the Male Body is the Site of Winning and Losing

In the airport waiting area, a hundred people watch CNN on Sunday afternoon. The story was a breathless expose of what the reporter called "trophy culture." There are youth soccer leagues where every young player gets a trophy for "participation." The reporter announced he was about to faint when he heard that in some leagues for younger children, they don't keep score and have a winner and loser.

Almost every man in the waiting room was paying very close attention to the TV.

A lot of significance was drawn from these anecdotes. Did you know that most people think that they are smarter than they really are? And they are more likely to succeed than they really are? Such delusional thinking is obviously the result of getting too many cheap trophies for "participation." Also grade inflation in colleges and universities, although the educators give the grades and not the students.

My story: Due to some strange mismatch between the Providence RI school system and the Youngstown, Ohio school system, I did kindergarten and first grade in one year. While this did not affect me academically, it meant that I was always a year younger and smaller than the other boys in my class. When it came to outdoor play, playground games, I was not as skilled or coordinated.

Even now, I flinch from that kind of external explanation of how I experienced playing with other boys, as though I making an cheap retroactive excuse for being a loser.

But a loser I was, marked early with that name. Chosen last, assigned to right field where no one ever hit, my at-bats ended with pinch-hitters, even pinch-runners called in on the odd occasion when I was on base.

I remember sharing with my mother my sad frustration at being 'not strong'. She gave me the word that it was OK, because I was smarter than them. It made me feel better at the time, but I don't think it was the most healthy advice she could have given me.

The male body is the site of winning and losing, and this body that I have is a losing body.

About middle school, the losing male body is also seen as sexually suspect, or "queer" back when that term had not even begun to be re-claimed. It is a sad fact that for the young men of my time, sex too, was a game where some bodies won and others lost, and that was as it should be.

No wonder the eyes of almost every man in the airport was fixed on the TV. This news report about "trophy culture" was an ideological recommitment to grim laws of winners and losers that governed our childhood and youth. I could see the pride and shame playing on their faces.

I am now over 65 living in a body that testifies to a lifetime of neglect. I have all the metabolic disorders that come from a sedentary life, a life in which there few moments of joy in the strength, or speed, or skill, of my body. After all, it was an inadequate body, a losing body, from before I can even remember. I am becoming convinced that the poor health of many adults of my age is directly traceable to the culture of relentless bodily competition that ruled our childhoods.

I am not sure that younger people know that there was a time before gyms, and workouts and running as we now know them. Everything like that was tied to competitive sports. Gyms were about boxing, or competitive weight lifting. The idea that you would go to the gym and exercise simply for the satisfaction of your own health and your own bodily improvement was not common.

I have very few regrets in life. This is one of them.


  1. I had a similar experience as a young female, but have - in my 30s and 40s - now discovered the fun and joy in sports. At 49, I have decided to learn new physical things (partly because I have loved seeing what my kids can do) and in the past year have learned to swim reasonably well (and technically correctly), do stand-up-paddleboarding, and I have joined a crew team at work and am learning to row! I also work out with a trainer once a week, and have finally - in middle age - started to see myself as strong, fit, and physically competent. It can happen! Even at 65.....

  2. Dear Rev. Schade. I too struggled with not being "good" at sports in school. And I too overcompensated with academics. (I can tell you to the second decimal place my GPA in undergraduate school, social work school, and seminary.) And I was hampered by looking down on persons with other, equally valid and valuable, forms of intelligence. Time has moderated this fault, but not removed it. Thank you for this reminder.

  3. I had this experience in grade school and early middle school. Previously, activity was linked with having fun with others in the neighborhood. In school physical activity was harshly competitive and closely linked with personal popularity. The constant choosing of teams re-enforced a negative hierarchy and body shame. I started sitting it out and retreated into books and got fat. Then, one year, my father took us to live in Finland. The Finns were far more active than Americans but far less competitive. Although I was at the bottom of the gym class, I was never shamed. We were all very active and spent weekends learning cross country skiing. We walked a lot. Yet, the intellect was also celebrated. My father had felt looked down upon as a college teacher in the US, but there he was highly respected. I came home having, without trying, lost the fat and gotten stronger and it was not for fifteen year after that that I fully reverted to my American habits of body neglect. Our eating habits and our sedentary habits are culturally re-enforced as is the split between mind and body and the odd shaming of intellect and imperfect bodies.


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