by Amanda Zentz-Alo
I lay on my back on the cold concrete, legs asprawl, arms outstretched, laughing and gasping – both exhausted and exhilarated. When I sat up, the women with me pointed admiringly at the smear of sweat I had left on the concrete floor. I had just finished skating 27 laps around the track in less than five minutes! I marveled at my body.
When I was younger, I hated how my body looked and I hated the way it worked. I developed this hate/hate relationship with my body. I was always the kid who had to sit out gym class because of my asthma. My earliest memory is learning how to use an inhaler.
I think, in our culture, it can be hard to have a positive relationship with our bodies. My heart aches for those in our midst, especially teenagers, whose minds are filled with unhealthy images of the body they think they are supposed to have.
Instead of hearing that they are “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), these children and adults are confronted with shaming expectations and taught to hate and fear their own bodies. Countering these messages can be literally lifesaving.
Now, when I look in the mirror, what I see is a powerful and amazing creation of God.
What made the difference for me?
In 2013, after skating with the preschool children in the congregation I was serving, I remembered that I had loved to roller skate when I was younger. I was struggling with self-image at the time, but rolling around the rink with the little ones reminded me of joy and light.
After that outing, I bought a pair of cheap skates and took some Saturday-morning classes. But then I realized that my large thighs and powerful hips were not created for figure skating.
And then . . . derby happened.
Taking a spin
I researched roller derby culture online before jumping in. It was rough and tumble, and filled with attitude and empowerment. Women of all shapes and ages were involved, posting on message boards and sharing photos. It was diverse. It was powerful. It was challenging. I was hooked.
I attended my first practice with trepidation. I stood in the circle of diverse-looking women and introduced myself.
“I’m Amanda. I’ve never done a sport before in my life. I don’t know that I’m very competitive, but I like to skate.”
I practiced without skates for two hours in the hot sun that day. It was exhausting. I was pathetic. And I came back to the next practice and did it again.
Soon I was able to put on skates and I found that my body liked it. My asthma didn’t stop me. I could fly around the track and my powerful legs could hold strong while my lungs recovered and paced themselves.
My body, this creation that I had hated for so long, was amazing and able to do things I never thought possible.
At the rink, I saw women of all body shapes and sizes find their power. Some were swift and agile, able to flit around other skaters like falcons. Others were sturdy and solid, able to stop opponents in their tracks.
I watched all of us stop body-shaming each other. Most of all, I watched as we stopped body-shaming ourselves.
When we talked about food it was to talk about fuel, not to bemoan our lack of self-control because we ate too many calories. When we talked about losing pounds, there was concern that our hits might be less powerful and our walls less solid. When we complimented one another’s appearance it wasn’t about looking like a magazine cover, it was about feeling like a superhero and inspiring other women and girls.
Roller derby taught me that my body is a gift. It is powerful and amazing. It is capable of skating 27 laps in less than five minutes. It can take a hit and stay standing. It can fall and get up in less than three seconds. It can hold strong and stop someone from stealing my space or getting ahead of me unless I let them. It taught me that women can share a space together and be amazed by one another’s bodies, not just intimidated by them.
Derby and the best parts of being church
I have been amazed by the women (and some men) who make up the roller derby community. With their commitment to one another and their passion for building stronger and more confident women, they often remind me of the best parts of being church: Those moments when we can look at someone and truly say, “I see you. I see you, beautiful child of God. All of who you are has been created deeply good, and I see you.”
If you are struggling with looking in the mirror, this is my prayer for you.
May you know that you are wonderfully made by a God who knows, not just how much you weigh, but how inspiring you are. May you find a community that builds you up and reveals your magnificence. May you revel in your body and its amazing capacity to accomplish astonishing things.
1. How do you build a positive relationship with your body?
2. What are five things you wish you could tell your teenage self about body image?
3. When have you felt the most powerful in your own body?
Creating God, you gift us with bodies to use and to cherish. Help us to love the gift that you have given us. Protect us from those who would sell us lies that somehow we are not enough. Give us the power to claim our bodies and their strength so that we can build up the whole Body of Christ with the knowledge that all have been created good. Amen.
The Rev. Amanda Zentz-Alo serves Central Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore. She has a passion for baptism and liturgy. When not at church or home, she can be found with her roller derby league, answering to the name FeeNix.
Photo by Steven L. Price “Steve Skippy.” Photo of Amanda with her skates, courtesy of the writer. Used with permission.