Read a Rugby Player's Love Letter to Her Body

In this excerpt from Dear Rebel, Isadora Cerullo celebrates her body's strength.

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In the 1930s, Katherine Hepburn ignored the RKO publicity department when they asked her to stop wearing pants. In 1993, the US Senate officially changed the rule stating women were not allowed to wear trousers on the Senate floor. And growing up in the 90s and 00s, Isadora Cerullo was a tomboy who pushed past questions about why she wore boys' clothes. Once she grew up, Isadora become a professional athlete and even played in the Olympics.

Isadora “Izzy” Cerullo contributed her story to Dear Rebel, a collection of essays, poems, self-portraits and more, all directed at young girls who will one day make their mark on the world. Below, read about how Isadora felt when she realized the world expected her to look a certain way—and why she chose to do what made her feel good instead.




Dear Rebel

By Rebel Girls

A Love Letter to My Body

I never imagined I would be able to be a professional athlete, but as soon as I could walk, the story goes that my dad put a soccer ball at my feet. He passed his love for the beautiful game to me and, once I got started, there was no stopping me. Most of my memories from childhood involve running after a soccer ball and feeling the raw delight of playing this sport.

My love of sports affected the way people perceived me. In elementary school, a classmate asked me why I only wore boys’ clothes. I was taken by surprise. I had never really thought about what I wore—I dressed in clothing that made it easy to run and play. Someone called me a “tomboy,” a word I had never heard before. Up until that point, I had been carefree in my pursuit of fun, and I didn’t think twice about what I chose to wear to school.

But after that point, I became aware of some unspoken rule that nobody had filled me in on: girls had to wear “girl clothes.” Wearing “boy clothes” as a girl was seen as weird or against the rules. I already knew this was the case in some situations. For holiday parties, my mom would choose a perfectly lovely dress for me to wear, while my three brothers wore shirts and ties. And while a dress wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was something I had to do for formal occasions. The other 363 days of the year, I could wear what I pleased—or so I thought.

Around the time I got called a tomboy for the first time, I started to become more aware of my body. I realized that my body was different than a boy’s. I had never really thought about it before. I knew I wasn’t a boy, but I also didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about being a girl. I was just me. My body liked to run fast and kick a soccer ball. My body liked to splash in waves at the beach in the summer and rush down snowy hills on a sled in the winter.

While some of my peers seemed to have an effortless fashion sense, this remained a mystery for me throughout high school and college. My muscular legs meant that pants were often tight in some places and too loose in others. When I started going to the gym and playing rugby in college, I had trouble finding shirts that I felt comfortable in. I had resigned myself to the fact that clothes would fit me just “well enough.”

Remember how I said I never imagined I would be a professional athlete? That changed after I graduated college. During college, I had fallen in love with rugby, where I was encouraged to use my body in demanding ways to help my team achieve its goals. I had grown up in an environment where there was a clear beauty standard (“skinny” and “feminine”), but my rugby team was filled with incredible women with all types of strong and capable bodies. Rugby showed me a new world of possibility, where different bodies were celebrated and where beauty and strength came in all shapes and sizes. When I graduated, I tried out for the national rugby team in Brazil, where both of my parents are from, and became a full-time, professional athlete with the goal of making it to the Olympic Games.

Being a professional athlete allowed me to build a new relationship with my body. I spent countless hours in the gym running and pushing weights. The team nutritionist gave me a detailed plan to make sure I was eating enough to keep up with the training and put on more muscle. My body began to reflect all that hard work. It wasn’t about losing fat or looking a certain way. It was about prioritizing my body’s needs so I could be the best possible athlete and teammate. 

This also meant I had to understand my comfort zone and know how to push past it. When I thought I wouldn’t be able to do something, my body would often show me how much stronger I really was. I took pride in not giving up, especially when something was particularly hard. 

At the same time, I grew further from the norms of “feminine beauty,” I realized we, girls and women, are forced to conform to. My broad shoulders, solid thighs, and calloused hands were perceived as anything but feminine. But these were characteristics of a body that allowed me to run faster, tackle harder, show up for my teammates, and represent my country with pride. These were all parts of a woman who dedicated her life to a sport and poured her heart and soul into the sisterhood that was her team. I forced myself to take a step back and remind myself that there was nothing wrong with my body. There was something wrong with the restrictive definition of “women’s” clothing and society’s view of acceptable women’s bodies.

To the tomboy who got made fun of for wearing boys’ clothing: I look in the mirror and tell her that her body is beautiful because it is hers. This is the only body I’ll have, and it will always only ever be mine. Sometimes I do wear men’s clothing. Other times, I wear women’s clothing. And now, I get to express my love for my body by stepping out of boxes that don’t fit me. I get to choose clothing that makes my soul smile, something I never imagined possible.

isadora cerullo

Isadora “Izzy” Cerullo is a two-time Olympian who represented Brazil in rugby at Rio (2016) and Tokyo (2020). She has also won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games (2015) and six South American Rugby Championships.

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Dear Rebel

Dear Rebel

By Rebel Girls