Performers Body Armour: From Gymnastics to Scoliosis
“He traced my spine. It turned out to be curvy, a little snake made of bones.”
“Perfection belongs to gods,” wrote the Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman. “Wholeness is the most a human being can hope for.” And yet what we hear, all around us, is: You have to be flawless. You have to be graceful. You have to be skinny. You have to be the best. Superimposed standards of beauty and successfulness stifle us, they make us feel lacking, inadequate. But instead of questioning the standards we keep questioning ourselves. Perfection is the ultimate goal. Perfection doesn’t exist in nature.
Perfection, flawlessness, grace.
Those were also the precepts that they taught us when I was ten, when I was a gymnast. It is not a coincidence that rhythmic gymnastics is meant only for women. I was on the right path. I was skinny, I was graceful, I was among the best. But I wasn’t flawless, I was far from perfect.
It was in 2000. Nina had come back to train us. She had been a trainer in my Gymnastic Club Diana before my arrival there, but she was sent away because of her harsh methods. Rumours circulated that she had made a girl bend backward so much and for so long that the capillaries in the girl’s face had burst. Another said that she once grabbed a girl by her ponytail and made her pivot, pulling her and spinning her by the hair. Nina came from Bulgaria, she had olive-coloured skin and clipped blonde hair. Her teeth were yellow, darker than her poorly bleached hair. Her voice was husky, made croaky by years of smoking.
“ E nd one, e nd two, e nd three, e nd four, e nd grab! E nd pull!”
Being trained by Nina made me the best. I managed to perform everything she asked. Things I’d never been able to do came easily when she was around. The fear of being spread, pulled, bent, or just touched by her was bigger than the fear of hurting myself. I don’t know now why I was so passionate about a sport that involved so much suffering. As if proving you can stand physical pain shows how strong you are.
I remember one time we were working on the bar. We were jutting our right legs sideways, and at the twentieth jut we were supposed to grab our leg with our left arm and pull. Nina came behind me, held my ankle and pulled. I turned round to see my right foot in mid-air above my left shoulder. I didn’t feel any pain, but I cried out nonetheless because I thought she had ripped my ligaments.
“Hold on, hold on a bit more. E nd it’s over.”
I dreaded Nina as I have not dreaded anyone since, but for some reason she liked me. She liked me so much that she told the manager of Armonia Chieti about me.
Armonia Chieti is one of the most prestigious gymnastics club in Italy. They send at least one gymnast to the Olympics every four years. That year I was summoned. I would have been over the moon if I hadn’t just had a medical examination. Beforehand I had allowed myself to imagine how my life would have been, commuting everyday from Pescara, my home town, to Chieti, training five hours a day, being weighed before training and after— “Now on the scale!”— and being around the girls who always won the competitions but never smiled. I would have been up for it, I would have loved it.
I had been to the doctor to book the usual examination necessary for attending agonistic competitions. During the examination he noticed something was wrong, and recommended I go to see an orthopaedist.
Inside the examination room the orthopaedist made me strip, made me walk near his desk and bend.
“Touch your feet with your fingers,” he told me.
I laid my palms open on the linoleum.
“Too much, come up a little.”
He adjusted my position, then drew on my back. I wondered if he was doing it with a permanent marker. He traced my spine. It turned out to be curvy, a little snake made of bones. I had scoliosis, a degenerative form.
The doctor turned to my mother, who was sitting on the other side of the desk. He asked her if there were any other cases in our family; she told him about her cousin, who has a big hump over her right shoulder, and about her other cousin, who has a metal bar in her back.
“It might be genetic,” he said.
He measured the curve of my spine as if I were a scale model for a garden. The point of the pencil hurt against my vertebrae, the goniometer was chilly on my skin. Twenty-five degrees measured the dangerous curve. I stood beside the desk in my white cotton knickers.
“You can get dressed now,” he said.
