Everyone knows the expression “pay it forward”. It describes a situation wherein someone receives a good deed and reciprocates this good deed to another person. As a barista, I sometimes saw a long chain of people in the drive-thru paying for the cars behind them. Kindness is very contagious and I learned just how contagious it can be in the derby community.
When I transferred to the Chicago Outfit I was taken aback by its very nurturing environment. Firstly, the league calls itself The Family and rightly so. The website’s skater section does not separate the league into teams. Instead, we are all jumbled together without any distinction between experience, skill, and leadership roles. Each teammate’s headshot and profile embrace our individual personalities, like each one of us is a puzzle piece fit together in our own personal way. To make the complete picture of the Family, you need everyone.
However, this familial mentality extends to the way we all view each other as teammates and players. I love how much the Outfit trains indiscriminately. Everyone is given the same attention with various goals and challenges catering to what the skater needs to develop. I found myself working alongside experienced players instead of against them. The competition was not for the better of your team placement but for the better of you as a fellow teammate. We always embrace every new challenge and always cheer each other on. I never feel scared to fall because someone js always there to help me back up. I have gained so much confidence in the past few months and I’ve felt something else stirring inside of me because of it.
I adore this nurturing environment. It has been infectious. I want others to never starve to hear “good job” but still gently challenge them to plow deeper or push the comfort zone of their footwork. After receiving so much support and affection, it felt almost compulsory to give it to someone else. I willingly started volunteering my time to give personal feedback to any skater who wanted help or advice. My proudest accomplishment of late was not figuring out how to do a one-footed, 180 degree jump but running a practice for the first time for the badass ladies at Gulf Coast Roller Girls in Lake Charles, Louisiana. My heart grew three times its size when, at the end of practice, we all shared one new thing we learned. I was so happy to see them take pride in their accomplishments and be more confident in themselves.
If the Outfit has taught me anything in my short time here: to learn a skill myself is not nearly as a gratifying as teaching another skater to do it. The best feeling in the world is watching a skater finally do something they never imagined possible.
I’ve got a confession to make.
As a feminist it can feel like a shameful one but in all honesty, despite my knowledge of the psychological impacts of body image and the media and my rejection of the commodification of women’s beauty and capitalism’s unrealistic beauty standards….
I don’t always like the way my body looks.
This part is too round, that part’s too flat. This part is too saggy, that part’s too soft. This part’s too big, that part’s too big, oh lawdy it’s all too big!
I look at myself in the mirror as I suck in my abdomen and flex all my muscles trying to move my squishy parts around and i think, “Come on! You’re Susan B. Slamthony! You don’t care about how your body looks!”
Sorry self, I’m still a woman who has grown up in a culture that tells her to value certain bodies and how they look over others. And in a culture that tells her to always strive to change how her body looks.
So I don’t always like the way my body looks.
But, if you had asked me how I felt about my body ten years ago, I would have told you that I never like the way my body looks.
Never liked the way my body looked.
And while I was proud of my mind and my spirit, I did not see my body as something to be proud of. Not because of how it looked and not because of what it could do.
I’m five years into derby and more than anything else I’ve ever done, it has changed how I feel about my body.
On a regular basis, other women tell me that my body is beautiful, and I tell them the same of theirs.
We skate around the track and I see things that I never liked about my body in the bodies of my teammates and opponents and i realize that those things I hated are not so ugly. Sometimes, I see the things I hated about my body reflected in others and I see how beautiful they are.
Even better, for the first time I see my body as not just something to be looked at, but something that is made for doing. And it does it well.
Those big thighs are made for getting low, the bulging calves are made for propelling me across the track. My soft, squishy, flabby parts don’t matter because they’re all part of this big machine that I use to compete. And I am again surrounded by women (and others) who see their bodies and mine in that same way. Our bodies aren’t just for looks, they’re for long laps and hits and cross training.
No, I don’t love my body all the time, every day. Expecting that of myself is unreasonable and sets me up for failure. But derby has given me the gift of loving it more than I ever have, which is a pretty great thing.
– Susan B. Slamthony
When I tell people about derby, I usually end up gushing about all the positive ways it has impacted my life and trying to recruit them to play derby too.
