I haven’t always been a sports fan.
I grew up in southeast Wisconsin, a place where Sunday Catholic masses in the fall usually included a reference to the Packers during the homily. And sometimes a joke about the Bears or the Vikings, to the delight of almost all. But I found football boring (little did I know) and paid it no mind.
I played basketball and baseball until sometime around seventh or eighth grade. I was big–tall–and slow.
The thing is, I’ve always been large. Fat, really. And the journey to being able to say that without feelings of overwhelming shame, well, it’s been a long one. And the thing about being the fat girl is that we don’t really play sports.
To be fair, women’s sports wasn’t really a viewing option. Maybe some golf, maybe some tennis. But except for Olympic years and major tournaments, I can’t remember seeing a women’s basketball game on television, never a women’s soccer game nor a women’s hockey game.
The bodies of female athletes that I saw on television were tall, toned, and definitely not fat. Toned, but not overly muscular. Even their athleticism was marked by a kind of grace that I just didn’t possess.
I never saw myself reflected in the women I saw playing sports. I didn’t see the fat girls.
As time marched on I eventually stopped playing sports. I tolerated gym class while I focused on other activities. For a long time, I looked at sports as something with nothing to offer me.
My foray back into the wide world of sports began with the NFL. With the Packers, a Super Bowl win, and the excitement of being able to connect with my dad and brothers. And, yes, the allure of the family Fantasy Football trophy.
But it wasn’t until the Women’s World Cup in 2015 that I truly became a sports fan. I’d never watched a soccer game before June 8th, 2015, when the USWNT bested Australia. No one in my family ever played soccer. None of my friends did. And, yeah, my dad, the football and basketball fan, thought it was boring. He’d say, “They’re always flopping around on the ground!” or “What good’s a sport where nobody scores?”
But I watched that game against Australia, and I was hooked.
My Google history from that night included a lot of names of players I’d never heard of before (I’d really only heard of Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo through cultural osmosis) as well as things like “What is stoppage time?” For reference, as a former basketball player, I was very concerned the first time I saw someone take the ball over the centerline, then back, then forward again.
“Isn’t that a foul? A backcourt violation?” I wondered.
Turns out, it was not.
Since June 8th, 2015, I have watched every single USWNT game.
I’ve watched as many NWSL games as I have been able (and while the ability to watch on YouTube is wonderful, are you seriously telling me that I have several hundred channels with my cable subscription, and not a single one is willing to broadcast the games?).
I went to a Chicago Red Stars game against Sky Blue FC earlier this year and had an amazing experience, and I took my mom to the July 9th USWNT match against South Africa. She’d never seen a soccer game before either, and she loved every minute of it. And when the Red Stars take on the Washington Spirit in their last game of the regular season later this year, I will be there, cheering my head off.
The USWNT turned me into a women’s soccer fan.
But I’ve also become more and more aware of my status as, what I’ve termed, a “fat fan.”
See, I’ve always been large, always been overweight. I think I was thin once, for about two weeks, after I was released from a hospitalization for pneumonia at the age of six months. I spent high school wearing super-sized Nike t-shirts and rocking the layered flannel look (and yes, I know–it wasn’t a look then; it still isn’t now).
I sit gingerly and carefully on seats that look unable to hold my weight–or I just stand–because I can still hear one of the kids back in elementary school taunting me about being too heavy for the desk chairs.
I get anxiety about flying on airplanes–because what if they want me to pay for a second seat? Or what if I get sat next to someone who makes a big deal about my arms touching theirs on, or my thighs touching theirs. (Fat flying anxiety: it’s an actual thing.)
And on the one hand, becoming a fan of soccer has introduced me to the whole wide world of female athlete body types, and honestly helped me move toward overcoming my lifetime’s worth of shame over being the fat girl. But at the same time, I find myself continually reminded of who I am.
Life as a fat fan—and this isn’t limited to soccer; it’s just the sport I have the most experience with of late—can be complicated. As much as sports celebrate bodies and active lifestyles, and as much as soccer has helped to promote body positivity (thank you, Ali Krieger, and Christen Press, for your ESPN Body Issue comments in 2015 and 2016, respectively), I am always reminded of my size as a fan.
What it’s like to be a fat fan?
First of all, the official merchandise.
Now, this isn’t a problem so much in the NFL–I have no problem getting a Jordy Nelson or Clay Matthews jersey in the size that I want.
But I have noticed that it’s a problem in the soccer world. The USSF caps replica and authentic jersey sizes at 2XL. In both men’s and women’s sizes. (Let’s not get lost in the many problems with women’s jerseys, but seriously, that v-neck?). For a while, you could only get the 3-star jersey in the women’s cut. Which, as Serena Williams helpfully pointed out, doesn’t fit every body type.
But the 2XL in either cut doesn’t fit everybody (or every body) either.
So if you want to represent your favorite athlete or team, as a fat person, you’ve got to squeeze your body into a 2XL or go the route of finding non-licensed apparel. Which, yes, does exist. But, as a fans of the USSF and its players, we should try to avoid.
I have two jerseys: a 2015 away jersey with Ali Krieger’s name and number and a 2016 away jersey with Kelley O’Hara’s. I’m a defense girl; always have been. They’re 2XL and, yes, technically they fit, but they’re tight.
They’re tight and I feel uncomfortable wearing them. I spend the day pulling them down as they roll up, self-conscious that my fat back is showing. I spend the day feeling like Bruce Banner, just one moment of not paying attention to how wide I’m swinging my arms from bursting out of the seams. For the record, the 2016 jersey is just slightly better. I am comfortable wearing that one outside of the house. Sometimes.