As I sat down beside my mother, he told us there was only one thing to do. To put me in a corset, one with a neck brace. I didn’t say a word. My mother looked uncertain. He explained to us how the treatment would proceed, then we left. I don’t remember exactly what I felt. I do remember, though, picturing myself with a plastic collar sticking out of my T-shirt like a sick, pitiful dog.
We opted for a second opinion. A series of medical examinations began. They all rolled pretty much in the same way. The temperature of the orthopaedist’s hand varied, the kind of back brace they wanted to put me into also. Each time, I stood there in the examination room wide-eyed and silent, feeling cold and numb. The only question I feebly asked to each of them was, “Can I continue to do gymnastics?” Their answers tightened my throat and made my cheeks burn.
The treatment began with a false start in Autumn 2001. I was brought to an orthopaedist in Milan, Doctor Viganò. My parents chose him after another doctor, the one who had operated on my mother’s cousin, prescribed me a lyonnaise. A lyonnaise is a harsh corset, made partly of plastic and partly of metal. It has two bars, one on the back and one on the front, and movable parts upholstered in foam attached to the back bar. They open and close like little wardrobe doors. Turning screws on the front bar increases the force with which they push against your skeleton. Viganò prescribed me a cheneau corset instead, probably out of medical rivalry, because my mother had told him the other orthopaedist had chosen the lyonnaise. It was a milder approach, and didn’t include a neck brace. A cheneau corset is made entirely of plastic, except for a metal bar in the back. It has a hole for the breasts and straps to tighten it around the belly. Inside, on the back, there are foam pads which are supposed to push the spine back into the right position. Over the collarbone there is a horizontal bar which can be opened and closed with a screw. It is custom-tailored.
Something went wrong in the fabrication of the corset. When we went back to the doctor to show him the device, he said it wasn’t okay. He blamed my parents for having chosen the wrong technical orthopaedic centre. My father was angry. We went back to the previous orthopaedist. Doctor Sibilla was old and he looked like mad scientists do in Mel Brooks films. He had white messy hair and slightly squinting eyes, one bigger than the other, and he also had a prominent mole on his forehead. But I can’t be sure I’m not mixing his features with some film character. In the end, I was stuck with the lyonnaise.
I kept going to training until the end of the summer. I finally managed to learn the back walkover. It is actually an easy task, one you should learn from the beginning. You need to raise your arms, bend backwards, place your palms on the floor, lift one leg and throw it backwards, then the other, spread both briefly, then land back on your feet, one after another, and stand up, all in one fluid movement. I never learned it properly, I was scared of throwing myself backwards without seeing where I was supposed to land. As often happens, I overcame my fear when it was no longer needed.
My favourite exercises were the jumps. “Higher!” “Slower!” “Bend more!” There’s a span of time in pre-puberty when your legs grow, but your upper body doesn’t. At that time my legs were almost disproportionately longer than my torso and it played to my advantage. They functioned well as levers and enabled me to leap high enough to have the time to spread them in a 180-degree split. The classic split-leap was among my preferred ones because I knew I could do it perfectly. But the best part of each leap was that moment when I reached the apex and felt time slow down, my body frozen in mid-air. I still do some gymnastic leaps from time to time when nobody is home.
We had to go to Bologna to have the cast made. The gauzes, previously soaked in hot water and gypsum, felt nice on my bare skin. But I didn’t like the technician rubbing them into me in order to model the shape of my childish body. Nor did I like the sensation as the gauzes dried.
I had to wait, standing, until the cast hardened completely. Then the technician cut it down the middle and set me free. He would give me a wet towel to clean up the gypsum remains. The whole procedure lasted hours. I don’t remember talking. I had to do it every year, as the corsets grew small on me. That first year my parents spoiled me more than usual. They took me shopping and bought me clothes. Girly shirts and tops that turned out to be too tight to be worn over my armour-like device.