Sorry about that friends, family, and casual acquaintances of derby skaters. We can’t help but try to recruit you. We found something amazing and we think you’ll find it amazing too. We’re not trying to convert you, we just want you to share the awesome. Like when your vegan friends make you delicious vegan food. They aren’t trying to make you vegan, they just think you’ll like these brownies.
Usually, at some point in the conversation, the person I’m talking to will say “Oh, I don’t think I have what it takes.”
This confuses me, because of course you don’t have what it takes. It only takes two things to become a derby skater:
1. Roller Skates
That’s it. Seriously. Just skates and the time it would take to learn to use them and play the sport. Of course you don’t have those things. Most people don’t own roller skates. And if you had already invested the time, we’d be talking about how much we love playing derby and I wouldn’t need to be trying to recruit you.
I know, I know, the people I’m talking to mean something more ephemeral than actual skates and the time it takes to learn when they say “I don’t have what it takes.”
But I’m here to tell you, sisters from other misters (and other non-binary siblings from other parentings), there is nothing standard about what it “takes” to play derby.
Before derby, I would have described myself as “not very physical”. I also had no motivation to become physical. Moving from one side of the couch to another was plenty.
I was (and still am) non-confrontational. My motto is “Don’t say it to my face, wait until I’ve left the room and talk behind my back. That’s less awkward.” I am not an inherently aggressive person, nor are many of the skaters I know.
And while I’m part of the growing majority of skaters who played a sport before coming to derby, I was a swimmer. If you manage to make physical contact with an opponent during a swim meet, it is because you’ve gotten terribly lost.
I’ve never been in a physical altercation. I’ve barely been in verbal altercations as an adult.
There are no personality traits that make you “right” for derby.
There is no job or societal niche that makes you right for derby– I’ve met derby skaters who are hairdressers, preschool teachers, physical trainers, professors, waitresses, full time moms, librarians, social workers, sex workers, nurses, photographers, and artists. They’re punk rockers, suburban soccer moms, country hillbillies, and hipsters. There’s no “right” background for derby.
I often hear people say “well, if I were ten years younger,” to which I say that one of my favorite teammates, A Perfect Upzette from the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes was in her mid fifties when i met her. She’s a grandmother several times over and still dumps skaters half her age to the ground on the track.*
If you’re thinking about derby. Don’t worry about what you’re not. Get some skates on your feet, put in some time and find out what you can be.
*But, she’s also been hurt. Derby is a real sport with real injuries. If those injuries are too much for a person to deal with, either physically, financially,
or emotionally, then there’s still a place in derby for you. I refereed for almost two years while I got myself to the point that I felt like I was ready to face the possibility of injury. Our non-skating officials get to be part of the derby community without lacing up skates. Derby can be for everyone.
– Susan B. Slamthony
The first time I saw roller derby was at a Mad Rollin Dolls bout. When the Unholy Rollers skated out in their gold and red uniforms, I thought I had never seen anyone look so cool. They were confident, they moved so surely in their skates and they were in control of the crowd. Unlike most proto-derby skaters, “I want to be one of them” never even crossed my mind. I couldn’t be one of them. They were gods among us mortals. That’s how cool they looked.
During the game, which made absolutely no sense to me, I watched as a jammer attempted to call off the jam while heading face first into the floor. But she didn’t stop calling off the jam. No, she flew through the air, watching the ground get closer and closer to her beautiful face, tapping her hips over and over to strategically end game play. She didn’t put her hands out to stop herself, she went face first into the ground. I knew in that moment that I would never be a derby skater. I didn’t like being hit, falling down or getting hurt. These women were not only cool, they were tough.
Years later, the opportunity to volunteer with a newly forming derby league presented itself. I had only watched two games in real life, but I was still new in town and looking to make friends. Volunteering and organized sports seemed like two good options. Despite having no background in skating or officiating sports, I signed up to train as a referee. “They don’t get hit in the face,” I thought to myself.
To be a ref, I was going to have to learn the rules, how to enforce them and how to skate all at once. The best way for me to do that was to go through “boot camp” with the new skaters. Once they started hitting each other, it would be my cue to skate off and spend time reading the rules instead.
