When I came to university, I was possibly one of the least sporty people you will ever have met.
However, when I was walking around the Freshers Fair, a very tall student stopped me and said, “have you thought about rowing?” My first thought was, are you joking? Why? Because I am one of the shortest people in my friendship group. I’m 5ft2 (and proud) and despite a significant lack of sport experience, I did have enough sporting knowledge to know that rowers needed to be tall and broad, of which I was neither. However, in an effort to make a good first impression I simply replied, “No, I think you’ve got the wrong girl.” He then went on to tell me about coxing, which is what he had in mind all along, making me look like a total weirdo for assuming he wanted me to actually row… hey-ho.
For those that don’t know, a cox is very short person who sits at either the front or the back of a rowing boat. They help the rowers to keep in time, lead different drills and steer the boat! Oh, and they shout. Coxes are glorified human microphones. We are also the ones who get thrown in the river when the crew wins at a regatta… the joys!
So, I joined the University rowing team and had a brilliant first year. I was coxing the novice men’s and women’s squads, who were very strong, and we were having a good season… until the regattas began. You see, as I mentioned, coxes tend to be very short. Why? Because the smaller you are, the less dead weight there is for the crew to have to move in a race. However, because we don’t do any of the actual exercise, it can be very cold doing our job, so we have to layer up. On a cold February morning (when I say morning, I mean 5am), coxes tend to wear anything from 5 to 15 layers, depending on how cold you get. Occasionally you’ll get a cox who also likes to bring a hot water bottle in the boat. During training this isn’t really an issue and in the winter it’s to be expected, however as summer approaches and the weather warms up, how much you weigh becomes a little bit more important.
During regatta season, which happens in the spring and summer, coxes are required to stand on the scales before every race. This tends to be to ensure the super tiny people are not getting too much of an advantage, in which case, they must bring a weight with them in the boat. For me, that was never an issue. Coxes can never weigh too much, technically, however the minimum weight for female coxes is 50kg. That’s nothing really. So, on a weekly basis, coxes are reminded of the number on the scales, constantly striving to be as close to that 50 as possible. This is encouraged by the crew members (who aren’t subject to the same scrutiny) and the coach, making you feel like you are letting people down more and more for every extra kilo you weigh. And whilst 50kg is the minimum, being as close to that as possible was encouraged—that is not okay.
To put it bluntly, I found it all too difficult. Constantly being reminded of how much I weighed and feeling like the number was letting people down made me feel very uncomfortable. I am usually someone whose weight fluctuates anyway, but when this yo-yoing was open to judgment from at least 10 other people, it became a problem for me. Not physically, but mentally. I wasn’t happy with my weight being other people’s business and I needed out before things took a toll in a more drastic way, such as developing a disorder.
Ultimately, I disagree with it all, and I don’t think that makes me overly sensitive. I think body positivity is so important in society today, however when this becomes a way of celebrating things that are unhealthy, it is wrong. If I were to weigh 50kg, I would be too skinny and very unhealthy. This may not be the case for someone else, but if we are all held to the same standard, then we are constantly being reminded we are not good enough or the best or that we should be doing more to lose weight.
Personally, at university, I am going to prioritise my work, my friends and my mental health and so coxing didn’t work out for me because all it did was make me feel like the unwanted, deadweight girl. That is not a nice feeling and no one should feel that way. All bodies are beautiful, and numbers are an arbitrary measure which shouldn’t define you. I’m still working to accept my body, but weighing in and feeling the pressure of whatever number turned up was too much, and I got away. It might work for some people but it didn’t work for me, or my mental health, and that’s what is most important.