I knew I was luckier than other kids with scoliosis; some had to wear a cast for three months straight without any chance to take it off. The orthopaedist allowed me one hour a day free from captivity. Aside from wearing the back brace, I had to do physiotherapy three days a week for a couple of hours. My muscles needed to be strengthened in order to sustain the spine when not supported by the corset. I hated physiotherapy. We were maybe ten kids altogether, all miserable and desperate for the lesson to be over. It was almost worse than wearing the thing itself. The exercises were dull. Nobody talked. A sort of embarrassment lingered in the gym, a guilty awareness that we all had something to be fixed. I didn’t make any friends there, despite all the time we spent together within those walls. When we met by chance outside the gym, we sometimes muttered hello, but more often we pretend not to notice each other. As if we were afraid someone would ask us, “How do you know each other?” and we would have been forced to reveal the big, shameful secret.
The last weeks of training in September were excruciating. I was living in the paradox of having a body built for gymnastics— “She is like modelling clay,” “You can make her do whatever you want,”— and gymnastics being the last thing I should have been doing. I could bend and stretch in every possible direction, but this flexibility was the biggest aggravating factor for my condition. How could my spine allow me to do extraordinary things and not be able to do the simplest of them all: to grow straight?
Before the end of the month, I quit. Marisa, the club manager, hugged me and told me, “Come back when you’re healed.”
Nina thought it was nonsense I was leaving: “Gymnastics will fix you,” she told me.
I sunk into a depression. I didn’t even know what it was back then, I just stopped smiling, stopped talking, and cried a lot. The luxury of being depressed as a child is that you don’t have any notion of it, you don’t feel the anxiety about needing to get better, to be over it soon. You don’t rationalise what’s happening. You just feel the overwhelming flow of emotion as it comes. Until you feel less.
The whole corset experience was entwined with a pervasive shame. I didn’t want people to know I was physically flawed. I didn’t want to recognize pity in their eyes as they recognized me as handicapped. I was able to conceal the back brace, but to the detriment of the slightest allusion of femininity in my apparel. I just needed to wear Fruit Of The Loom T-shirts a couple of sizes bigger than my actual size. Their hems needed to reach until the half of my bum, where the corset ended. Also, jeans were two, maybe three sizes bigger. Some of the ones I wore when I was sixteen still fit me.
It worked, if you didn’t pay enough attention, especially to my constrained movements. You couldn’t tell I was wearing something beneath my clothes. If you had touched me, however, you would have felt it right away. I was always edgy when someone stood too close to me. I didn’t want to see the surprise shaping their mouth in “oh” and, above all, I didn’t want to be asked questions. Of course, everybody knew. My friends, my classmates, my teachers, other kids at school. I was stoic and secretive nonetheless. I didn’t show it, I didn’t speak openly about it, and I didn’t exempt myself from physical activities.
I learned how to do everything, no matter how great the physical impediment. I learned hurdling when my school organized the athletics tournament. I remember how uncomfortable it felt when the edge of the corset dug into my flesh as I lifted my leg to jump over the hurdles. I even learned how to ski with the corset. Although I had to do it very carefully because if I had fallen, it would have been nearly impossible to get back on my feet.
The worst time of the year was summer. Pescara is on the coast. The doctor allowed me two more hours of freedom in comparison to my winter ratio, but it wasn’t much. My peers went to the beach from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m. Most of the time on the beach I was fully clothed with undershirt, corset, T-shirt and shorts. The temperatures usually reached thirty-five degrees Celsius or more. My skin was plagued most during the hottest weather because of the increased sweat it had to endure. At eleven years old I was a stubborn, boyish-looking, avoidant, armoured girl.
When I was twelve I went to a volleyball summer camp. I started training right after I quit gymnastics. I didn’t like it as much, but all my friends did it. We had training in the morning and in the afternoon. I was allowed to take the corset off for 3 to 4 hours a day. I decided to train with it and take it off in the evenings, when we would meet with the boys of the basketball camp.