During those weeks between when I felt comfortable wearing skates and my fellow boot campers started hitting, a change happened. Derby was no longer a mystery of cool, tough women. I got to know these new skaters. They were stay at home moms and school teachers. They were Star Trek geeks and bookworms.
And not all of them were inherently tough. Plenty of them hated falling down just as much as I did. But when we would fall down in practice, we’d all get back up, just the same. As I got more comfortable with my fellow skaters and with falling down, derby skating didn’t seem so intimidating anymore. I looked around at my fellow boot camp learners and realized that there was no real difference between them and myself. If they could play derby– get hit, fall down, skate fast– then so could I.*
Derby isn’t about being inherently athletic, or tough, or cool. Derby is a place where you can try new things and explore your own comfort zone limits. And you get to look cool doing it.
*Disclaimer– even after i decided that I was willing to be a skater, I stayed a referee for almost a year first so that I could do other things in my personal time, like plan a wedding, get married and take an extended honeymoon in another hemisphere. While it was frustrating to not be able to play right away with the women I went through bootcamp with, I had time to learn the rules better, and build a lot of empathy for Officials. If you haven’t refereed or NSO’d a game, sign up to do it right away. These amazing volunteers deserve that empathy.
– Susan B. Slamthony
The first time I watched roller derby wasn’t empowering or inspiring. It was confusing – not in a “where’s the ball?” way, but in a “why is this making me so sad?” way. I wanted desperately to be a derby girl but I was quite certain that it would never ever happen.
Why? Because I was a dude.
I knew I was transgender but I had resigned myself to a lifetime in the closet. I’m a 6’7” 250 lb. human person and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story. I joined the Chicago Bruise Brothers on the night in 2011 that they chose the name Chicago Bruise Brothers. Hey, I was playing derby right? I joined some women’s leagues as a referee. I bouted, I captained, I administrated. When I broke my ankle I bench coached. When I stopped refereeing I announced. I eventually did fully come out of the closet via a Windy City Times profile in early 2014 – personally, I didn’t think it was a big deal that I identified as transgender and skated in the MRDA but the recognition was nice.
All that led up to a big milestone in the middle of 2014: I was Kind Of Good At Roller Derby. I was good enough at least. The Bruise Brothers went to BrewHaHa in Milwaukee for the first time and we lost a few very tough games. Spirits were really low but everyone had very nice things to say about how I’d played.
Something snapped in my head that weekend. I wasn’t happy anymore. Derby stopped being fun as soon as I started playing well and I got straight up depressed about it. I had hustled so hard to get to where I was but all of a sudden I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing. It wasn’t until August that I figured out what was wrong: I didn’t just want to skate roller derby, I wanted to skate on a women’s league – so I joined one. Until that point, I thought that there wasn’t a reason to pursue my gender further – to dress differently or to change my pronouns or any of the other things that come with a transition. I never knew what it meant to “live as a woman” until I started skating WFTDA. I never saw a reason to start hormone replacement therapy until then either. But there I was, hitting all those major life milestones just because I finally realized what kind of derby I should be skating. It kicked ass.
My first WFTDA league wasn’t a great fit for me. I started thinking about The Outfit a lot and this past June I resolved that as soon as my season ended I’d transfer over. For the last four years I’ve run the gamut of roles with a bunch of different leagues but I never quite felt like I fit in as well as I fit in with The Outfit. This is what I wanted when I first transferred to WFTDA. All of that hokey stuff about loving your league that I used to roll my eyes at? I’m embracing it wholeheartedly because I found a league that’s really unlike any other. Joining The Outfit was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I get to be a strong as hell female alongside a bunch of other strong as hell females. It’s good dude. It’s real good.
Now that bootcamp and tryouts are over, I want to welcome our 18 new recruits for the 2016 season! These ladies are strong and eager to learn. 2016 is not so far away and our new recruits have been busy getting acquainted with team and putting their bootcamp skills to work during our off-season practices.
We’ll have so much more to come from them and from this league in the coming months so lookout for new articles, new fundraisers, and our 2016 home bout dates!