Challenge: Gay-FL

Jasmine Phillips embraces her inner sporty butch


Words || Jasmine Phillips

Look. In my mind, when I contacted Alicia about her AFL team and she was like “yeah just turn up to training!” I definitely thought it would be a challenge. To quote The Princess Diaries, I am not “an athletic girl! I am a synchronized swimming, yoga-doing, horseback-riding, wall-climbing kinda girl. My hand-eye coordination is none.”

Like, my entire experience of sports was the time I played netball in year eight and got stuck on Wing Defence the entire time. I had a habit of dropping the ball. Literally. Every time I caught it, I panicked and dropped it.

I didn’t think that this was going to be an easy challenge for me.

But I completely missed the memo about Alicia’s team being Division 1 and appearing to be full of reps girls.  In theory, this presented a few key issues that might have been worked around.

Had I researched Alicia sufficiently, stalked her Facebook a little and taken note of her “DIVISION 1” Penno Demons shirt, perhaps I might have prepared myself better for this training. I might have actually looked up how AFL works, for instance – googled the positions, even watched a game. I might have attempted to watch a YouTube Tutorial on passing and kicking in order to fly under the radar as I so desperately desired.

I might have considered my simultaneously competitive and anxious nature and actually asked Alicia to meet up fifteen minutes early and run me through some basics. Buddied up with my challenge contact and allowed myself to gain comfort and confidence in this new and unfamiliar environment.

But as it stands, I did none of those things.

Instead, what happened was this:

I turned up in my best “butch” gear (my girlfriend’s shorts, snapback and sports bra), stood at the front of the field wide-eyed and hyperventilating until someone asked me if I was lost, attempted to just RUN with the pack while they did warm-up laps, and then hid in the back for each demonstration hoping I didn’t give off “she-doesn’t-even-go-here” vibes.

Needless to say, I did not last the whole training session.

My aversion to sport is not so much a femme thing as it is a perfectionist thing. I’m a control freak by nature, so the whole idea of sport makes me shudder – mostly because it’s one of those things you need to be kind of bad at first.

To be Good at Sport, you need to work hard at it. Drills, training, and practice.

I’ve always felt like I started behind when it comes to athletics. So many things came easily to me as a kid, and sport just wasn’t one of them – I could draw or read for hours, presenting a facade of natural talent, but I just really didn’t enjoy fitness. My parents enrolled me in ballet, in Little Athletics, in gymnastics, in netball – and each time, I just sucked at it.  

When I think about these attempts now, it occurs to me that I was never really taught the value of try and try again.

I remember looking balefully toward a full stage of trophies at the Under 8’s gymnastics finals as everyone but me progressed forward to the next level. I remember my Mum, so used to being proud of a naturally gifted daughter, steering me out of the hall with the assurance that I would never have to go back there.

This whole situation definitely got worse as I got older, with my body becoming more heavily politicised.

PE was humiliating for me in the way it was for most “non-sporty” people – throughout primary school, teachers relied upon gross stereotypes and students’ prior knowledge for all sports education. This meant that sporty kids were chosen first, followed by pretty and skinny kids, followed by me, and finally kids who were overweight.

Health and fitness were incredibly weight-centric. While I wasn’t an overweight child by any standard, the moment I turned twelve, everyone and their mother had an opinion about my body.

My 12th Christmas saw each of my eight aunties voice their opinion on how much I was eating, ranging from murmured comments to physically barring me from the dessert table.

My ballet teacher separated me from the rest of the girls each lesson, slapping my thighs and stomach while I worked at the barre and barking at me to suck everything in.

At 15, my GP strongly suggested to my mother that I could lose 10kg, ignoring my (factually correct) protests that this would cause me to be underweight by all standards.

Between these strongly-enforced cultural misconceptions about failure and weight in sports, I’d been entirely roped off from what is actually an extremely supportive and diverse community.

All three Pennant Hills Women’s AFL teams train together and support each other, regardless of their division.

They welcomed me, a total stranger, with open arms, and did their best to support me (even when I turned up looking like a deer in the headlights), inviting me to run with them and asking who I knew from training. Apparently, it’s super common for them to have other women drop in and out for fitness training, and they encouraged each newcomer with bright cheers.

While there was a men’s team training that night too, the women outran them easily in our warmups, jogging past and leaving them in the dust without effort.

This is an environment I could genuinely learn so much from, yet it is an environment that is completely alien and anxiety-inducing for me.

I was constantly plagued by the gut-wrenching feeling that I was doing everything wrong and that everyone would soon notice, and – Then what?

It didn’t matter to any of these women that I didn’t know how to pass or kick a football, that I was brand new to this. As an education student, I know that it’s helpful for any expert to teach their skills to newcomers.

The thing that made me finally flee AFL training was the moment I spotted one of the girls from my high school. She was chatting and laughing with a teammate, stretching her legs after our quick lap around the oval.

This was a girl that I had always been incredibly intimidated by.

She’s pretty, and popular, and highly intelligent. And, even though I knew she played AFL for a reps’ team, the shock of seeing her was enough to make me turn tail and leg it back to my girlfriend’s car.

To be clear: this girl has never done anything to me. I have no reason to believe she is anything other than a confident and capable young woman. I’ve barely spoken to her, but every time I’ve come into contact with her, she’s been super warm and encouraging.

Back in high school, I probably would have told you that I hated anyone popular.

“I’m not like other girls,” I would’ve said, adjusting my beret. “I read.”

I didn’t leave because I disliked this girl. I left because I was ashamed at how I remembered my younger self.

(And like also because they were bringing footballs out and, while I may have passed fitness, there was no way I was going to blend in once they started kicking balls).

I’m not like this girl – but I wish I was.

This girl, and this team, stands for so many things I believe in. I believe in women lifting each other up. I believe in women working hard for a place at a table that has been made and maintained by men. I believe in women supporting each other through friendship, even in competitive environments.

Maybe in another life, my twelve-year-old self joined netball straight away. Maybe she worked hard at something that didn’t come easy to her and learned the value of try and try again. Maybe life was easier and more fulfilling for her because she learned to build up resilience and persistence.

Maybe, in another life, I am an athletic girl.

Running laps with the AFL women’s team has not converted me into a Sporty Person, and I’m not about to join my local team. But I do think I have a much stronger appreciation for sport in its ability to foster teamwork, persistence, and friendship.

I went back to ballet last year, despite the low-key traumatic memory of my scary childhood instructor poking at ungraceful sections of my body. Ballet class is less and less scary for me every week, and it’s all thanks to the women who are supporting me in this. I kept expecting a ballet teacher to gently let me know I should move down to the beginner’s class or tell me that I was clearly not meant for ballet. But, instead, I got a bright and enthusiastic ballet instructor who is my exact body shape, and who congratulates me almost every lesson.

I got so thrown off when my best friend, who invited me into the class, proved to be a much more advanced ballerina than I could hope to be. I expected her to be embarrassed of me joining in, or to look at me with pity.

But, instead, she constantly points out how much I’ve grown and improved since I started. She celebrates my every achievement with me, and is always happy to provide guidance for any skills I’m struggling with.

And while I couldn’t commit to it the whole of 2018, I’ve re-enrolled for this term and I’m ready to try it again.  

I’ll start from the near bottom of the class, and work hard, and try – and try again.

I’ll be proud of myself for every day that I am stronger than the day before.

And I will lean on and look towards my teammates for support.

Because I am like other girls.

But I want to be even more like them.