Nerds, Jocks, and Other Misnomers

Photo: Alan O'Rourke on Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo: Alan O’Rourke on Flickr via Creative Commons

I was six years old when the film The Breakfast Club came out. Judd Nelson was my first (but definitely not my last) bad boy crush. By the time I saw the film a few years later, I was already embroiled in a crisis of identity and I found the world of labels it presents to be comforting.

As a child I had always been “too ______.” Too friendly, too talkative, too eager, too smart, too energetic, too curious. It was annoying to my parents, to other kids, to teachers. Being a child of addicts I also had a deep drive to be accepted by others, and I eventually became aware of the need to scale myself back. By the end of middle school I had become obsessed with labels, both to find a personal identity and to regulate my relationships. I felt I was always attaching more, caring more, meaning more than others. Labels taught me appropriate behavior and expectations.

I remember watching Grease with my friend Angie in junior high and talking until the middle of the night about which “clique” we each thought we belonged to. I desperately wanted Angie to tell me where she thought I belonged so I could have an idea of who I was. In the end, she said she thought we both floated between several and we moved on to talking about boys. I fretted over this for literally months; I needed to find a label.

Eventually I found my people in theater and debate, creative writing and French club, AP English and youth group. I learned that “unlabelable” was kind of its own label, and cloaked myself in the mild rebelliousness of liberal intellectualism, non-racism in Pekin, IL, and eventually the Christian subculture.

I also learned that words like “acquaintance,” “associate,” “friend,” “close friend,” and “best friend” could aid me in my attachment issues. I learned to define these words very carefully, and assigned mental lists of acceptable expectations to each. I guarded these layers of relationship tenaciously for without them I felt relationally adrift.

As an adult, I am often shocked by how often I still think and even speak in these terms. It sounds so immature to my ears, juvenile and unnecessary. Yet there’s a deep need in my psyche for the comfort of these labels.

I identify myself as a cultural nerd: a love of games, movies, and books; implied awkwardness and lack of physical coordination.

I identify myself as a pseudo hippie: focus on love, creation, issues of social justice; nature and yoga.

I identify myself as an armchair intellectual: love of conversation, philosophy, poetry, and art – things that involve sitting and coffee and journals and thinking.

Last Monday night, after months of irrational self-consciousness, I ventured into the big, scary part of my gym. The part with all the boppy girls and growly guys – and the machines I need to keep moving forward with this lifting program. After my very patient friend walked me through all the machines I would need for the next four weeks, I scurried back to the women’s only section and did the first four lifting exercises of the night. With two to go, I headed out. I would be brave. Intellectually I know no one is paying attention to me, yet I feel such a wave of embarrassment, almost shame. But…brave. The first exercise is predictably awkward, but I finish. Head over to the next. Two sets in…I drop a 25lb weight directly onto my right foot. I’m totally stunned, so much so that I finish the set so no one knows what happened before I shakily walk into the locker room. Shoe is bloody, sock is bloody, toes are…well, yeah.

Immediately the labels begin screaming through my head. What was I thinking?? I don’t belong in this place. Gyms are for jocks. Sporty spices. Doers, not thinkers. People like me don’t go to gyms. We aren’t gym rats, we don’t run on treadmills, we don’t train for things, we don’t lift weights like those people.

Never mind that I know plenty of incredibly intelligent people who do things like run and have gym memberships. Or that the stereotype of intellectuals and nerds is that of physically unhealthy people for a reason. Or that I’ve been coming to this gym for a year now. Suddenly all that insecurity and shame and out-of-placeness was fully confirmed by my (still) purple toes.

I’m genuinely unsure of how to overcome these feelings that I don’t belong in a world of physical bodies. I spent the last week cranky and a little defeated, unable to wear shoes much less start phase two of this program. I do think it has something to do with moving past these ridiculous labels in my mind. In the end they dehumanize everyone, myself included. They are reductive and while they make great ’80s entertainment, it might be time to outgrow them. As Brian and the crew so eloquently state:

You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…and a princess…and a criminal.

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2 Comments

  1. May 17, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    First: oh boy, I totally identify with all of this, especially the frustrating relationship with having–no, *being*–a body. (See? Even the language disassociates us from being biological entities.)

    Also, if it helps, I don’t think that your self-consciousness is irrational. I say this not to discourage you but actually to encourage you. I think that you’re being incredibly brave, and what you’re doing right now is so valuable to all of you: body and soul and everything else. You are facing real fears and real emotions, and that really makes it a battle. And I can tell that you’re feeling like you got beat down this week. But you’re still in this, and you haven’t given up, and that makes you brave.

    (Oh, and dropping 25 pounds on your foot? That’s not about being a nerd or a jock or whatever. That’s about gravity being a dick to you. That could happen to anyone, and it would be incredibly painful for anyone. It’s not like jocks have bulletproof toes or anything.)

    I am painfully familiar with the sorts of self-doubt that you’re talking about, and I know how hard those voices are to overcome. I’m still fighting my own. But the fight…the fight is worth it.

    So, stick it out! Keep going! Endure! We’re all cheering you on.

    And, for what it’s worth, I am so very proud of you.


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