It was torture. My bones rubbing against the plastic pieces hurt, moving was hard under the weight of the corset and the Mediterranean heat. But I didn’t want to miss out; volley camp, more than a sports gathering, was a social event in middle school. Although I can’t recall much else remarkable about those two weeks, only one thing stands out: Alice.
When you are that age you want desperately to fit in, you want to be part of every single meaningless event, you want to be popular, noticed, and possibly among the cool kids. You become obsessed with being in the right situations and displaying the right attitude, so much so that you can leave behind the friends who don’t make you look cool.
I was never a social animal. One-to-one interactions were fine if I was given enough time to open up, but group dynamics paralysed me. Alice, my best friend, did not have such problems. She was funny, brilliant, always with the right joke to tell at the right moment. She was popular and apparently at ease in every situation.
Having the corset came with some logistic issues, meaning that when I wanted to take it off I had to undress and have a place where I could put it. I had to come back to our shared room to do all of that. I realised only recently how lonely it felt back then, to have a condition. I’ve never been good at reaching out for support.
Alice always came along when I wanted to take off my corset. I never asked her to, she just followed me, even if we were about to go somewhere with the boys, even if a game was about to start. She would walk with me, I would say, “You don’t have to.”
She would answer, “It doesn’t bother me.”
And while I unscrewed myself hastily, she would just sit on the bed and chat calmly, maybe asking me for advice about this or that boy. When I was free from the armour she would ask if I wanted her to lend me a top—she had many more than I had. We would then go through them trying to spot one which fit me. We were very different. She was blonde, with darker skin and brown eyes, shorter and thicker then me. I felt an urgency to go back where the others were, but she never put any pressure on me. I remember once, we were ready to go, had just closed the door, when I shrieked.
“What?” she asked me.
“The corset,” I told her. “I have to hide it.”
It was all my paranoia. I would have to rush inside and hide it. She opened the door without blinking. I felt I was being a nuisance. I was holding the device and scanning the room when she came in as well.
“Put it in the closet,” she said. She stood by my side, unflustered.
I know now that what I struggled to accept was that the corset was concrete evidence of my vulnerability, whereas in years of training at competitive levels I’d been brainwashed into seeing myself as only strong, in being focused and not letting myself be affected by emotions. “Endure! Don’t stop! Hold it!” Emotions did affect me, they overwhelmed me at times. I went on like a robot—I even resembled one. My father would call me “the bionic woman.” I reacted the way I’d I been taught to, not by my family, but my mentors. “Carry on, Paola. Don’t mind the pain, the performance is what matters.” If I had “performed” well enough through my corset years I would have been rewarded. It feels now like some kind of Christian precept. If you live piously you’ll go to heaven. But what was my heaven?
I wore the back brace diligently for seven years. I grew really slowly. I could take the corset off completely only when I reached Stage 5 of bone calcification, meaning my skeleton had stopped growing. At eighteen I was still at Stage 4. I stopped growing properly at twenty-one.
Someone once asked me if I had ever smashed the corset against a wall, or if I yelled and kicked when I had to wear it for the first time. “I’m not keen on big scenes,” I said.
I haven’t done any of that, ever. I didn’t even throw my corsets away after they stopped fitting me. I kept them in the attic, year after year, my prosthetic Memento Mori. My mother disposed of them recently because my parents moved into a smaller place. I was glad I didn’t have to do it myself.
When the time to be caged-in came, I accepted it, not happily, but without too much fuss. I knew I had to do it and there was no other option. Sometimes I ask myself, how have I done it, why didn’t I rebel? Was I such an obedient daughter? I wasn’t. I didn’t wear my teeth braces properly. I didn’t wear my glasses either. I passed out drunk and was brought to the hospital with alcohol intoxication at fourteen and again at seventeen. I ran away from home . At eighteen I went to the USA. by myself because I was in love. I got together with a man eleven years my senior with serious drug problems. I moved in with him when I was nineteen, and we moved to Berlin. No, I wasn’t the ideal daughter. I was a regular one, maybe just a little too adventurous. Perhaps I accepted the corset without too much fighting simply because I understood it was the best thing to do for my health. I suspect, though, some other mechanism was triggered as well. Gymnastics had instilled in me a martial sense of duty, a scary eagerness for perfection. I didn’t want to fail anybody’s expectations, least of all my own. I didn’t want to become a cripple, either. I didn’t want to fail in any sense. I wanted to fit the standards of a regular, healthy girl.
