Little Plastic Trophies

Young soccer player in uniform with his new trophy;

If you are within about 10 years of my age, you probably remember ending a sports season and gathering at the nearest Pizza Hut (Garibaldi’s if you are from Memphis) with your teammates and family members to gorge yourself on buffet-style slices and hear your name called as you and your buds received gold trophies.

If I could travel back in time to search my trophy collection, I would most likely find dozens of gilded little girls kicking soccer balls, posing with basketballs, and wearing swim caps while propped on faux marble slabs. My name wouldn’t be on most of these trinkets. Many, if not all, would boast something like “YMCA Girls Under 10 Basketball, 1994” or “Church of the Holy Communion Girls Soccer”. I had no concept of mass produced reward systems when I was young. I was just thrilled with my accomplishments and proud of my little golden army.

Now, before I go on, please hear me out. There is NOTHING wrong with giving kids trophies. I am a staunch supporter of encouragement, praise, and all things related to spirit gear. I am no expert on behavioral analysis, but I do know a little about human development. It’s a large part of my job. And what I know is this: babies don’t come out of the womb expecting to receive little gold prizes for getting off the couch. That is learned.

I was devastated when I got to middle school and we had to try out for sports teams. Try out? Didn’t you people just give me a trophy for the past twelve years just for getting off the bench? I realized I wasn’t going to make it in sports, so I immersed myself in theatre. There are no participation trophies in theatre auditions. You show up, you give it your best, and a director decides if you are the best fit for that production. Either your name is on a list or it isn’t. I didn’t learn about healthy competition and the drive to pursue my dreams from the athletic field. I learned it on the stage. I also learned that not being in the cast doesn’t mean I can’t contribute. It takes a team of lighting designers, costume artists, prop masters, directors, choreographers, set designers, and stage managers to make a final performance. If I didn’t get a role I wanted, I could pout or I could figure out a way to play a part.

Fast forward 18 years. I am now 32, and wondering where to find my little plastic trophies. Over the past five years, I have been under the care of so many selfless people who helped me endure radical mental, spiritual, and emotional bypass surgeries. My entire world has been turned upside down by the events of the past few years, and I am learning to do life differently with a renewed heart and mind. The last piece to my restoration is the physical aspect.

I have been at war with my body for as long as I can remember. When I was as young as 6, I remember being incredibly self conscious of my body and afraid to wear a two piece bathing suit. I actually remember a family vacation in Destin, FL where I made my two older twin cousins, Emily and Catherine, cover me with a towel so I could walk from the condo to the swimming pool without anyone seeing my stomach. I was so ashamed of my body, and no matter what I did, it would not shrink.

Over the past 20 years, I have used and abused everything from pills to fad diets to vomiting to laxatives and starvation to lose weight and feel better about myself. Somewhere in my tweens I developed a binge eating disorder that drove me to eat in secret and use food to replace emotions. My binge and purge cycle turned into hidden food affairs followed by strenuous workouts which I used to punish myself and undo the damage I had just inflicted.

Somewhere in the past few years, my resentment of my body turned to entitlement. I believed I DESERVED to eat what I wanted because I had been fighting this battle for so long. I was expecting little gold trophies to appear every time I made a healthy food choice or went to the gym. Where were my participation trophies now? Hello! I got out and off the couch! REWARD ME!

Obviously this is a faulty belief system. Over the past few months, I have come face-to-face with my need for a massive physical health transformation. I want to be healthy. I actually really like the shape of my body, but it feels hidden under layers of shame and destructive choices.

This week I started a new path towards health. I am not ready to write about that yet, at least not where people can see it. But I do feel like I can address the concept of hollow trophies – replicas of something real to achieve the same effect. I used to look at my trophy collection and think I was a hero because I had gotten of the bench. Playing on a team, however, is a basic life skill. We should all be expected to play well together and take care of ourselves as well as each other. I took it a step too far and replaced affirmation with self worth, leaving something much bigger than a plastic trophy empty and without substance.

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