Underneath the Hoodie: Jessie Brown
Weight: 105 lbs
DOB: February 24th, 1988
Born and raised: Born in San Francisco, raised in Oakland, CA
Place of higher learning: UC Berkeley (mostly)
By Josh Schneiderman
Sitting across from Jessie Brown, you wouldn’t guess that she’s someone who has spent most of her life trying to get out of her comfort zone. I mean this in the best way possible. When we sat down at Mission Dolores a couple of months ago to interview for this installment of Underneath the Hoodie, her warmth, kindness, and cheerfulness immediately put me at ease. She’s at ease with herself, too. If you’ve been coached by her, you already know that she’s incredibly intelligent, and that her tack-sharp intelligence is tempered by her generosity and sense of humor. But what you may not know is that her life has been a struggle to better herself and the lives of those around her. CrossFit, as you may have guessed, has been a big part of this.
Jessica Brown, Jessie Brown, or JB (as you probably know her) was born about three minutes apart from Cassie, her identical twin sister, in San Francisco, California. Her parents, both lawyers and both very busy, raised Jessie and Cassie in Oakland. Up until her move to Brooklyn, Jessie spent her entire life in the Bay Area, with the exception of one short stint in Rhode Island (more on that later).
Growing up, Jessie and her sister were close but very different. Jessie followed the rules; Cassie got into a lot of trouble. Jessie was the teacher’s pet who was devastated by a B on 7th-grade algebra test; Cassie didn’t seem to let grades bother her. Jessie, in what seemed like a tragedy at the time, did not make out with that boy at that Bar Mitzvah; Cassie did.
This gulf between Jessie and someone who shared the exact same DNA was part of what led to Jessie’s struggles with anorexia at a young age. Around the age of 10, as her body began to change, she developed an unhealthy relationship with food. “Scary, weird changes,” Jessie explains, “that could be controlled by not eating.” But on a deeper level, she now observes, this was, in part, a misplaced attempt to differentiate herself from Cassie, who looked a little older, and to form an identity distinct from her twin. She and Cassie had always been compared—people assumed they had the same preferences and personalities—and this was one of Jessie’s ways of setting herself apart. Jessie’s eating issues came to a head in her freshman year of high school, when she was hospitalized for malnutrition.
Jessie describes her family as a typical “NorCal family”: busy and active. She took piano lessons and swam competitively from a the time she was eight (she wasn’t the team star but got awards like “Most Dedicated’ and “Most Improved”.) It was here that her eating issues intersected with her athletic pursuits. Her best friends were on the swim team, and after she was hospitalized, she couldn’t swim for a year. Deprived of her main athletic outlet, Jessie slowly began to recover from this early bout of anorexia with a lot therapy and support from her parents. At therapy and in the hospital, she saw other high-school-aged kids struggling with the same issues and decided that she just didn’t want her life to be like theirs. She did what she needed to do: she slowly got herself healthy, and returned to swimming.
Deciding that she needed something different—there’s that comfort zone again—she applied to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and headed off to her freshman year of college 3,079 miles (give or take a few miles) away. Now, at 28, she’s her own person, less of a rule follower. She sets high standards for herself, but they’re her own standards. At Brown, though, she wanted to impress everyone, to let everyone know how smart she was based on some arbitrary standards. Exacerbated by the pressures of college and the loss of the safety blankets of home and family, her anorexia emerged again. With the support of her family, she left Brown without completing her freshman year.
The following fall, Jessie applied to the University of California, Berkeley as a freshman. At a school of 34,000 undergrads, she explains, she couldn’t try to please everyone. “I had to do the best at being me,” she says, and realizing this helped her with her continued recovery. Jessie majored in American Studies, not necessarily the straightest path to a lucrative career. While it would have been a clearer path, she knew she didn’t want to be a lawyer like her parents. Instead, she continued to forge her own identity, to create her own expectations. Her athletic pursuits continued at Berkeley, where she got into aerobics classes—cardio, body-toning, and kickboxing type stuff. In fact, she eventually became a kickboxing instructor.
Jessie got into CrossFit during her first year of grad school at Berkeley, where she stayed to do doctoral work in History. While she initially had a negative perception of “the sport of fitness,” the competitive aspect of CrossFit drew her in. No surprise: Jessie enjoys pushing herself physically, and with aerobics, rock climbing, and yoga, she never felt like she was pushing herself as much as she could have. The community aspect also drew her in, and she eventually ended up at CrossFit East Bay, where she made some of her closest friends and started her coaching career.
