Joanna Gale: Fastest Woman + Canada’s sweetheart (at only 21)
Starting a blog is something that had been on my mind for a long time. I have started to write down ideas and stories numerous times, without completing them. The launch of my new website and this shift into virtual spaces we’ve had to make during these strange times has been a catalyst for action, and the time is now.
I think there is so much strength and merit in storytelling, and that’s what I see this as a space for. A space to share moments that have shaped my view of my body, to let others share theirs, and find some compassion and commonality in our shared experience. A space to reflect, a space to get curious, a space to heal.
Thanks for reading.
The first time I remember thinking part of my body didn’t look the way it should, I was younger than 7. My hair was almost black, thick and often cut in the shape of fungi. I had once been mistaken for a boy on the beach in a (very GIRLY) bathing suit. This is a memory I still hold onto, I’m pretty sure the bathing suit had a diagonal ruffle on the front.
Memory is a funny thing, but I will clearly remember when I started to KNOW I had big legs. Sitting on a stack of chairs in the gym of Tom Thompson PS at the after-school program I attended until my mom was done work, noticing my thighs got really wide on the edge of the chair when I sat, and the other girls legs looked like pale little sticks still. I could have been no older than 9.
I was always an active kid. I remember being a good swimmer at a young age, and I did a good variety of “sports” and lessons. Some activities were more successful (dance) than others (karate). When I was in my last year of elementary school, grade 5, so maybe 10 years old, I became a mini track star. I’ve always been “stocky” “muscular” “thick” or whatever you want to call my overall physical genetic traits: which come directly from my father’s side. And turns out a 10-year-old kid who weighs all of i dunno, 60 or 70 lbs, with great calves can run 100m pretty fucking fast!
Track and field was my new passion. It would have been the summer of 1996, and the summer Olympics were held in Atlanta that year. McDonalds was giving away the BEST DAD HATS to commemorate the summer of sport (forest green canvas on top with a camel faux suede peak: these sell for quite the markup on eBay these days), and Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-Canadian sprinter became the fastest man in the world! It was exciting and epic!
I trained a few days a week with my local track club, I ran in meets and won a few medals. I made friends that went to different schools than I did, and I was having so much fun.
Midway through my “track career” I had gotten my first period. I was 11 when it started, and my body changed quickly. I got boobs and my already hairy arms and legs somehow got hairier… you know how it goes.
I remember running in a meet at the track of my future high school. Our Burlington Track Club outfits were from the 70s and forest green with gold piping, and the shorts were SHORT. I had my first pair of spikes to wear that day! They were highlighter yellow with the Saucony logo and other details in an equally bright pink. They clashed like nothing else, but had been on SALE!
Waiting to, run or whatever, I remember bending down to tie my shoe, and hearing a voice behind me:
I turned and saw a boy from another track club was making a cringey face and what my brain clearly remembers was his sister, who looked mortified, standing behind me.
He was disgusted because my thighs were too big, wasn’t he?
Or maybe he could see all the black hairs on them?
What can I do to fix what’s wrong with me?
I don’t remember the exact reason why I stopped running track, but I also still carry that particular memory nearly a quarter century later.
Many of us have not been set up to feel radical love for our bodies. Formative messages you are told about how bodies should be, they stick to our ribs. What you see on TV, in movies and in books. How your toys look. The conversations you hear your parents having about their bodies, or the bodies of your siblings, your body. The stories that get stored in our hearts and our bones when we hear them enough.
And a story is a story, not a fact. Just because we think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
It takes a lot of time and reflection to see these moments from the outside and know this thinking is the product of diet culture and the profits and control that come from a fatphobic system. It’s taken me a long time and I’m always learning, listening, sharing, and getting vulnerable to know it. It’s taken me getting more informed about the systemic oppression of Black folks, Indigenous Peoples and other People of Colour to know it. And, it’s still hard sometimes, to remember the knowledge I have.
When I teach a class, lead a workshop or dive into conversation with someone, I never assume what I know about them. But, with every opportunity I have to sit and listen, my stories and lived experience feel like opportunities for me to sympathize, to empathize, or connect. I use my stories, I use my pain and I use what I know is true in my guts to show up bravely as myself.
I used to get held back by my self limiting belief that my body wasn’t good enough. When I stopped believing that, I found it easier to show up, to take risks, to move forward and to try new things. When I stopped believing my body wasn’t good enough, I stopped believing other folks weren’t good enough either. And that’s a way we can collectively heal, and lift each other up.