But you know what would be so much better?
A jersey in 3XL.
That would fit just a little better and make me a little more comfortable. I’d still be fat, yeah, but I’d certainly feel a little more dignified. And what about fans larger than me? I know they exist. How hard would it be to offer a 4XL or 5XL option? How hard would it be to make fans of all sizes feel comfortable using their bodies to mark their enthusiasm and their passion for the sport?
The official NWSL team merchandise isn’t always better–though it can vary from team to team.
I’ve got a wonderful long-sleeve Red Stars shirt and a bright orange Sky Blue shirt that (after some deliberate stretching) fits okay. Team jerseys, depending upon availability, can range from topping off at L to 2XL, but never higher.
Which is a shame for multiple reasons. Not only are the opportunities far more frequent for people to go and see them play, but the league could benefit even more from increased merchandise sales to help support teams and players.
The NWHL, for example, also only offers up to 2XL, both in shirts and jerseys. But their merchandise is undergoing a revamp as they design new jerseys for their second season, and it’s possible that available sizes might change or increase nearer to the start.
But there’s actually a simple solution to this.
As a fat person, I’m used to sometimes paying a few dollars more for a size I want. Lots of places offer sizes up to 2XL at a set price, and sizes above 2XL with a slight surcharge. If I could go all day without feeling like everyone knows what color underwear I’m wearing, I’d pay the extra bucks.
The problem isn’t limited to federation and league products, either. The issue also exists within individual player merchandise, their personal branded lines. It isn’t an institutional issue but a cultural one.
And sometimes, yes, it’s simply out of the player’s control.
I can tell you, if there’s a player out there who offers their gear in larger sizes? I’m 100% more likely to buy from them.
Ashlyn Harris’s store via Sqor, when it first opened, offered at least one shirt that went into at least 3XL: the all-black Keeper shirt with her name on back.
It’s one of my favorites.
In contrast, Megan Rapinoe’s line doesn’t seem to offer anything over 2XL. Ali Krieger’s most recent t-shirt design only went to 2XL (and sold out in a day—congrats!). But when someone contacted Team Krieger, they did express concern over the issue of sizing. It’s interesting to note that the Krieger website includes a sizing chart that lists Bella+Canvas shirts being offered up to 4XL but the product itself is only offered up to 2XL. I love both players, and I support them both, but I can’t in good conscience buy a shirt from them that I’m not sure will fit me.
Hope Solo’s merchandise store seems to only offer options up to 2XL as well, but she recently put out a “Resting Pitch Face” merchandise line in cooperation with Girl Up. And with this product, her sizes went up to 3XL in one of the t-shirt options, and 5XL in the sweatshirt option. I was already a Hope Solo fan. I’ve got a (too-tight) t-shirt from the US Soccer store with her name and number in gold lettering, but am I considering plunking down more money for a shirt or sweatshirt that actually fits? That I can wear outside without feeling self-conscious?
And sure, there are the inevitable responses to issues like this. Why not just lose the weight? Why not be more active? Why not get healthier? Is it the responsibility of institutions or individuals to cater to fat people?
Well, those are questions that open up a whole host of other issues about the way society and culture views body types. But I can tell you this. I’m not unhealthy. My blood pressure is perfect. I don’t have diabetes.
Oh, and last summer, inspired by the USWNT during the Women’s World Cup (and in particular, Ali Krieger’s stories of her multiple comebacks after what could have been career-ending injuries), I actually did a C25K program and ran in a 5K in the fall.
Yeah, me. The fat girl.
So it’s not just that I’m lazy (I’m willing to admit that I can be), unhealthy (I’m not), or some other accusation someone wants to toss at me. And others who experience similar things aren’t either. The issue is that larger people exist, that we can be just as passionate as fans as everyone else, but we are continually reminded that sports just aren’t for us by the limited merchandise options made available.
We are literally being sized out of athletic patronage.
So, back to that last question: Should there be more size options? My answer is going to be yes. Yes, federations and teams and players should try to offer products in larger sizes. I’m not even saying that every product has to go up to 5XL or above. But one or two of them? Absolutely.
We buy tickets. We squeeze ourselves into uncomfortable stadium seating that gouges into our hips, and if we look like we’re on the edge of our seats for the whole game, it’s 50% excitement and 50% because the armrests don’t hurt our sides that way. We buy merchandise that we can wear (snapbacks and scarves) or display (flags and signs) and merchandise that we’re apprehensive about wearing (jerseys, shorts, t-shirts, jackets, socks, etc.). We show up to games, and sometimes, honestly, sometimes we’re a little afraid or anxious about what other people think. Are our rolls of fat showing? Do we look ridiculous in this? Do people think we’re trying too hard, that we know less or aren’t truly fans because we weigh more?
We cheer and we root and we are so, so proud of our players and our teams and our leagues.
Sometimes we don’t wear our gear at all. Sometimes we show up in things that fit us, things that make us feel like we don’t have to worry the whole day.
And then we wonder, the whole time, do people still know that we’re fans? Do they think we’re imposters? Do they know that we live and breathe and die by the scoreline? Our team’s place on the table?
Come the end of September, I’m going to be at that Red Stars game. And I’m going to be wearing some sort of soccer gear. I just wish I could be certain that I will be comfortable in it as I’m hooting and hollering and cheering the teams and the players on.