Claire: Itchy Gymnastics

This week, there’s an issue that has been itching me. It’s been a minor itch for a while, but it’s getting itchier by the day. I have some growing reservations about Free’s gymnastics program, and I am not sure what to do about it. I’ve alluded to the issue before in my blogging, generally wondering about what is too much with sports for my third-grader and when to set limits. Those worries are morphing into new ones. I’ll try to break it down:


Last Saturday we had our make-up Thanksgiving dinner with Free and my family and Newman’s kids. After dinner, Free told her cousins “I can’t eat dessert because I have a competition in a few weeks.” I overheard her, pulled her aside immediately, and addressed it. There were people nearby, and I didn’t do a good job of keeping my reaction private and un-dramatic. I tried to make up for it the next day by revisiting it when it was just she and I and my sister present, but even my sister’s presence made Free nervous, and again, I don’t feel like the conversation went well. I made my points clearly, but Free downplayed it, saying “Mom, I just didn’t want to eat any pie. I don’t like pie.” (This is true, by the way, but still. She could have just told her cousin that, but she didn’t.) I don’t know what the source of this thinking is with her, but let’s face it folks, it sure as hell isn’t coming from me. I’ll take credit for other problems she may develop, but giving her anxiety over eating a dessert is certainly not one of them.

Body Image

Free sucks her belly in while she’s at practice, and I’ve heard her say, more than once, that practice is hard because she has to keep it in all the time. This makes me sad. Granted, I’m a sucker for sadness and am the type to cry at commercials, but hearing my daughter say this makes me profoundly sad. Not because it’s inherently bad for her to suck in her belly at practice: she’s learning competition routines, and posture is a significant part of those technical skills. Still, it bothers me. It reminds me of my ballet classes in college where my teacher used to tap me on the butt repeatedly and tell me to pull it in. I have an awesome bubble butt, and lucky for me, I accepted and embraced that reality early in my life, so I was able to giggle about this teacher’s continual comments with my roommate S., who also had a bubble butt and had also decided to take ballet for the first time in college. When S. and I jokingly formed a bubble butt support group, we were figuring out how to take negative criticism and deflect it. I finally worked up the courage to say this to my teacher: “It doesn’t go in any more–that’s just the way my body is built!” It took me a long time to get to the place where I could say that. If I had to work on it as a college student with a very healthy body image, how does my nine year old feel and respond when she is told to suck in her belly in order to have a better chance at competition? It bothers me that girls and women are constantly sent messages that they need to change the way their bodies naturally are. My nine year old doesn’t need to suck in her belly. She is perfect and wonderful inside and out, and that belly is awesome. I wish she were here right now so I could kiss it.

Money…and More on Body Image

Free’s father and I pay an embarrassing amount of money for this gymnastics program. It’s essentially a racket, but by the time you know for sure it’s a racket, you’re in over your head. Besides the monthly fee for practice two days a week ($240), there are coaches fees, team fees, registration fees, competition fees, and clothing fees. You must pay the big chunk of the fees upfront, and they’re nonrefundable for the year if your child quits. You must commit to paying for summer practices even if you go on vacation or your child does a summer camp and can’t practice. You must choose your competitions for the year by September, and you sign a commitment to paying for all of them. You are told your child will be sad if she cannot go to the competitions her friends are all going to. (I was at least strong in the face of this, so Free is only going to half as many of her friends.)

All of this we knew about and signed up for, so I can’t complain. Here’s what put me over the edge this week; the $150 competition leotard and the $145 warm-up suit they sized her for were too tight. These clothes are supposed to last her until June, when the last competition of the year will take place. She’s nine, so gee, I think we can presume some growth over the course of the next six months. I knew the leotard was expected to be a little snug now as it’s supposed to be really snug all year. Fine. I can swallow that; she’ll basically only wear it four times. The warmup jacket I was ok with too. I wanted to return the t-shirt and pants, however, as they are snug now, and the t-shirt is cotton. I have no interest in Free being uncomfortable in her clothes. She wears a 10-12; the clothes are all 8-10.

Ever wary of confrontation, I asked Newman to help me prep for the conversation with the coach. He humored me, probably thinking I was crazy to expect any issue. I was right, though. My request to the receptionist was forwarded to the coach, who came at me with a “I’ll need to see it on her before we make changes” without even making eye contact. This is the same coach who tells Free that she needs to practice every day (“homework” outside of the 2.5 hour practices at night at the center) to make sure her routine is good; this is the same coach who told Free and her teammates that they should ask for private lessons (more $) to make sure they’re ready for competition.

