better.  But in the meantime, we also have to learn to live with the Dark Side of Derby – maybe even to embrace it, and to recognize that when we give other women the space to be imperfect, we’re really just giving them the space to be themselves — and hoping we get the same space in return.

I love you all.  And no matter how my relationship with derby ends, it won’t be perfect – and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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Feb 112011
 

Oh, hi.

Did you miss me?

I missed you.  I missed writing.  I missed derby.  Hell, I missed me.

But this isn’t a post about missing things.  It’s a post about learning things.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out how to start this post, how to explain myself so that you would understand my absence.  I wrote paragraphs about my new job, about how tired I’ve been, about all the excuses I had for not skating for the entire off-season.  Because I wanted you to understand.  I didn’t just want to reappear in your space, muscle my way in and say “Oh, here are some words about derby.  Listen to me, even though you haven’t heard from me in months.”  I didn’t want to do that – because in my life, carving out a space to belong – and maintaining that space – has always been a difficult task.  You gave me some room in your hearts, and I felt like I’d betrayed that room by disappearing.  I couldn’t just reappear unannounced and carry on as if nothing had happened.

I felt the same way about my team.  When I was finally ready to return from a leave of absence, it took me a week to garner the courage to walk through the door of our practice space.  What would people say?  How would they feel about my sudden, unprompted return?  Would they send me home?  Send me back to fresh meat?  In the time I’d been gone, two whole classes had graduated and debuted in their first home bout.  How was I ever going to compete?  How was I ever going to convince everyone that I could still belong, that I really did want to be a Derby Girl?

Part of the problem was that I left before I ever had a chance to bout.  I disappeared at a crucial moment, during the time that my fresh meat class was being integrated into regular practices, being prepared to bout for the first time.  We were in what my grad-school cronies would call a “liminal space,” caught in between states of existence.  Not quite new, not quite experienced.  Undefined, but not unnoticed.  Our team had ideas about who we were, what we could do.  But we had yet to prove or disprove those perceptions.  Every move we made felt like it mattered —- and then I chose to disappear, to make the move that was no move at all.

The truth is that I’m fairly terrible at exerting myself.   Don’t get me wrong; I’m great at exerting ideas, speaking and writing about complex concepts.  But when I think about those concepts, I am standing at the very edge of them, positioning myself as an observer, an outsider, a disembodied eye.  But, as I’ve said in this space before, derby isn’t about being an observer.  It’s about being an enthusiastic, willing participant.  It’s about being confident in your abilities.  It’s about knowing exactly who you are and where you fit in the pack – what you do to help, and what you do to hurt.  Derby is a constant process of self-identification.  Even the things that we yell to each other in the pack are statements of self-assuredness and self-identification: “I’ve got jam!” “I’ll take the inside!”  ”I’m on her!”  We use metaphors of solidity and reliability: Blocker. Wall. Pivot.  And the night I walked back into practice, I wasn’t sure I could be solid.  I wasn’t sure of anything.

As it turns out, though, my uncertainty served me well.  Out of fear, or frustration, or total vulnerability, I finally admitted how I was feeling.  ”I don’t know what I’m doing!” I spouted, uncontrollably.  ”I’m a perfectionist, you guys.  I’m one of those type-a people who tries to do everything at once.  I hate asking for help.  I hate not being able to take care of everything myself.  And all of that is working against me – because in a pack I try to play all of the positions at once, and I end up not doing anything at all.  I need someone to just TELL ME what to do.”

My whole life, I’ve believed that self-assuredness was related directly to ability and confidence.  It was about never questioning yourself, never backing down, always moving at maximum speed and maximum effectiveness.  I believed that self-assuredness and identity were about being perfect, being everything at once.  It was derby that finally taught me my moments of greatest self-awareness are the moments when I don’t know what to do, when I reach out and ask for help.  The observer that I’ve always been – the girl who stands on the sidelines and watches and records – she never steps into the mix.  She can only understand herself based on the boundaries of her own body and ability.  But that night at practice, I finally understood who I was in relation to other people. I asked for help.  I admitted my imperfections.  And as soon as I did that – out loud, for everyone to hear – I realized that I knew exactly who I was and what I needed.

I’m Villainelle.  And I need derby!

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