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I grew up a soccer player. The baggier the uniform, the better. My teammates and I were always coming up with new and creative ways to make a baggy uniform look cool…tie the sleeves up with pre-wrap, roll the shorts, tuck in only the front of the shirt and let the back hang out, etc.

It never occurred to us to ask for a smaller size. Not that we could actually acquire uniforms that fit. Everything always came in men’s sizes, and even a men’s small is too big for a 12-year-old girl. Instead of taking the smallest uniform we could get and still have it be too big, we took the men’s size large and found ways to make it look “cool”.

Among me and my soccer friends, tiny shorts and short dresses were for girly-girls. We spent hours putting our hair in tiny braids in order to look fierce, instead of spending hours using a curling iron to look pretty.

When I got to college, I still had that soccer swagger. But I was running cross-country and track now; no more soccer for me. And in cross-country and track in college, you wear these things they call “buns”, a sneaky way of saying “bikini bottom”. And your uniform top is not an oversized jersey or even a loose singlet (if you’re female); it’s an elongated sports bra. You get in trouble by the officials if this elongated sports bra doesn’t touch the top of your buns when you stand still on the starting line. (Apparently, they are OK with the entire leg and usually part of the rear end showing, but not the navel.)

The question from my college teammates was “why don’t you want to wear the buns?” when I thought the question should be “who in their right mind would want to wear the buns?” According to them, the buns made them feel fast and look sharp. Of course, most of these women were much smaller than me and they looked great in the buns and glorified sports bra. I’ve always been the bigger one of the group if the group is a bunch of distance runners. I fit right in with soccer players with my big quad muscles and wider shoulders. But as a distance runner, I’m on the large side.

So while I hated to admit it, my aversion to the tight outfit was largely due to body image issues, another thing my baggy soccer uniform had hid (in addition to my body). Not only does a camera add 10 pounds, but try getting a picture taken when you are running in a tight outfit and every loose piece of skin or fat is flapping in the wind and every muscle is flexed. It’s not a “pretty” picture. Especially when you look at your teammates’ and competitors’ pictures and they make it look good.

Ann in college uniformI got away with wearing a loose singlet and shorts for most of my collegiate career because the equipment room did offer a few such outfits, and I was always quick to grab them first. I only had to wear the buns and tight top when I was running on a relay and we all needed to match and I was outnumbered 3-1. I would spend the evening before examining and re-examining myself, having to get more pumped up to wear that outfit than to run the race.

But after I graduated and eventually signed with New Balance, I realized that in the professional track & field world, buns and a crop top (a sports bra that is NOT elongated much if at all) were considered “professional” attire. Shorts and singlet had a connotation of “sloppy” and “unprofessional”. No one told me that to my face, but it was obvious.

As I wrestled with having to come to terms with my hesitations (OK, fears) about running around in plain view in so little clothing, I decided to look at other female athletes competing in track & field in these outfits and view them as critically as I view myself. What I learned was that you can almost always find a flaw somewhere. Where I had seen only perfection before, I now found flaws simply because I was watching from a different perspective.

Then I observed how these women carried themselves. I think it is fair to say that the biggest stars of our sport are the sprinters. They are beautiful and strong and fast. They carry themselves with pride, heads held high. And yet in mainstream society’s view, their muscular quads and shoulders would be considered less than ideal and grounds for backing off on the weights or at least covering themselves up. But is that what happens? No!!

It all started to make sense: these women were proud of the bodies they’d worked so hard for. Their legs carried them down the track at record speeds. Their 6-packs were the result of years of ab work that was done not to look “pretty” but to perform at their highest level. They didn’t look at themselves through the lens society uses; they used their own lens and guess what the result was? Other people began to use that lens too. Confidence is a powerful asset.

Taking another look at my fellow distance runners, I realized that I wasn’t the only “bigger” one. We actually came in all shapes and sizes. Yes, many distance runners have a small bone structure and are very lean. But there are also those of us with more muscular thighs or wider shoulders or a thicker torso. Your body is your body; if you’ve taken care of it and trained hard, it’s going to be what it is. I needed to be proud of my body for what it could do, not for what it looked like.

Ann Gaffigan 2008 Olympic TrialsNow don’t think for one second that this was an overnight transformation. Body image is a tough monster and it takes time to get it under control after a lifetime of letting it control you. But finally, three years after exhausting my collegiate eligibility and turning professional, something clicked. After a terribly disappointing 2007 season, I realized I was beating myself up once again, blaming everything from my training to my weight for my failures. And I wanted it to stop, once and for all. So I went and got my belly button pierced. If you have your navel pierced, you can’t keep it under a shirt all the time, right? You have to be proud enough of your body to show it off a little.

This little “rebellious” action was more liberating than I had imagined and 12 months later, I found myself giddy with excitement as the New Balance crew handed me a brand new bright pink pair of buns and crop top to wear just for the Women’s Steeplechase Final at the Olympic Trials. I was excited to wear it, excited to show what I could do, proud of my body and proud of myself for all the hard work that had been put in, year after year. Proud that I hadn’t quit the year before, despite the fact that I had felt so far from reaching my dream of going to the Olympics. I didn’t make the Olympic Team last summer. But by training for that goal and overcoming much disappointment and self-doubt along the way, I had grown more than I had ever anticipated. And I’m never looking back.

Let the quads flex!

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