Like every major decision I made in life, I didn’t give too much thought to removing the corset for good; I just did it. I had a boyfriend at the time, at whose flat I often slept over. I didn’t want to bring that plastic corpse along with me. I started to take it off when I was with him, while still wearing it at school, or at home. At nineteen, by the end of high school, I set my body free for good. Even though I wasn’t completely fixed. In the very beginning it wasn’t as liberating and joyful as I thought. Doubts came. I wasn’t officially allowed to stop the treatment. What if I was just being reckless, if I was reversing years of progress when I was almost done? What if I became hunchbacked in the end? My mother didn’t seem concerned about my decision.
Without the structure holding my back I felt vulnerable, exposed, not beautiful and powerful as I had imagined I would feel. Sometimes it even felt like something was missing, as if I had forgotten to wear a skirt over my tights.
The calluses on my bony hips slowly disappeared; the cracked skin patches usually covered by foam pads regained a normal moist consistency. I could wear tight tops now if I wanted to. I could embrace friends properly. The funny thing is, I didn’t take the armour off of my mind-set. I still thought I had to be perfect. If not in my body, which I learned to accept the way it was—one flank slightly more rounded than the other, the left shoulder higher than the right, with the knees rotated a bit inward—but I still had to be perfect in everything I made. It didn’t help my mother telling me, “You don’t have to be the best at everything, you should have more patience. You don’t just snap your fingers and succeed at things.”
I remember thinking: “What does she know?” And a pang of resentment would hit me when I recalled how relieved she was when I quit gymnastics.
The features of the corset became the attitude with which I treated myself. I was hard, rigid, heavy. And, like many unbendable objects, I was brittle too. During the treatment years I saw myself as flawed, graceless and bulky: Everything that gymnastics taught me to see as failure. And that was it, I couldn’t see anything else. I often defined myself through my shortcomings more than through my merits. It’s not easy to break such habits. It takes time, like learning how to hold the steering wheel firmly again after a brutal accident.
It happens sometimes now that I watch gymnastics videos online. I get hypnotized by the glittery hoops, rotating at high speed in the air. How much time I spent decorating my hoop with silver and blue tape. I look at the clubs whirling in the gymnast’s hands and recall the bleeding blisters on my thumbs. I observe their trajectory while descending after a throw. I feel the anxiety that used to take me after I threw the clubs myself. The desperate hope to be fast enough to do the somersaults so I wouldn’t get hit by the landing gear. Clubs are the most choreographic instruments. They always made me do the ball exercise. “It suits you.” “It matches the way you move.” “It’s the most elegant.” At least it didn’t hurt that much when the ball hit me after a missed catch.
The gymnasts on the screen wear bodysuits full of sequins and fake-nude patches, they shimmer and deceive. They are obnoxiously tacky yet beautiful in their context. Colourful ribbons shaped into spirals and serpentines, entwined in geometrical figures, thrown, caught—they are mesmerizing. How much effort I put into painting it with stripes to increase the optical effect. I’m fascinated by the athletes’ thin bodies and their impeccable routines, then I find myself monitoring if they are always synchronized. “Listen to the music!” “Count!” “Wait!” Checking if they do extra steps after the jumps. “Be still!” “Make the closure!” “Smile!”
I’m enchanted. But when the show is over it is mainly relief that I feel. I do not belong there anymore; I have escaped the tyranny of expectations. I learned to know my body as my property, not as a thing which needs to be straighter. I learned to know myself not as someone who needs to be, but as someone who is already being.