Winners and Losers, or: Sports are Good (!)

As I’ve been watching the Olympics this year, I’ve been struck by three realizations:

Getty images

Getty Images

1. Athletes like tattoos.
2. Flag-themed nailpolish is trending.
3. Competition is a beautiful thing.

The first two observations aren’t very earth-shattering. However, the third one made my 16-year-old self die of shock. I never had much, if any, affection for sports when I was a kid. I was the ‘easy out’ on the recess kickball court. I was the kid who swung like an idiot for the badminton birdie, only to miss it by four feet. I was the kid who sunk the basketball into the other team’s net. You get the picture.

So, in the blazing tradition of all teenagers everywhere, I dismissed that at which I sucked. English class? No problem. Gym class? Genuinely terrifying. Therefore, English must be valuable, and gym must be a waste of time. Right? During high school orientation, the athletic director introduced himself by saying, “Welcome to high school and the other half of your education: Athletics.” I think my derisive snort is still echoing in the auditorium.

(I may or may not have been something of a pain in the ass when I was fourteen.)

Meanwhile, in an Olympic-level contortion of cognitive dissonance, I happily went out for swimming in the winter and track & field in the spring (though, granted, I was only interested in track because the hottest guys in school were on the team). While I was mocking sports as activities fit only for meatheads, I was also participating in them. I didn’t go out for team sports, but that was largely because you had to try outto be on those teams. By contrast, anyone willing to wander around in a bathing suit could swim, and anyone willing to wear teeny tiny yellow shorts in front of all the hot boys could run track.

Me on the high school track. I didn’t have any tattoos or fun nail art, but I DID have pink hair.

Sign me up!

It never ceases to amaze me how glad I am that I played those sports in high school. I wasn’t very good, and I didn’t always take it that seriously, but I did experience the thrill of seeing my times improve, and I did learn skills that I’d never have even been exposed to in the classroom–for instance, how to laugh it off when you attempt the high jump and end up landing on your head on the track, having jumped in the wrong direction.

One thing that always strikes me during the Olympics is that losing is harder than winning. All the athletes have dedicated, at the very least, large portions of their lives to an event that happens once every four years. In many, if not most, cases, their families have sacrificed a lot to give them the chance. If they blow it, they let down their team, their family, and their country. And millions of people watch it happen.

And yet, even though many of them do blow it, they all keep on trucking. Yes, it’s hard to win gold in Women’s Gymnastics. But how much harder is it to fall off the damn balance beam and then get back on it and finish the routine? Holy crap. Or to fall off your bike in the middle of a road race and then get back on it, literally bleeding from the elbow, and keep riding? These aren’t just dream-crushing mistakes; they’re frakking embarrassing.

Worse, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take a huge mistake to lose. Sometimes you are at your personal best, and the people around you are simply… better. Maybe they worked harder or smarter, or maybe they’re just better.

Some people don’t like competition because contests can only have one winner, which means everyone else has to lose. I used to agree with that sentiment. I’d cry when someone fell off the balance beam, no matter which team they were on, and hate the winner just a little bit because they’d won on the back of everyone else’s loss.I don’t feel that way anymore. Yes, my heart went out to the Russians last night. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge the American’s the win. They were better, and they won. And today is a new day. The loss only ruins someone’s life if they let it. But the attempt–that’s where the beauty lies.

Now, when I look back on high school and “the other half of my education: athletics,” I’m still not willing to concede that sports are 50% of education. But I am willing to concede that they are a legitimate–nay, an important–part of education. That they are a good use of taxpayer dollars, that they benefit a huge percentage of teenagers, and that they are important even, or perhaps especially, because someone has to “lose.”

Oh, I’ve also learned that, just because someone is good at something I can’t do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a meathead.

The Nail Polish Issue

pale pink polishE has a friend whose mom is a hippie. She teaches environmental science, doesn’t own a cell phone, and I’m pretty sure I heard her say that she doesn’t eat gluten, meat, or dairy. Somehow she manages to make patchwork skirts look good. In short, she’s a little intimidating.