More importantly, CrossFit was instrumental to Jessie’s recovery from anorexia. “Doing a different physical activity,” she told me, “necessitated a different relationship with food.” She now has more of a utilitarian relationship with food; she has to eat to fuel her athletic pursuits (she’s also learned to eat for pleasure). She was also getting older and more comfortable with her body. Always “Little JB,” she didn’t get much “bigger,” but she did get more muscular. She noticed changes in her body, and loves the way she currently looks.
What is life like as Little JB, a smaller CrossFitter? “When I first started doing CrossFit,” she explained, “I found being smaller both frustrating and advantageous. Gymnastics movements came more easily to me, but Rx-ing a workout like ‘Grace’ took a while to work up to. When started competing, there was a while there when I would really get down about the injustice of it all.” In the grand scheme of things, though, she thinks there are more advantages than disadvantages to being a small CrossFitter. More importantly, she applies the lesson she learned in her freshman year to her life as a CrossFitter: not to compare herself to other people so much, to simply be herself. “I like to use this apparent ‘limitation’ as motivation,” she told me, “and I hope I can serve as some sort of example (especially to other women) that being small does not mean you can't be strong!” This is an understatement. Not long after I interviewed her for this piece, she qualified for the USA Weightlifting American Open by kicking ass at the Crow Hill Open.
After a year at CrossFit East Bay, Jessie completed her CF Level 1 certification and began coaching there. It was a natural development, given the friendships she made there and her background in fitness instruction. She liked helping people move better, and this came in handy when she began coaching 1-on-1 Onramp classes at East Bay. Coaching CrossFit South Brooklyn, she now has an even greater appreciation for the art of good coaching.
How did she end up here? After deciding that grad school wasn’t for her, Jessie left Berkeley with a Master’s degree. In April of 2014, she broke up with her boyfriend of 4 years. Living with her dad and working an uninspiring job at a software company, Jessie decided she was going to move to Brooklyn, a decision she describes as “uncharacteristic.” It proved difficult to get a job from California, but she eventually got an opportunity to rent a sublet (a “terrible apartment”) and set out for the East Coast. Jessie touched down in New York on a Tuesday, and interviewed at CFSBK that Thursday. “I immediately knew this was the place for me,” she said. At first, she thought she might coach full time, but she soon landed a job at Ithaka S+R, a higher education research and consulting group. Her first year in Brooklyn was tough (whose isn’t!), but her new job was instrumental in getting her through.
An even more important factor in making Brooklyn slowly feel like (a) home for Jessie has been being part of the community at CrossFit South Brooklyn. Jessie reflects that she’s learned a ton from the other coaching staff (as both a coach and an athlete), and has made a fantastic group of friends from the gym (two of whom she just moved in with). “The few non-CrossFit friends I have in New York make fun of me because CFSBK is such a big part of my life,” she explains, “but I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to find a community of smart people that shares this huge common interest with me, but also has diverse enough interests that we can base our relationships off of a whole lot more than just working out.”
Looking over the details she provided during our interview, I have to respectfully disagree that Jessie’s move to Brooklyn was uncharacteristic. It seems entirely consistent with the life she’s shaped for herself, all of the small decisions she’s made to expand the borders of her world. Jessie’s relationship with her sister Cassie has also changed, but, despite the fact that they live across the country from one another, they are still very close. She tells her sister things she’d never tell anyone else and misses her every day. Up until recently, Cassie also worked in education, and Cassie lived in Brooklyn for years before Jessie moved here (unfortunately, they never overlapped). While their paths were informed by their disparate dispositions, Jessie finds it interesting that their lives continue—sometimes— to converge or follow one another’s.
Jessie isn’t sure what her next move will be, but she thinks about it a lot. She likes the writing and research she does for her job, and enjoys working in education. Whatever it is, she plans for coaching and working out at CFSBK continue to be a big part her life.
News and Notes
- Please note: There will be no parking at all on Degraw Street this week from today through Saturday.
- Schedule change: This Thursday's 9:00am Yoga class with Jaclyn K. is cancelled.
- FIGHT GONE BAD registration has been extended to this Friday, but sign up as soon as possible if you want to participate!