Two weeks into a fresh meat course, Samantha Maine is already hooked. So what is it about the rollin' sisterhood that's so instantly addictive?
Two weeks into a fresh meat course, Samantha Maine is already hooked. So in this game of blood and bruises, what is it about the rollin' sisterhood that's so instantly addictive?
I’ve never been good at sport. While the superstars of my girl’s school were winning lacrosse games and breezing through a 10k run, I was awkwardly tugging at my straightened hair and writing another Blink 182 lyric on my converse. They had this air of confidence about them and it is only ten years later that I’m beginning to realise it’s because they had control over their bodies. As women, we are continually objectified in the media, in the workplace and in our daily lives because of how we look. These sixteen-year-old athletes – whether they knew it or not – were some of the first examples of feminism I would come to witness.
While I like to think of myself as an average, healthy young woman, I have often failed at my attempts of continuous exercise. I tried out jogging for a few months but the jeers of schoolboys pretty much put me off my stride. I tried out a yoga class for a while but the snide glances of competitiveness overwhelmed me. Basically, no sport has ever ‘fit’ – that is until I fell head over heels in love with roller derby.
Roller derby is a sport owned by and played by women. It’s terrifyingly exciting and violent to a point in which most wouldn’t believe was realistic. It’s the result of over a century of strong young women taking part in ‘an activity that challenges [them] to use their bodies instrumentally rather than in response to restrictive standards of femininity’ (Roller Skating Industry, 1885). We’ve forever been told to make home, to raise respectable children and to never put ourselves in harm’s way. In film for example – bar a few recent happenings in cinema – we are either portrayed as timid, delicate creatures that need saving or man-eating sluts that will never be deemed pure enough for a man’s affection (that is, until he changes her).
In the late 1880s, roller skating gave women the chance to freely socialise – without a chaperone – with their friends and with men without being subjected to the domestic stereotypes that the world foisted upon us. Group sports were not seen as a suitable training ground; instead, the domestic attributes of a woman were instilled in us via baby dolls, tea parties and kitchen play sets (Giordiano 1990). Roller skating was the first athletic activity to challenge this.
During my first few weeks as fresh meat for the Bath Roller Derby Girls, the hall was filled with women of all shapes and sizes but one thing was resolute – we needed to be strong. Roller derby is one of the few sports that encourages women to physically toughen up, with league skater Cat ‘Hell Cat’ Clark agreeing, “I love that derby encourages the kind of attributes that are typically reserved as praise-worthy in guys; strength, stamina, getting sweaty, being mentally tough. Derby girls actively pursue bigger bums, bigger guns and bigger bruises.”
Creating physical gains that a sport such as roller derby produces is another step up on the ladder of equality for the young women of today. They are in control of their bodies – wearing horrific bruises like the most satisfying trophy and providing one of the first sports for women to demonstrate what are considered atypical gender characteristics, embodying athletic rather than a traditionally feminine aesthetic (Blinde and Taub 1992:522).
While the sport is physically enriching, the same could also be said for psychological enhancement. The act of falling over and having to get up again and again, stronger each time, gives young women the mentality to keep going – to push through the barriers in their way. “I was on antidepressants when I started Fresh Meat last year,” confides one skater from Bath. “I no longer needed them by the time I graduated the course. For a sport that’s so aggressive and demands so much physically, it can be powerfully healing for some.”
This isn’t a stand-alone case. As I get talking to more of the women, the more they open up about the positive affect roller derby has had on their mental health. “It’s generally made me feel more upbeat and positive about life,” explains Hannah ‘Dwayne “The Block” Johnson’ Stainer, a fellow Bath Roller Derby Girls skater. “I had been feeling low before getting into derby and contemplating going back on medication but I’m in such a good mental space now and I think derby is a big part of that.”
The DIY aesthetic of the sport has given women the right to take control of an environment that is often reserved for men. The mission statement for the Flat Track Roller Derby Association perfectly summing it up: “Founded in 2004, the WFTDA s promotes and fosters the sport of women’s flat track derby by facilitating the development of athletic ability, sportswomanship, and goodwill among member leagues. The governing philosophy is ‘by the skaters, for the skaters.’ Women skaters are primary owners, managers, and operators of each member league and of the association. Operational tasks include setting standards for rules, seasons, safety, and determining guidelines for the national and international athletic competitions of member leagues. All member leagues have a voice in the decision making process, and agree to comply with the governing body’s policies.”
These 15,000+ roller derby-playing women have created something that is all theirs. While men are wholeheartedly welcome, it is primarily a platform in which women can take control of their minds and of their bodies in a world that doesn’t always allow them to do so. Yes, they may wear fishnets and hot-pants but that’s because they want to – not because someone told them it was sexy. League skater Isy ‘Petra Bomb’ Morgenmuffel reflects, “Being a female-dominated full contact sport, you can’t help but find a sense of sisterhood, support and the very feminist idea of women being strong and getting together to improve their lives.”
Nearing the end of my fresh meat course, I have already noticed a vast improvement in my attitude. I feel like I can take on the world, with roller derby giving me the kind of support that allows a twenty-something woman in 2014 to feel like hard work will push past barriers that once felt out of my control. I say bring on the big league – and the bruises.