GIF by Alia Wilhelm.

“Oh my god, you look just like a doll!”

“Can I pick you up?”

I’ve received comments like these ever since I stopped growing at age 12, my height settling at a pint-sized 5’1”. My responses to these asides often consist of weak smiles, awkward nods, and an occasional “Thank you?”—you know, the kind of reactions you give to people whose seemingly harmless comments actually hurt you on a much deeper level than they realize. Especially as a young teenager, struggling to stake a claim in my ever-widening world, I wanted to be taken seriously. I did not want to be a doll or carried like one. Other people’s perception of me as diminutive or fragile, based on my stature, disrupted the way that I saw myself. This disconnect made me insecure, causing me to wonder whether I was really as strong and self-sufficient as I thought. I felt a burning need to prove my strength in some external, unequivocal way.

At age 12 I also developed a love for action movies, particularly Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In Lara’s world, fast-paced, high-tech gadgets co-existed with classic adventure tropes like hidden messages, mystical ancient artifacts, and sprawling mansions riddled with secret tunnels and passageways. Within this deliciously heightened reality, Lara herself had a very real impact on me. When I saw her take down a group of armed home invaders while wearing pajamas, I wasn’t in awe of the spectacle as much as Lara’s ability to physically control the space around her. She persists in spite of being outnumbered and unarmed. She acts on more than just instinct. Her moves are precise and calculated. In fact, she’s so prepared for the fight that when the armed soldiers first come crashing through her windows, she doesn’t even flinch. Standing atop her elaborate crystal chandelier, she merely nods ever-so-coolly as if it’s NBD that her house has just been stormed by people out to kill her. This was the level of confidence I aspired to.

I imagined Lara’s confidence as operating from the outside in. She achieved inner strength by building up her physical strength, and I believed that the same would be true for me. So, shortly thereafter, I signed up for weekly Taekwondo classes. Though I sincerely enjoyed many aspects of Taekwondo, I was mainly there to do cool stuff and look cool doing it. All falls and missed targets, I told myself, were just some brief growing pains on my journey to being an action hero superstar.

At 14, I was old enough to advance to the adult class, which included older teens. One big difference between the child and adult classes was that the adult classes gave people my belt level and above the chance to spar with each other. I saw this opportunity as the first real test of my Lara Croft-ness. For my first match, my sparring partner was a tall, dark-haired boy who was about three years older and several belt levels higher than I. Though we never spoke, I’d noticed him every day before class, practicing his impressively high jump kicks and powerful punches. He was serious. When our teacher told us to start sparring, I felt the full impact of his pre-class practices when one of his kicks almost knocked me to the ground. At first I was angry. I wanted to scream at him, “WTF, dude, this is a class, take it easy.” But then I saw that he had shrunk back into his ready stance and was motioning at me to come forward, to keep going, to hit him back. The gesture felt weirdly flattering. For the first time, it seemed like someone saw me, not as some delicate doll, but as a person who was capable of putting up a fight. I caught my breath, got back in my fighting stance, and inched forward.

There was nothing glamorous about this decision to fight back. I didn’t hear a swell of inspirational music in my head, nor did I feel as if I harnessed some previously untapped inner greatness, like the underdog athlete in a sports movie. I got back in the match because of numerous outside pressures that contradicted every logical bone in my body that told me to run away. But even though it seemed like my opponent had pegged me as his equal, I was suddenly more conscious of our differences than ever before. Across from him, I wasn’t just any small teenage girl; I was the small teenage girl, and I felt the reputation of all my peers resting on my shoulders. I was, at once, entirely singular and crushed by the multitudes I represented. I’d psyched myself up to the point where the fight’s outcome felt like a referendum on my girlhood, stature, and image of myself as a butt-kicking Lara Croft. The weight of these expectations probably hurt more than any of the many punches or kicks I endured that day.

As you might have guessed, I did not win the fight. When the sensei blew the whistle, signaling the end of the match, I did not return to the mat with my classmates. Instead, I ran into the women’s locker room and burst into tears. I was crashing down from an adrenaline high, and now felt sore and humiliated.

A bruised big toe gave me a lot of time to think about the fight as I hobbled around my house. Normally, I’m good at making sense of my experiences. I immediately know what lesson was learned, and how to apply it in the future. However, this event evaded classification for years.

I’m 21 years old now, and on one hand, I respect myself for having seen the sparring match through with the best effort I could muster. At the same time, I would like my younger self to know that it would have been equally okay if I’d decided to opt out. Admitting that I couldn’t handle the fight would not have been a failure. It now seems silly to let my sense of my strength be undermined by the fact that I (unsurprisingly) dislike being kicked and punched. Back then, I perceived strength as only achievable through a total surrender of comfort. I wish I’d understood that I could challenge myself while also maintaining the boundaries that supported my sense of self-worth. Maybe I couldn’t grasp this sooner because acknowledging my limitations also meant recognizing the unbridgeable gulf between Lara and me. Now, this difference seems obvious: She was a fictional character living in a fantastical world of possibility, and I was not.

In the months following this sparring match, Lara’s presence in my life faded. She wasn’t gone completely, but rather placed on a shelf in the back of my mind collecting dust with other ghosts from obsessions past. I still did Taekwondo, but the sport felt rote. Instead of a path to a higher state of being, it became merely an excuse to get myself out of freshman year gym class. My attempt to become Lara Croft seemed to have been an utter failure. I was back to being defined by my petite, delicate, fragile-as-porcelain frame.

The summer after my first sparring match, while on a camp field trip to a museum, a kid in my tour group—we’ll call him Blaine—pointed to a mark up high on one of the museum’s walls. “Hey, Sophie. Try and touch that,” he said, smirking. I just shook my head, my heart sinking. The pain was exacerbated because I had a crush on Blaine, despite the millions of signs that he was a total douche. The whole day he had been repeating similar digs about me, steadily chipping away at my self-esteem, but this comment sent my self-worth to a new low. Heartbroken, I continued to walk through the exhibit, saying nothing. Later, when my friends and I were eating lunch in the museum cafeteria, Blaine stopped by our table.

“I like your glasses” he said, pointing at me. “Let me try them.” He reached out his hand, as if to grab my glasses off my face. Out of sheer instinct, I grabbed his wrist, executing a simple block from Taekwondo.

Both of us looked down for a moment at my hand gripping his wrist, and then back at each other. It was as if a whole other person had taken over my body. I could feel her melting off me as I sank back into Regular Sophie Mode. I was myself again, but the atmosphere of the room had shifted. Blaine put his hand down and walked away without another word. As I finished my lunch, I replayed the events over and over in my head. When I did the block, I had felt invincible, like the superhero I always aspired to be. And yet this new strength manifested itself in something as simple as a twist of my wrist. Ironically, I think this fleeting superhero moment showed me that not only is it impossible for me to be Lara Croft, but I don’t even need to be her at all. I don’t need to be able to jump off buildings or take down assassins in my pajamas. All I need to know is that there is a part of me that is willing to stand up for myself. My fighter side may not always be there on the surface, but she will emerge when I need her most.

My quest to become Lara Croft worked out, just not in the way I’d anticipated. She was the one who inspired me to start Taekwondo, which helped me discover how knowing to look out for yourself—emotionally and physically—is a superpower in itself. I may still be small and not the strongest or fastest person alive, but the trust I’ve cultivated in my mind and my body has helped me transcend those limits. I might not be able to take down assassins like Lara, but I’m certainly better off for having known her. ♦