Our team at Michelle Harwell Therapy attended the LA Derby Dolls and I had the opportunity to interview Oblivienne Westwood, captain of the undefeated Varsity Brawlers, aspiring fashion designer, and all around badass woman extraordinaire. She filled me in on all things derby- from its origins and culture to the somewhat democratic process involved in choosing a derby name. More than that, she shared the ways in which being a Derby Doll has empowered her to approach obstacles in her life head on, much in the same way she is forced to do on the roller track on a weekly basis. --Cresson Haughland, MFT Intern at Michelle Harwell Therapy.
CH: So Oblivienne, should I call you Oblivienne? Or would you prefer your actual name? What is your actual name?
OW: Ha! Oblivienne is fine. I go back and forth between Oblivienne, Viv, Amber (my actual name), so much that I forget how I’ve introduced myself to different people.
CH: Got it. Well then, Oblivienne, tell me about how you first got involved with roller derby?
OW: No one starts roller derby because their life is perfect. I’ve been skating for 5 years as of March. I originally started in a league in Orange County, where I was living at the time. Everybody that you talk in derby will have a different story about why they started, but you’ll find a running theme- they were lacking something or something wasn’t right or they were looking for an outlet. Everyone comes in trying to fill a void somewhere in their life.
I was in a really awful relationship with an emotionally-abusive drug addict and I was trying to leave that relationship as well as the friends and lifestyle that came with it. I have always been the kind of person who is trying to find something new or weird or different to do on a Saturday night. I found an ad for the local league....Within 5 minutes of being there I was like I can definitely do this, this looks awesome. I grew up going to mosh pits and being in the punk rock scene and was always the little girl with all the guys trying to beat them up, so I fit right into that. My relationship was falling apart, my life was falling apart and I thought, let’s try something new. And I did. And I haven’t stopped since.
CH: So you were always the girl in the mosh pits wanting to fight with the boys. How does that mentality play into the sport?
OW: When the derby started in Austin it was definitely a punk rock, DIY thing. Now you have people that are stay at home moms, artists, nurses, doctors, so not everyone comes from that background. When it started that was definitely the case though-everyone was into punk rock, had tattoos, drank beer at halftime, but now its no longer that way. It’s more athletic. I was an athlete and a dancer growing up. And you see more of that in the sport now, people that played sports in college, former figure skaters, hockey players and now as adults they don’t have that as an outlet. As adults we don’t have anything like what we had as kids playing sports, so derby serves to fill that void.
CH: I think that’s a great point. Watching last night it was obvious how much athleticism is involved in the game and that isn’t something there’s much opportunity to express once you reach adulthood.
OW: Absolutely, especially not for women. A lot of amateur or pick up sports leagues are geared towards men. A lot of what we do at LA Derby Dolls is empowering women to find that athletic part of themselves again. We also have a lot of people that have never been athletes, so we give them different options, all with the goal of empowering women to find something within them, giving them the confidence to try something new, to be competitive, to light that fire within them and tell them its ok to be competitive, to look at your competitor and say I’m going to hit that person right now. So often women are taught to be a little more docile and this gives them the opportunity to be more confident, to be aggressive, and for that to be ok.
CH: Would you say that gaining some of that confidence and channeling your aggression has translated into other areas of your life? If so, how?
OW: You see it in so many different ways. Derby is a lifestyle. You’re coming into a community that is very open and receptive and we try to help each other as much as we can. When you have a bad day, you have a cheering section at any time. Your teammates encourage you to be more confident when you don’t feel it for yourself. A lot of people that try derby realize they’ve already tried this new crazy thing, so it makes doing other new things seem easier. Like going out for that new job. I actually completely quit my job and it’s ok, I’ll figure it out. In roller derby you have to do a lot of just figuring it out. In a lot of industries it is women against women, a very negative environment. Women tear down other women all the time. Derby encourages women to build one another up instead of tear them down. We have a junior program for girls 7-17 and I think one of the biggest things we do is teach those young girls to be assertive and confident and instill in them to work together instead of talk shit about each other behind their backs.
CH: As a jammer, what is going through your mind while you’re skating into a pack of very strong women whose goal it is to hold you back?
OW: We actually practice going into walls. Everything in your body physically and mentally tells you this is a bad idea, don’t do this. But, you convince yourself that you can do this. Its very important to be thinking about the right things, not dwelling on the negative, or else you’ll never get past that wall. When I’m on the jam line I’m sizing up the wall- the blockers, my potential paths. I don’t want to run straight into the wall of people, my goal is to not fall down and to get away from them as fast as possible. Most of the moves you make as a jammer are to avoid getting hit or not falling down, trying to find the path of least resistance. Sometimes you do get annihilated and blocked in the back and it feels like the longest 60 seconds of your life. We talk a lot about how every jam is only 60 seconds. You can do anything for 60 seconds. But if you dwell on those 60 seconds, the rest of the game will not be successful. You have to set it aside, move from that jam, and start a fresh jam.
CH: What is it that makes you get back up after taking a really terrible hit?
OW: There was one time I got hit so hard that I was literally knocked off the track. And I remember thinking about this girl who, when she fell down, was always so slow to get back up. We would all talk about how she wasn’t useful after getting hit because she was so slow to get back into the game. All I could think was, “ I don’t want to be that girl.” I don’t want to be the girl that can’t keep up. You want to be the girl that can keep up. You want to be successful for your team and your blockers that are doing so much to help you. As a team, we need to play to the weakest person’s weakest, not the strongest person’s strength. If we can build them up in their weakness, we all become stronger.
CH: Do you feel like your derby name has its own persona?
OW: I think maybe Oblivienne Westwood is a showier person than I am in real life. When you put your name and jersey on you’re playing a part, you’re doing a job. It is up to me to go out take photos with fans, be outgoing, and cheer myself on when I do well. I have this out of body experience sometimes where I think, “What am I doing?” My real life self would never do that. But I don’t want to be such a different person that it’s hard to track, it is more that Oblivienne is an enhanced version of myself. The most confident version of myself. Having a derby name is like when you’ve had two drinks-you aren’t stumbling around by any means, but you’re just confident enough to get on stage to do some karaoke.
CH: We came up with our names when we were here last night.
OW: Let’s hear yours.
CH: I decided I would be the Nordic Nightmare because I’m Norwegian.
OW: That’s amazing. You could wear a Viking hat, people call you nightmare for short. Cool makeup, all blue, lots of glitter.
CH: I feel really good about that.
CH: Who would you say inspires you?
OW: I don’t really believe in looking up to someone else. I don’t believe you should aspire to be anyone else other than you. My mom had me really young and was very encouraging to be yourself, do what you want to do, make the right choices, don’t rely on other people to help you, be independent. That was one of the best things that could ever have happened to me. I don’t know if I would have moved here to go to art school if she hadn’t encouraged me that I could take on things like that on my own.
CH: Last question. If you could put something on a t-shirt, what would it be?
OW: I want to do a “babe with the power” shirt, a David Bowie reference. It would have a line drawing of a girl’s face and a lightning bolt that says “babe with the power.”
Oblivienne Westwood, captain of the undefeated Varsity Brawlers, aspiring fashion designer, and all around badass woman extraordinaire, find more about her at https://twitter.com/oblivionwstwood and support your local Derby Doll community.
Join the LA Derby Doll Community for a bout this weekend (May 21st) and Fresh Meat (new skater) try-outs in June.
Cresson Haugland, MS, MFT Intern has worked in both the community mental health and private practice settings and has extensive experience working with families in transition, couples, adolescents, and individuals.