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Published on March 28th, 2012 | by Scar


Musings on Morals, Religion, and Derby

I’ve been nervous about writing this article (more nervous than I usually am!). Putting it off and fretting about word choice. Now I feel I can alleviate some of that, as well as avoid a tad bit of hate mail by attaching the following disclaimer: I am not the voice/poster child for religion, or religious people. I am not the voice/poster child of Jews, Judaism, or any other faith/belief system. Nor am I the voice/poster child for rollergirls. (Heck, for good measure, I’m not even the voice of Caucasian females ages 16-20!) I can only be read as a voice for myself, and hope to provide some insights on my experiences.

Furthermore in the interest of full disclosure I am a Jew in the process of conversion, who was born Christian and raised with an Atheist father. So much of my personal opinions and knowledge will come from the Judeo-Christian perspective, and since that territory is so diverse, the way I interpret it will no doubt be very different from other people’s insights. Also, many of the moral/religious opinions/beliefs I express in here may be confusing or seemingly pointless. I will not go into detail describing why I feel that way, not because I haven’t thought deeply regarding it, but to avoid any view that I am preaching or even trying to sway opinion. If you would like to know more about any of the concepts I discuss, such as why and how they are observed feel free to contact me, or Google. I worry that what I have to say will not be relatable to anyone, but if it is- excellent. If not, you just got a wordy yet greatly condensed glimpse into a large part of my life. That said, here we go.

I showed up to practice the day I began wearing my kippah (Yarmulke, funny little hat, Jewish skullcap) excited and nervous.

What would people say?

Turns out, in a gesture of what I assume to be courtesy, and to avoid making me uncomfortable, the event passed with little notice. However, as I was gearing up a fellow skater looked at me and asked “….do you wear that when you skate?” “Of course” I replied smiling. “Hashem (God) is above me even when I skate!” Admittedly this is a grossly over-simplistic explanation of my new headwear, the reasons for which I chose to don could be a long article in and of itself; but this offhand comment did get me thinking. Michael Gungor, a musician, once expressed discomfort in the terms “secular” vs. “christian” (when talking about media, activities, etc). He said by using those words we are subtly implying that there is some part of our life that our faith doesn’t touch. I wondered, had I been turning off my religious side every time I skated? At that moment I had unwittingly acknowledged the somewhat rare, sometimes unstable convergence of two very powerful and incendiary forces… religion and derby.

As roller derby grows and attracts more and more women (and men!) the demographics are changing. What started with a very punk base (Wikipedia says so!) is now enjoyed by all types of people, and that’s part of the beauty. In time a wave of people serious about their faith, and serious about skating, started taking to the track. Now there exist sites such as “God loves derby girls” (and for what my two cents are worth, I believe that to be entirely true). But before we go into a broader discussion, I reassured you this article would be about my opinions only, not because I like to only talk about myself (though that may be a little true) but because I am the only person I can claim to speak for. So in my personal experience… (read: On a very subjective and very basic level) I’ve found derby and religion to be near ideological foils. For me, expression of my faith or adherence to my principles has often been characterized by repression. Not so much of who I am, but what I do. As a straight edge, kosher, vegetarian, purity ring wearing (phew- is that enough labels for you?) person, self restraint is a way of life for me–an intrinsic part of my identity. Not just as a Jew, but as a human. I say this with no negative connotation or hard feelings. All of the aforementioned are things I personally choose to do (or not do).

What is derby, then, if not a total affront to all things limiting? It embraces shattering any phrases that include “I can’t” “I won’t” or “I don’t” which (once again, in my opinion) is part of what makes it so empowering. I’ve found both this control and release to be beneficial and transformative. In fact they’ve had a very symbiotic relationship in making me who I am today. But every now and then I find myself examining Derby from the lens of my beliefs, and even vice versa, and they don’t always see eye to eye.

