by Dawn Clifford, PhD, RD
In a former life, I was a competitive swimmer. Through the sport of swimming, I learned many life lessons including commitment, determination and teamwork. I credit my swimming career for my professional work ethic. However, perhaps one of the most important lessons learned from the world of competitive sports, is the influence of genetics and privilege.
I endured a fairly fruitful and rewarding swimming career complete with a full ride scholarship to college, much to my parents’ delight. However, in some respects it was a disappointing career because I had my sights set on the Olympic games, of course, and despite muscling through over 20 hours of training each week, was never able to meet the time standards to compete at the Olympic Trials.
I’ll never forget that day in high school when my coach sat me down after a disappointing performance at a major swim meet and explained the reason my times were no longer getting faster. It was my height. I was too short.
At 5 foot three and three-quarters inches, faster sprint freestylers towered over me.
Fast-twitch muscles? Yep, I had that.
Buff biceps and broad shoulders? Check and check.
Dedicated work ethic? Yes!
Emotional and financial support from my parents? I had that too.
In just lacking those few vertical inches, I had to accept that I would have to settle for competing at the national and collegiate level, but never at the international level.
What felt like the end of the world at the time (Ha!!), became the perfect priming for the Health At Every Size messages I was exposed to over a decade later.
Like athletic ability, body weight, shape, and size are largely genetically driven. And those with certain genetics for thinness are admired, congratulated and affirmed, as if they are personally responsible for their good fortune, while those with pre-disposition to fatness are shamed and blamed.
As a child, I put professional athletes up on a pedestal and admired their hard work, dedication, and drive. The truth is that many athletes and non-athletes have these exact same admirable qualities and never make it into the limelight. And really, the only difference between an Olympian and me is a few strands of DNA.
An Olympian may have the extra long torso that might be useful in a sport like swimming, or the short and compact body that is best for the sport of gymnastics. For a track athlete or basketball player, it might be a matter of having the longest legs. In many sports, I suspect those who are most competitive have tendons and muscle fibers that are more resistant to overuse injuries. In many ways, athletes with these specific body features are no more deserving of their success than any other hard working individual.
I shake my head at my younger self for not realizing that everything I was even able to accomplish was due to aspects of my life I had no control over. I grew up in an affluent white household with parents who could afford swim team fees and travel to meets. My genetics made me coordinated, buff and fast, to some degree, but I did nothing to even deserve those attributes. I was offered a full ride scholarship, even though my parents could afford to pay for college. All of this wasn’t my doing, but rather because of privilege and a genetics lottery. While I didn’t win the big ticket Powerball in the genetics lottery of a swimmer, I guess you could say I won a few Scratchers Games.
It’s not that I resent Olympians or the Olympics. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love watching sports. This Olympics will be no different from previous Olympics. I will stay up too late to watch the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat, even though I know the true stories surrounding the making of an Olympic athlete.
Now I watch sporting events through a pair of lenses that help me understand that Olympians are simply individuals who won the genetics lottery and I will cheer them on to victory while also giving credit to those who have overcome adversity to compete.
Whether we’re comparing recreational athlete to athletic superstar or thin body to fat body, the genetic variation piece sits center stage. Two people with similar lifestyle patterns may have completely different genetic predispositions and therefore different body shapes and sizes. Similarly, two people may be born into completely different social classes and, as a result, are faced with environmental factors completely out of their control that can influence health and well-being.
So much of our accomplishments, achievements, health and well-being, at the end of the day, are out of our control and are decided for us. That doesn’t seem to stop people from praising those who win the genetics lottery and oppressing and marginalizing those who don’t. It will take each of us to join together to change the perception that body shape and size is a matter of choice and we must not stop until we’ve succeeded.
Now I have the opportunity to play the genetics lottery with my son. I married another sprint freestyler who I met on my college swim team and he happens to be much taller. Perhaps our son will win the genetics lottery? As they say, you can’t win if you don’t play!
But regardless of whether my son grows up to be an Olympian, I promise to expose him to sports for the sole purpose of helping him find enjoyable and rewarding ways to move his body. While he may never win Olympic gold, he will likely win an appreciation for endorphins, a healthy coping tool for stress, and a life of fun and fitness…which might actually be the better deal in the long run.
Dawn Clifford, PhD, RD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at California State University, Chico. In addition, she co-founded and is the current director of FitU, which is a peer mentoring nutrition and exercise counseling program on campus. Dr. Clifford conducts research and is an accomplished speaker in the areas of motivational interviewing and Health At Every Size®. She is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers and recently authored Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness. In addition, she is the current chair of the ASDAH Education Committee.