Sometimes I want to hate this woman, but then I remember something important. She’s not a mom…yet. She really has no clue. She is well-intentioned. Really. And this is not only her job; it’s her world, so far as I can see. She spends most of her time at this gym, and the gym is a serious gym. I get all that. I also know I have to set limits. I’m the mom. That’s my job. It’s not easy for me, but I’m proud of the fact that I told this woman that if she needed to see Free in the outfit again, she could, but a) I had already decided the clothes were too small and b) if she wanted to have any conversation about the clothing and how it fit, she was not to do so in front of my child. She did have Free try on the clothes, and to her credit, she handled it well. Once Free went into practice, we talked. She told me that the coaches had instructed all the children that their t-shirts were not to be put in the dryer (WTF?), but she would be ok with trading me a larger t-shirt. She couldn’t give me new pants because, as it turns out, she didn’t have any in a larger size. She would order another one if I liked, but it would take a month or two. (Yes, I said, please order the larger size to trade out.)

That’s all I have right now. I can’t get a good perspective on all this now as I’m too close to it. It may just be that it was a bad week, and I’m overreacting. Am I overreacting? At the same time, my niece suffers from anorexia, and another young woman I know is dealing with the negative effects of poor body image right now, and it all feels very close to home. I will do ANYTHING to protect my child from going down a path towards an eating disorder. I would rather be too reactive than not enough. My instinct is to pull her from the program, huge money investment be damned.

Here’s the rub though. Free loves gymnastics. She has been wanting to compete for years. She is strong; she is happy; she is learning a lot. She is tired, yes, but we are figuring out how to navigate the schedule and make adjustments for it elsewhere. To pull her from the program might do more harm than good, especially if I didn’t have a good explanation that she would understand. So my next instinct says to let her finish the year and watch like a mama bear/hawk to protect her from the fallout. But if I do that, how will I know when to draw the line? How do I talk to her to help her deal with what is coming in her life, whether or not she stays in this gymnastics program?

I’m not sure. I just know that the itch is getting stronger.

KHP Art Below

KHP - I took some pretty pictures out on the course this morning.

KHP – I took some pretty pictures out on the course this morning.

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3 Responses to Claire: Itchy Gymnastics

  1. khpixler says:

    I completely understand this itch and it is one I am trying to avoid with all cost! One of the reasons I pulled LP and PP from dance was I knew the culture and coaches promote a lot of ideals that conflict with my own. I am very scared of eating disorders even though my family of sisters have all survived life without them. I just feel the pressure is already there in society and adding that layer from their sport is too hard. LP and PP really are so young and could care less what activity they partake. LP is more interested in riding which we will start in spring. PP will most likely play soccer or another ball sport and they both will swim. Oddly swimming does not seem to have these pressures at all. Tall, muscular amazon-like women seem to rule the pool.
    With Free, she seems to love it and is self-motivated to do it. I would keep a very open communication with the coaches and make sure they know your concerns. My friend Linda, had three girls and they were all pre-olympian level athletes. The coached told her 6 year-old she needed to drop some pounds before the comp. Linda went in and told the coach that she would pull her very competitive children out of the program if she heard that again. The coaches especially at this elite type of gym need to know the balance and how destructive this can be. With all that said I have a feeling that Free will survive the culture and the pressures just fine; she has you.

  2. Kristen R. says:

    I think as moms of daughters, this post makes all of us itchy. Your flag is up — and it sounds like it should be. I, like you, would be very close to that line of walking, but some of the financial investment would keep me lingering. It does sound pricey but what would send me out the door for good would be if I took note of any more body issues. She’s so young, and will this do her more harm long-term to stay vs walking now and getting her involved in something that will give her a more positive body image? The Bean’s taekwondo seems to make her feel strong and confident and I like the co-ed aspect of her classes. If you can see Free doing gymnastics for years and years to come, then you’ll probably have to deal with this from time to time and I think you will handle it well, but if it’s just another activity, it might be worth it to find a different one that doesn’t put so much emphasis on her physical appearance (in the form of a too-tight leotard). Not an easy to place to be, my friend. I’m sorry it’s happening so early.

  3. wwwmama says:

    Good advice! I am gonna be all over this for the year and look for other options next year if it gets worse.

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