The first time I truly recognized a schism in my religion (I should really phrase this as “morality” because these were my views before my official adherence to Judaism) and in my roller derby was on the issue of uniforms. Many leagues have them, and even some with different uniforms for different teams. While others may worry about making the team that has the cutest jersey, I was much more concerned about tzniut. Essentially meaning “modesty,” tzniut covers a wide range of Jewish standards regarding how one acts modestly. A part of this relates to how one dresses. I personally will not wear anything above the knee, anything with a particularly plunging neckline, or tank tops. Also nothing skin tight. This is a fairly liberal dress standard from a strictly Jewish perspective, though to some it may sound a bit absurd. One of the main principals behind tzniut is that one should not dress in a way that calls attention to themselves. Especially not in a provocative way. Well I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how this limits one’s derby wardrobe. Hotpants, lift and separates, derbyskinz, short skirts, even running shorts… pretty much all things awesome=off limits. (In case anyone was wondering “what the heck can you wear?” I rock baseball pants when I play derby). So what to do when your team adopts a uniform with tanks, or short skirts? You could explain the situation and most likely they would be understanding (because derby girls rock). But I’m not going to lie, my first thought was: do I want to be “that person”? The one who looks different from everyone else out there, the one who has to ask for special treatment? No one wants to be that girl. It’s one of those times where it’s not just about a tank top, it’s about evaluating where your boundaries are, and why. If one of my values is to not dress in a way that calls attention to myself, what am I doing out there in the neon glitter short shorts (maybe a bit of an exaggeration- I know not everyone wears that… but you get the picture), fishnets, and makeup-filled world of derby?

I think most of the confrontations that have occurred between my convictions and derby have boiled down to “what am I doing here?” take for example the general halakhah (Jewish law) forbidding of harm to self or others. Where does this cross the line? If I take a girl out and she slams into the ground, getting at least a bruise, possibly more, what is that? We’re not just dealing with incidental injury then, but one could even judge my intent harshly. If I know by playing this sport I am dramatically increasing my risk of injury, is that treating my body “like a temple”? Am I realizing that my body is “not my own”? I would venture to say even if you make it out unscathed, you’re still putting yourself in harms way purposefully and unnecessarily (and yeah, there’s a rule against that too). Similarly, I read there is the concept of Ahimsa (found in Buddhism and Hinduism) to “do no harm.” Certainly derby does some harm to our physical self, despite the obvious benefits to our mental state.

I would also like to point out these values do not have to stem just from religion, anyone can have them. As evidenced by my line of thinking about the attire. I don’t think “oh I can’t where that uniform because my religion says I can’t” or at least that isn’t the only consideration. I think “I can’t wear that uniform because it is *insert personal values here*” anyone can share those values, or different values to the same end. Some may just be uncomfortable with it. (I know the raunchier side of derby can cause some controversy, as seen with Ginger Snap’s article about derby names.) Then the derby on my other shoulder tells me “embrace your body, it’s natural. Allow yourself to feel attractive, it gives you confidence and power.” and by then it starts a line of thinking that leaves me having a full on internal debate. Mind you this only one part of a multi faceted issue.
When talking to other women of faith and derby, the response was varied and mostly quite positive. I heard things such as “I think God likes me out there doing something I love” and “the only conflict I experience is when practice is on church time and vice versa!” it’s a testament to how each of us relates to their religion, and to derby, in our own personal way. For some, Roller Derby is not so unlike religion. I also had girls tell me “I didn’t understand why people went around prosetletyzing until I found it and then I wanted to go around and tell every about the awesome that is derby”. It’s true derby can have a profound almost spiritual element to it, as evidenced by shirts that read “Roller Derby saved my soul” (a shirt I proudly own). And honestly, for those of us who do pray in some form, I know I may have never prayed harder then when I saw a full pack of the hardest hitters, and a jammer next to me with years more experience and leg muscles for days.
I wrote the above a few days ago, and since have been reflecting on how to tie this all together.

What do I really want to say after all this rambling? And what I’ve come to is this–Perhaps there’s a reason some skaters feel that they pick up an alter ego when playing derby. Could it be because some part of it does not align with their “everyday” values and behavior? If so, is this healthy release, or an unfortunate lapse in standards? I think that’s for each participant to decide on their own, and respond to accordingly. Maybe this whole thing is just a reminder about retaining some of yourself while you play. Roller Derby is a wild wonderful world unto itself, but maybe, just maybe, we should evaluate how much of ourselves we give up to be fully a part of it. For some, it isn’t a compromise, no part of them is left in the locker room. But for others, it is. Maybe you’re leaving behind qualities you’d rather not have–shyness, anxiety, low self esteem–and if that’s the case… great! I know that it seems counter-intuitive that you would hold anything back while playing, but if you feel like you’re leaving some important part of who you are or what you believe to take the track I humbly encourage you to bring it with! Derby can be integrated in with your full self and vice versa–if you want it to. It’s not always easy (I urge you to read the Blue Ridge Rollergirl’s article on sobriety and Derby) but in my experience the awesome roller derby community will love you not in spite of, but because of. The diversity of the sport is a large part of its beauty. I guess that’s the sappy moral to this story, don’t leave any part of you behind for Roller derby–unless you want to!

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