She’s also a very nice woman, and I love her daughter, but when they came over for a play date last week, I wasn’t sure what we’d talk about. (When she said ‘no thanks’ to a cupcake, and I knew I was out of my league.) And then she turned to me and asked, “Where do you come down on the nail polish issue?” [UPDATE below]

Well, as it happens, I’ve given a lot of thought to nail polish lately. And, even though I was sure my new friend was going to be horrified, I admitted to her that we’d recently taken E out for a mani/pedi.

By “we,” I mean my sister and I, and it was a one-time, celebratory event for my sister’s birthday. Originally, I thought we were just going for pedicures, but when my sister walked into the salon and, grinning from ear to ear, proudly said, “We’re here for mani/pedis,” I didn’t have the heart to correct her. So, with a little guidance from me, E picked out a pale lavender for her toes and a sweet baby pink for her fingers. Then she spent the next three days telling everyone she saw that she’d been in a “water chair.”

The thing about E is that we indulge her in girl culture. She often wears dresses and skirts, as per her wishes. She has three (THREE!) pairs of sparkly shoes, one of them being official Wizard of Oz ruby slippers. Nearly everything in her room that isn’t pink is purple, and most of it sparkles. She even has three or four pairs of fairy wings and several official Disney Princess dresses. That many, if not most, of these things are second-hand is lost on her–so all that’s left is the indulgence part.

I love that she has all this stuff because… well, partly because I wanted it so badly when I was a kid, and I never got it. I also grew up thinking of “girl stuff” as, in many ways, sub-par. The princess culture, for all its inherent issues, certainly does not suffer from confidence issues. I love that E celebrates girl stuff. That she loves sparkles and pink and purple, that she wants to know how to braid hair, that she prances around in ballet shoes and tulle and wings and wands, that she wants to be like Mommy and paint her nails.

But I also hate it. I worry that, instead of being celebratory, all of this crap will end up weighing her down. That, instead of being fun and innocent and brimming with imagination, it will end up strangling her with a skewed and unhealthy understanding of “femininity” as a shallow, sparkling mess of huge boobs and tiny waists–a world in which all the glitter and color is intended only to snag a man and feel superior to other women. That E, whose brain is so quick and whose potential seems limitless, will internalize the vapid expressions on the faces of the Disney Princesses and actually take their story lines to heart.

Nail polish somehow symbolizes all that is great and problematic about girlhood. On the one hand, it’s harmless–just a little spot of color, not permanent–an activity a girl can share with mom, and a privilege that is largely girls-only. Or at least girl-centric.

On the other hand, nail polish also represents the hyper-sexualization of young girls. The toddler beauty-pageant insanity of fake tans and bleached hair. The acceptance of the idea that girls and women can and should slather their fingers with paint and then take pains to keep it from chipping–it’s hard to join in on healthy kid activities like digging, gluing, and painting when one is worried about one’s nails.

In the end, what I decided, and what I told E’s friend’s mom, is that nail polish is OK with me as long as it’s an activity E and I do together because it’s fun for its own sake. The second I hear her say, “I can’t play that, because I don’t want to ruin my nails,” or ask another girl why she doesn’t have nail polish, or in any way behave in a way that suggests that the nail polish itself has become the point, we stop doing it.

And wouldn’t you know–my new friend looked at me and said, “I completely agree.”

It’s not a perfect solution, I suppose, but how many perfect solutions are there? I hope that E doesn’t equate femininity only with bright colors and frivolity, but I don’t want her to eschew these things simply on the basis that they are feminine, either.

Anyway, it’s probably moot. The other day she told me, “I love sparkles because girls love sparkles. But boys don’t love sparkles.” Then she contemplated her sparkly shoes for a moment and amended her thought: “Well, some boys don’t.”

I guess, if she already knows that some boys like sparkles, she’ll also pick up that some girls don’t. And be perfectly OK with it.

*UPDATE: I realized, belatedly, that this might make it seem as though she were grilling me, but she wasn’t. The question was very relevant because our girls are both in the same preschool, where an intense nail polish trend is currently gripping the Star Room.